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.
Andrew Brust is Research Director for Big Data and Analytics at Gigaom Research. Andrew is co-author of "Programming Microsoft SQL Server 2012" (Microsoft Press); an advisor to NYTECH, the New York Technology Council; co-moderator of Big On Data - New York's Data Intelligence Meetup; serves as Microsoft Regional Director and MVP; and is conference co-chair of Visual Studio Live!