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Tough Task on Tablets

When I think of Microsoft and the tablet market, I think of a line from the 2004 David Mamet movie "Spartan" -- "You had your whole life to prepare for this moment. Why aren't you ready?"

The sentiment is slightly harsher than the situation warrants, but it does seem like Bill Gates has been talking up the possibilities and opportunities for the tablet form factor for a decade -- highlighting prototype devices from partners on various stages he hoped would either be, or inspire, the next big thing.

For now, it's Apple that captured lightning in a bottle, either timing the tablet market right or making the market with its iPad device.

Why wasn't Microsoft ready? There are a host of reasons, none of them definitive, and this game isn't over. Apple has sold a million iPads. That's a lot, but it's not an insurmountable lead. Technology is fickle and oscillates between trending toward proprietary or open models. Microsoft is historically positioned in a spot between the two that allows it to catch the cycles coming and going.

Maybe Microsoft can rally in this form factor, but it's not looking good at the moment.

HP was its hardware partner that was furthest along with the Slate. But since we wrote about that device last month, HP has reportedly killed the Windows 7-based project. That apparent decision is based on the blockbuster news in late April about HP buying Palm Inc. for about $1.2 billion. Now HP is rumored to be working on a new tablet called the HP Hurricane, which will be based on the Palm webOS.

Almost the same day, news emerged that Microsoft had cancelled the Courier project for a folding, two-screen tablet that had both a touch screen and a pen. It had generated some buzz in the market as a truly innovative approach.

Meanwhile, there's word that Google and Verizon Wireless are working together on bringing out a tablet computer to challenge the iPad (and AT&T). An announcement of a partnership is far from a device that customers will buy, but it's a further fragmentation of the market, and the Google model makes it a direct competitor with Microsoft for hardware partners.

Microsoft may be consolidating its tablet efforts behind a Windows 7-based device rather than the reportedly custom OS for Courier. Maybe Microsoft will wow the market with a skunk works project that no one knows about.

But I'm not holding out much hope right now. Tablets are feeling like the music player and phone markets, where consumer tastes are driving the innovation and Microsoft's role is to play catch up from way back.

Am I too pessimistic about Microsoft's chances to build its own tablet offering that will be a real opportunity for partners? E-mail me at sbekker@rcpmag.com.

For more on this topic, see RCP Directions columnist Paul DeGroot's article about the momentum in mobile applications.

About the Author

Scott Bekker is editor in chief of Redmond Channel Partner magazine.