For people who follow Microsoft, this week offered a distinct sense of d??Â«j??Ã vu, with rumors suggesting the company plans to reveal a new line of Windows 7 tablets during the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show. Should that come about, it would essentially be a repeat of January 2010, when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used his keynote to unveil a tablet from Hewlett-Packard along with offerings from two smaller manufacturers.
According to unnamed sources speaking to The New York Times, one of the tablets will be "similar in size and shape to the Apple iPad," although "not as thin." It will 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 Times' Dec. 13 article suggested that tablets from Dell and Samsung will make an appearance at CES.
Even as Apple's iPad continued its months-long sales rampage, and a growing number of Android-based tablets threaten to take market share of their own, Microsoft has dipped only its littlest toe in the tablet market: HP's enterprise-centric, Windows-equipped Slate 500 reportedly had a limited production run, although demand may drive a wider release.
Microsoft executives claim that next year's release of Intel's "Oak Trail" Atom processor will power a new generation of Windows tablets. "Oak Trail is designed to be lower power," CEO Steve Ballmer 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."
Combined with the rumors about CES 2011, it seems that Microsoft really is preparing to compete more directly against the iPad and other tablet devices. However, the company will have to face down not only Apple and Google but also Research In Motion's PlayBook, which is expected to target the enterprise.
Microsoft's failure to capitalize on the tablet market threatens to challenge it substantially, according to a Dec. 13 research note from Goldman Sachs analyst Bill Shope. "This would be the first time in three decades that a non-Wintel technology has made legitimate inroads into personal computing," Shope wrote. "What is surprising is that many of these products are not utilizing Intel microprocessors or a Microsoft operating environment."
Microsoft's reputation has always been that of a "fast follower," or having the capability to recognize growing trends and either embrace or crush them. That served the company well with products like Internet Explorer, which quickly overran Netscape on its way to dominating the 1990s browser market. In recent years, however, a general acceleration in tech trends-particularly in mobile devices-seems to have caught Microsoft proverbially flatfooted; instead of responding quickly to emerging categories such as smartphones and tablets, the company has often struggled to formulate a winning response even as its competitors race ahead.
With Bing, its search engine, Microsoft seems determined to play that particular game of catch-up for as long as it takes. On Dec. 15, the company unveiled updates to Bing, including new features for its Bing for Mobile application for the iPhone and Android. Bing Maps aesthetics have also been tweaked, with improved color contrast for streets and improved highway symbols.
"The core of our work addresses the fact that the Web is getting more complex and faceted-not less," Microsoft Online Services Division Senior Vice President Satya Nadella wrote in a Dec. 15 posting on the Bing Community blog. "This evolution challenges us and the industry to more thoughtfully define search quality as more than just speed or how well we've matched links to your query."
According to research company comScore, Bing occupied some 11.8 percent of the search engine market in November, dwarfed by Google's 66.2 percent, but good for a year-over-year increase of 31 percent. In an effort to increase Bing's ubiquity across the Web, Microsoft is also leveraging its partnership with Facebook. "Starting today, if your search results include a specific link that has also been -liked' by someone in your Facebook network the link will be highlighted as -Liked' within Bing," Paul Yiu, Bing's group program manager, wrote in a Dec. 15 posting on the Bing Community blog. The feature is currently available only to users in the United States.
Microsoft is also trying to swipe at Google in other areas, particularly cloud-productivity applications for businesses. In what threatens to become a trend, Microsoft Online Services Senior Director Tom Rizzo took to the Why Microsoft blog to knock the search engine giant's offerings.
"If you haven't seen, Google recently announced a new service for Microsoft Exchange Server: Google Message Continuity for Exchange Server," Rizzo wrote on Dec. 16. "The Google solution is cumbersome. It requires a lot of heavy lifting not only by IT but also by end users who have to navigate to Gmail, either through the Web interface or hope they can connect through Outlook with additional client software required by Google."
Exchange users, Rizzo added, should "ignore this service." That attack echoed his Dec. 1 posting on the blog, following Google's announcement of a new contract to provide Gmail and Google Apps to the General Services Administration, in which he derided those applications' ability to "meet the basic requirements" for business needs.
Even as it focuses on expanding to areas such as tablets and the cloud, however, Microsoft also continues to maintain some of its key existing assets. In the final 2010 Patch Tuesday update, the company delivered some 17 security bulletins and 40 security fixes, including one for an Internet Explorer vulnerability from November.