Readying for the Microsoft Tablet, Take 5

CES is just a week away, and the technical press speculates that this will be the year of the tablet. Last year, eBook readers were abundant, but they were largely overshadowed by 3D TV hype at every turn. But this year, Apple really stuck a thorn in the industry’s backside, and now everyone’s trying to catch up.

Microsoft has been trying to tap this market for nearly a decade now, and I’m sure we’ll see them at it again at CES. Before going there, though, let’s review Microsoft’s four previous, largely unsuccessful attempts at getting a foothold in the tablet space:

Microsoft Tablet PC

Take 1 (2002): Tablet PC. Microsoft Introduced the Tablet PC platform on a variant of XP, Windows XP Tablet PC Edition. Consumer devices were essentially convertible laptops with a stylus, though some keyboardless slate devices were also produced. These never gained wide adoption in the consumer space, though hardened builds for industrial applications still survive. The touch and writing capabilities required for tablets were absorbed into later versions of Windows, but otherwise this platform is largely dead.

Microsoft Smart Display

Take 2 (2003): Smart Display. Microsoft tried to tap into the casual home use market with the Smart Display, which essentially extended your existing Windows PC to anywhere in the house. This underpowered (Windows CE) keyboard-less touch panel created a remote desktop connection to your PC over your wireless B [only] network. It was hefty, had limited media capabilities, and prevented anyone else from using the PC while the display was in use. It lasted about a year until Microsoft killed it.

Ultra-mobile PC

Take 3 (2006): Ultra-Mobile PC (UMPC). Intel and Microsoft teamed up to introduce the Ultra-Mobile PC, or UMPC, as an alternative to a full-fledged laptop for light-duty media, social, and gaming activities. Dubbed “Origami” by Microsoft, the devices ran Windows with an added skin layer optimized for touch on the small screen. Usability issues, poor battery life, and general market confusion prevented these devices from gaining any serious ground.

Ballmer introduces the HP Slate

Take 4 (2010): The Slate. At 2010’s CES keynote, just weeks before Apple was expected to announce their new tablet product, Ballmer tried to beat them to the punch by announcing the HP Slate, running Windows 7. It was clearly a media stunt—the device wasn’t ready for production, and everyone soon forgot about it after the iPad was announced, even though industrial devices finally hit the market by the end of the year. The general consensus from the press and the industry, as proven by Apple, was that retrofitting a full-blown desktop operating system for tablet use just doesn’t work.

So I have to wonder: what’s it going to be this year? The heat is on in the tablet space now that Apple has established the iPad as the de facto device and Android tablets are in nearly every corner store. What’s it going to be this year, Steve?

I’m hoping for a device loosely based on the (poorly named) Windows Phone 7 platform. It’s time to give up on the desktop Windows OS as a mobile platform. It just doesn’t work.

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