Ever since the Apple iPad helped turn consumer tablet PCs into a burgeoning market, more business-oriented users have questioned whether the form factor-with its virtual keyboard and cloud-centric features-is capable of serving as a true productivity device.
During the iPad's initial rollout, Apple took great marketing pains to reinforce the message that the device was effective for document creation as well as for e-mail. Those who hated virtual keyboards, the company argued, could use the iPad Keyboard Dock.
Nonetheless, tablets continue to be seen primarily as media-consumption devices-a perception that Hewlett-Packard seems determined to change, apparently with a series of enterprise-focused tablets that run Windows 7.
"Our focus is working with still our largest software partner, Microsoft, to create a tablet for the enterprise business," Todd Bradley, executive vice president of HP's Personal Systems Group, was quoted as saying during the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference.
"I think you'll see us with a family of Slate products, clearly a Microsoft product in the enterprise, and a WebOS product broadly deployed," Bradley also said at Brainstorm, seated beside former Palm CEO Jon Rubinstein.
If that's so, the question becomes: What form will Windows take on those enterprise tablets? Business users will presumably want as many productivity-related features as possible, as well as the chance to run a broad range of software; but depending on which version of Windows is deployed as an operating system, that desire for increased productivity could drastically affect the tablet's overall performance.
A good comparison may be netbooks. While the stripped-down laptops have indeed found a niche in the enterprise, particularly for use by road warriors with a need to always be connected to the office, the devices have been generally dismissed as incapable of more robust functionality. If Microsoft and its manufacturing partners want to craft tablets capable of performing a wide number of tasks, they may need to consider changes to the form factor's hardware and software.
During Microsoft's annual Worldwide Partner Conference July 12, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer characterized his company as enthusiastic about the tablet space, arguing that Windows could be loaded on a variety of form factors. "They'll come with keyboards, they'll come without keyboards-there'll be many devices," Ballmer said. "But they will run Windows 7, they will run Office, they will accept ink- as well as touch-based input."
According to one analyst, though, Microsoft's previous experiments in the tablet space have shown a need to more radically rethink how Windows operates on nontraditional form factors.
"The tablet market that the iPad is exploring Microsoft initially identified and tried to target with the incomplete Origami effort," Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told eWEEK July 29, referring to Microsoft's ultraportable PC project. "Origami did showcase that you could likely do an iPad-like product with a Windows core, but you'd need to rethink the interface."
Specifically, Enderle wrote, "Either hardware would need to improve to provide the performance and battery life needed, or Windows would have to be modified to live under existing hardware limits, much as Apple did with ... the iPad."
And if Microsoft wants to make a decisive play, time is running out.
"Hardware is improving and it is likely that Windows 8 will be even more efficient than Windows 7," Enderle added. "However, the [tablet] market is being built now and until Microsoft has something in it that is competitive they will be pounded for not being able to compete."
At June's D8 Conference, Ballmer acknowledged that Windows could indeed be customized in order to fit the needs of a lightweight, keyboard-free device. In the weeks since, however, Microsoft has made no indication that it plans to create such a product.