Microsoft's Tablet PC Push Could Be Uphill

Microsoft is trumpeting Windows' push into tablet PCs during its Worldwide Partner Conference, but with the Apple iPad dominant in the space and other manufacturers looking at Google Android, that push could be uphill.

WASHINGTON, D.C.-You can't doubt Microsoft's public enthusiasm for tablet PCs, at least among management. During the company's annual Worldwide Partner Conference here July 12, a variety of executives have taken the stage to proclaim tablets as the way of the future, along with the cloud, and Microsoft's intention to seize that burgeoning market in the same way it dominated netbooks.

"We feel all of the energy and vigor and push that we have ever felt to innovate and compete," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said, describing how Microsoft was apparently champing at the proverbial bit to charge into the tablet PC market. "We need to push this from a Microsoft perspective."

In a nod to both the partners gathered at the conference and Microsoft's self-perception as a company that straddles both the everyday and business worlds, Ballmer described the ideal Windows 7-equipped tablet as "a great consumer-oriented device, but a device that fits and is manageable with today's IT solutions."

Ballmer then detailed the form those tablets will apparently take: "They'll come with keyboards, they'll come without keyboards-there'll be many devices. But they will run Windows 7, they will run Office, they will accept ink- as well as touch-based input."

He added: "We are hardcore about this."

Indeed. Yet despite Ballmer's assurances that manufacturers are rushing to build consumer-centric tablet PCs equipped with Windows 7, Microsoft faces a steepening battle to claim its share of the market, which is currently dominated by the Apple iPad.

For starters, a number of manufacturers are reportedly considering Google Android as the operating system for a selection of upcoming tablets. In addition, Hewlett-Packard recently confirmed that its newly acquired Palm WebOS will serve as the operating system for its own tablet PC offerings, among other hardware products; it remains an open question whether HP will also build flat touch-screen devices that incorporate Windows 7.

"The Windows PC operating system does not lend itself to a touch-screen tablet experience," John Spooner, an analyst for Technology Business Research, wrote in a research note after HP announced it will acquire Palm for $1.2 billion. "Microsoft itself is finding the tablet PC market more complicated than expected."

To succeed in the space, other analysts have suggested, Microsoft will need to make some fundamental changes to Windows 7, specifically streamlining the operating system in ways that accommodate the tablet's slimmer form factor.

"Microsoft and its partners must develop UX shell(s) appropriate to the tablet format to compete with Apple's excellent iPad experience," Forrester analysts J.P Gownder and Sara Rotman Epps wrote in a May 27 research note, noting that any tablet version of Windows 7 needed to offer a "simple, streamlined, guided experience."

The other key, the analysts wrote, will be price: "If a sub-$499 tablet offers a bad consumer experience, it will fail. Prices above $750 would almost certainly be too high for a complementary device that acts as a second, third or fourth PC in the home."

Partners also need to be kept in the proverbial loop, added the research note. "Microsoft must keep HP-the largest player in the U.S. consumer market-in the game and tap into HP's TouchSmart lessons and assets," they wrote. "Dell, too, is a critical player for the consumer market. Dell will need more hand-holding than HP, as it lacks the TouchSmart experience."

But can Microsoft hold its own in an environment where Apple has already sold more than 3 million units, and other manufacturers are busily creating tablet offerings with other operating systems? At least one analyst thinks so.

"I'm not convinced Microsoft will completely drop it," IDC analyst David Daoud told eWEEK in a June 17 interview. "They're going to do what they've always done very well, which is respond with all the resources they have to a competitive threat."

Their success, however, could depend on altering Windows 7 to specifically fit the tablet form factor. During a June 3 talk at the D8 conference, Ballmer indicated that a customized version of Windows could run on tablets-but no Microsoft executive has indicated that such customization is currently under way.

Whether or not Microsoft does carry out such an initiative, they're using the WPC to push their intentions in the tablet space. In the face of growing competition, however, that push will likely be uphill.