Redmond Review

Tablet Toast or Slate Salvation?

Microsoft's current and former CEOs have opened the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) for years. At last month's event Steve Ballmer continued the tradition, and he had a lot of success to crow about. More than 20 percent of all Internet-connected PCs now run Windows 7; 8 million Kinect sensors for Xbox 360 were sold in the product's first 60 days; and Xbox 360 itself was the best-selling game console in the United States for each of the last six months of 2010.

Still, the company is not competitive in the tablet space and won't be perceived as a consumer heavyweight until that changes. Is Microsoft tone deaf to this whole issue? I don't believe so. Despite appearances of tablet cluelessness, Microsoft knows it has to make a move. And CES helped reveal what the move might be: A few hours before its keynote, Microsoft announced at a press conference that the next version of Windows would run on Intel and ARM system-on-a-chip (SoC) CPUs.

SoCs are the de facto standard in mobile and tablet devices, including iPhone 4 and iPad. So although Microsoft had no serious tablet form factor product to discuss for 2011, it's maneuvering to have Windows run on low-power mobile devices in the near future. But Windows 7 is not designed for touch. And while Microsoft has proven with Windows Phone 7 that it can engineer an excellent touch UI environment, Microsoft is insisting that Windows-based tablets must run the full-blown Windows OS. What's going on here?

Installed Base: Blessing or Curse?
Microsoft knows that its biggest asset is the Windows application ecosystem. If it forfeits that by making Windows tablets run an incompatible Windows Phone-derived OS, it loses what might be its best weapon against Apple's lead in the market. That makes sense, to a point, but just as Windows wasn't designed for touch, neither were Windows applications. Considered that way, Microsoft's greatest asset seems like an even greater liability.

But this strategy isn't all folly. I've owned an iPad since the day it came out. I like it, and I appreciate the value of an OS that was designed from the ground up to be used in touch devices. But, though I used the iPad constantly after I bought it, with each passing month I've used it less. Why? Because when I'm watching Flash or Silverlight video, using Outlook's full support for all features of Exchange, editing photos with a mouse or building non-trivial spreadsheets (not to mention doing dev work), I often need to revert to my PC.

Where does this leave us? If the PC has a functionality advantage and Microsoft has proven touch know-how, can it finesse a tablet that's compelling or is it doomed to catch-22-induced inertia?

Rewind to Fast-Forward
Let's bring this back to where we started: CES. At the electronics confab nine years ago, Bill Gates, in his keynote, announced the development of a new technology, code-named "Mira." Mira machines were special laptops running Windows XP, with detachable displays that could function as tablets, wirelessly connected to their parent PCs. Users could do casual computing from, say, the couch (albeit with a standard Windows UI), and still be able to do serious computing at their desks, on the same machine. Nearly a decade later, Mira's time may be here.

What if the Mira hardware paradigm were revived, but the software side were reengineered? Microsoft could create an alternate touch UI for Windows -- not just a shell, but a full-fledged, native UI -- and provide SDKs, controls and tools to extend today's mouse-based software to offer alternate touch UIs of its own, for tablet-mode operation. Just as today's touch apps pivot and alter their layout when a device is rotated, these next-gen Windows apps would immediately sense the display's detached state and morph into elegant, finger-friendly software. When the display is reattached, the full desktop Windows experience would return, seamlessly, without restarting.

Perhaps Microsoft could call this new platform Windows "MiraTouch." Or maybe Fingerlight. ISVs could enter the touch market by extending their apps, using their existing dev tools and skills, and tapping their existing user base. Microsoft could leverage its heritage rather than abandon it, and ISVs could enter the tablet world gracefully.

Mira, a 9-year-old technology, shows that there could be a method to what people think is Redmond's madness. It also shows that, with reinvention, Windows can remain not just relevant, but indispensable.

About the Author

Andrew Brust is Founder and CEO of Blue Badge Insights, an analysis, strategy and advisory firm serving Microsoft customers and partners. Brust is also a Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; an advisor to the New York Technology Council; and co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press, 2012). A frequent speaker at industry events, Brust is co-chair of the Visual Studio Live! family of conferences and a contributing editor to Visual Studio Magazine. Brust has been a participant in the Microsoft ecosystem for over 20 years, and has worked closely with both Microsoft's Redmond-based corporate team and its field organization for much of the last 15. He is a member of several "insiders" groups that supply him with insight around important technologies out of Redmond. Follow Brust on Twitter @andrewbrust.

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Reader Comments:

Tue, Jul 24, 2012 Baba http://reddevnews.com

I agree. Windows is now a very mature operating system, way ahead of iOs and Android. MS Visual Studio developers are plentiful and very capable with .Net technologies. Microsoft needs to leverage this and build a touch .net API For windows 7, or 8. The 3rd party market (telerik, devexpress, infragistics etc..) will build the toolkits and all existing winforms apps can be ported to this UI, preserving Microsoft's lead with huge numbers of mature windows applications.

Sun, Jan 1, 2012 qhvpoedvwpv msP3H5 kzxvklwwdqya

msP3H5 http://kzxvklwwdqya.com/ DOT

Sat, Dec 31, 2011 Gertrude Great thikinng! That really breaks the mold!

Great thikinng! That really breaks the mold!

Sat, Mar 5, 2011 Phil Chicago

I enjoyed the article but I disagree. Having used the past window tablet incarnations and trust me I tried to use them, I can tell you from experience that the problem is exactly that Microsoft is trying to use a heavily burdened PC OS for a device that introduces a new paradigm. If you tried to use windows mobile you knew this, it was bloated, slow and tried to force a desktop paradigm on the mobile user. The market made a choice. Microsoft has great intellectual knowledge I am certain they are able to come up with a new OS that leverages the windows knowledge but does not burden it. I think sadly Microsoft has gotten so big that they conceive of new technologies but cannot or will not implement them maybe for fear of hurting windows.I think Mira and let's not forget the surface technology are casualties of that policy.

Thu, Feb 10, 2011 Ed Eaglehouse Richfield, OH

This is a thoughtfully-written article that Microsoft should take to heart. I was interested in the "Mira" technology when it first appeared, but it disappeared before I was able to look into it. As developer and end-user for over 30 years, it has features that appeal to me that would make my life more comfortable. Unfortunately for the tablet industry, Microsoft practically abandoned the platform a decade ago. As for development, almost nobody was willing to pay a premium for engineering the mobility and productivity gains of a tablet into a system. Apple (damn their proprietary black hearts!) has changed that picture. I'm not a Microsoft fan, but I credit and applaud them for commercializing the tablet platform over a decade ago, and I'm a big proponent of that platform. It was an idea (apparently) before its time. Now the idea is becoming mainstream enough so Microsoft and device manufacturers need to ramp up their efforts and go after it. This article gives some excellent feature points to make the whole experience a better one. The industry would be wise to listen - we'll all win.

Thu, Feb 3, 2011 Garry@TriSys Cambridge, UK

I agree. Windows is now a very mature operating system, way ahead of iOs and Android. MS Visual Studio developers are plentiful and very capable with .Net technologies. Microsoft needs to leverage this and build a touch .net API For windows 7, or 8. The 3rd party market (telerik, devexpress, infragistics etc..) will build the toolkits and all existing winforms apps can be ported to this UI, preserving Microsoft's lead with huge numbers of mature windows applications.

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