Microsoft plans to reveal a new line of Windows 7 tablets during January's Consumer Electronic Show, according to unnamed sources speaking to The New York Times.
According to those sources, a Windows tablet by Samsung will reportedly be "similar in size and shape to the Apple iPad," although "not as thin." It will also feature a "slick" slide-out keyboard, and run Windows 7 in landscape mode with "a layered interface that will appear when the keyboard is hidden." The Dec. 13 article also suggests that Dell and other manufacturers will produce tablets.
Microsoft's goal, of course, is to swipe some mind- and market-share from both the Apple iPad and the growing ranks of Android-based tablets. Company CEO Steve Ballmer will apparently debut the devices during his keynote at CES, in essence repeating his performance at this year's conference, when he unveiled tablets from Hewlett-Packard and a pair of smaller manufacturers.
Hewlett-Packard subsequently acquired Palm, leading to rampant speculation that it would replace Windows as a tablet operating system with the Palm WebOS. While HP will reportedly use WebOS for a selection of consumer-oriented tablets in 2011, it also produced a more enterprise-focused Windows 7 device: The HP Slate 500, which features a 8.9-inch touch-screen, inward- and outward-facing cameras for video conferencing, and a 1.86GHz Intel Atom Z540 processor.
However, tech blog Engadget raised questions over the size of HP's Windows tablet production, citing a "trusted tipster with a contact inside HP" who said that HP planned only a limited run of 5,000 units. The device quickly sold out on HP's Website.
But if Microsoft wants to carve out considerable tablet market share, particularly against formidable competitors, it might consider the following factors:
Intel's Oak Trail
As Windows 7 ramped toward release, Microsoft executives liked to claim in pre-briefings that the operating system would be more than capable of running on netbooks and low-end laptops. That certainly proved true, with Windows 7 loaded onto devices whose processors would have melted under the demands of Windows Vista.
Tablets are a different beast, however, with their demands for ultra-long battery life and super-fast boot times. Both Apple's iOS and Google Android, originally built for smartphones, have demonstrated their ability to fulfill both those requirements. Can Windows 7?
Microsoft's success with netbooks suggests that Windows 7 can run on lower-power form factors, but placing the operating system on tablets might require an entirely different class of processor. Ballmer has indicated in previous addresses that Intel's Oak Trail processor, due in 2011, will power the upcoming generation of Windows-based tablets.
"Oak Trail is designed to be lower power," he said during this summer's Financial Analyst Meeting. "Lower power is good in a lot of ways. It leads to longer battery life, no fan, lower kind of noise levels, a lot less weight-a lot of things people like."
Whether Oak Trail is capable of delivering the necessary processor speed and power management, Microsoft may also consider stripping down Windows 7 in order to accommodate consumers' vision of tablets as devices with a fast-booting, ultra-quick and streamlined user-interface. However, that might require a more endemic redesign of the Windows experience than Microsoft is willing to undertake at this time. What do you chop from Windows in order to make it as slimmed-down as iOS or Android, if that's even your goal?
Apps remain a key part of mobile devices, whether powered by Android or iOS. If Microsoft plans on making a serious run at the tablet market, it needs to consider how to best offer apps by third-party developers. Considering how Windows currently lacks an app store (unlike the upcoming version of Apple's OS X, Lion, which includes support for full-screen apps), that support-and-delivery infrastructure would need to be built from scratch before Windows 7 tablets hit the marketplace. Then it would need to encourage developers to build for the platform.
Microsoft could figure out how to port Windows Phone 7 apps into Windows proper, but that prospect raises a veritable thicket of thorny questions. Rather than plunge in, Microsoft could stay out of the tablet apps game entirely-but given the popularity of Android Marketplace and Apple's App Store, that could prove a costly mistake.
More Optimized for Touch
Windows 7 already runs on touch-screen laptops, whose sliding keyboards essentially make them "hybrid" tablets. It also runs on a small number of tablet PCs already on the market. What do all these device's share? Windows 7's screen and icons look very, very tiny on them.
This isn't merely an aesthetic concern: those very tiny buttons, icons and hyperlinks are hard to tap with a finger. Microsoft executives have suggested that at least a portion of future Windows 7 tablets will include a stylus of some sort, but the stylus isn't very popular now for good reason: people simply like using their fingers to manipulate their mobile devices. If Microsoft wants a tablet that will appeal to the broader consumer and enterprise market, it needs to figure out how to make Windows more optimized for human appendages.
Take a Page (or Two) from Windows Phone 7
Microsoft spent considerable resources designing Windows Phone 7, which integrates Web content and applications into a series of subject-specific "Hubs." Early sales of the smartphones are in dispute, but the operating system has received relatively positive notes from critics.
More to the point, Windows Phone 7 integrates many of Microsoft's existing assets, including Xbox and Zune, into a seamless package. If Microsoft is unwilling to port Windows Phone 7 onto tablets-which would also neatly solve its apps issue-then it could at least "borrow" some of its baked-in elements for its Windows 7-optimized tablets. A touch-screen device with SharePoint and Xbox functionality would be a strong player in both the consumer and enterprise realms.