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Tablets!: How Microsoft Lost and Apple Won

Posted by on February 1, 2011 at 10:00 am

You know who thought tablets were a cool idea a decade ago? Bill Gates. Microsoft. So it’s a shame that that they squandered their incredible lead by putting Windows XP on them. Isn’t it ironic that their arch-rival figured out how to do a proper tablet before they did?

Microsoft Screws It Up

Straight out of high school, I thought having a tablet “PC” was cool. I wanted a new computer before I headed off to college in late 2002 and I loved taking notes on my PocketPC. You have to understand Microsoft’s mindset back in the early 00s: they were positioning tablets/slates as portable PCs (essentially laptops without keyboards) that ran miniaturized versions of the full-blown desktop version of Windows. They were designed as PC replacements and aimed directly at enterprise customers and content creators. These were the primitive days when mushy resistive screens primed for stylus input (if you own a standalone GPS unit, you know what a resistive touch screen is) were recognizing your handwriting and interpreting it into Word documents, e-mails and more. The mandatory stylus allowed for some pretty precise control, but as it turned out, not many people were interested in pecking on microscopic icons. Ever.

Excitement died out for these Windows-based tablets pretty quick; few ever seeing wide release. If people were going to create content on the go, they could get a comparably priced laptop that was far more capable and easier to use. In the end, Microsoft never really figured it out.

Apple Gets It Right…

With the iPad, Apple figured out how the tablet form factor is supposed to work: rather than squeeze their O/S X desktop environment into a glass and metal slab, they up-converted the hyper-intuitive interface from their ultra popular iPhone and iPod Touch lines. Already hooked up to a massive library of apps and games, the iPad became an instant hit. Apple discovered that maybe tablets weren’t that great for content creation, but content consumption instead. You don’t buy an iPad to write a novel, you buy one to read them; you don’t buy one to edit movies, but to watch them, and so forth. Using a capacitive-touch screen (one that detects interaction based on human contact, allowing for cool stuff like multi-touch) the iPad – like its smaller cousins – sported a thumb-ready experience that was easy to use whether you used an iPod or a Droid smartphone. The stylus and the handwriting recognition? Cast out to sea.

…And Everyone Copies Them

With the success of the iPad, everyone’s been rushing out to create tablets. The open nature of the Android operating system got everyone excited about stretching their smartphone experiences to the larger hardware. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Google announced the Honeycomb version of Android, an experience tailor-built for new tablets, leaving devices like Dell’s Streak and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab – which use older, stock versions of the operating system – at an evolutionary dead end. Microsoft also used CES to announce that they got their nex generation desktop version of Windows running on ARM architecture, which means that Windows 8 will run on smartphones and tablets with ease. Despite the revelation, it looks like Microsoft is still eyeing the tablet as a cool way to mobilize the Windows desktop. It didn’t work a decade ago, it won’t work now.

We’re bound to see more of these things pop up over the next few years as they continue to cannibalize laptop sales. Maybe I’ll pick up the one where Ballmer decides to put Windows Phone on a slick black slate…

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