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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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  • I concur with all things you say.

    But don’t discount the advances in hardware that made the iPad possible now but not 10 years ago. 10 years ago there was no solid 3G and WiFi was a PITA. Processors consumed too much power, battery technology was not where it is today, etc. etc.

    Just saying…

    • Anonymous

      True, but even without a 1x or 2G connection, there was still a lot you could do with those devices that they just didn’t cash in on. My PocketPC was my very first MP3 player, even if capacity was really limited (32MB onboard flash memory) but the media player could’ve been reorganized for thumb-ready operation, even on those rubbish panels. The battery still lasted me all day, something that my Palm Pre could hardly ever accomplish. They could’ve made games easier to get, too: I bought SimCity 2000 for it and even though it was a faithful port (and killed the battery) I had to sideload it onto an external Compact Flash card.

      Build quality was much better back then, though…

      • Oh, I agreed with all your points.

        I just think we all tend to discount just how much technology changes over 10 years, and how things we just assume today either didn’t exist yet, were far more expensive, or close to impossible to implement.

        As for me, without ubiquitous connectivity the iPad is not really worth that much. I have one that I don’t use right now because of this: http://apple.stackexchange.com/questions/7219/what-to-do-when-apple-support-fails-to-diagnose-ipad-3g-failure

        But yes, Microsoft missed the boat for sure. When it was possible, Microsoft didn’t lead the market and Apple did. I wonder if they are rueing the day back in ’97 when they gave Steve $150 million… (re: http://news.cnet.com/2100-1001-202143.html)

        • Anonymous

          I think it’s better for all of us that Apple got back on its feet. Even if many of their ideas aren’t original, they do pull them off really well and that allows them to curve the industry to their whims (or produce whole new sections that previously never existed). Microsoft made a bunch of money on that stock, so I doubt they’re too mad :D

          • Frankly, even though I am currently writing this with an 27″ iMac while a MacBook and an iPhone sit next to me, I find Apple can be infuriating. I think Apple does a good job on some things but is stubborn on others and its users have to pay for that stubbornness. (And the fan boys then give them cover so they get away with it.)

            As for Microsoft being too mad, when you have more money than God it’s not about a nice return on your investment, it’s about winning. And right now Apple is winning in ways that Microsoft is failing, And that’s got to sting given that they could have not acted and enabled Apple to die.

            Anyway, power corrupts and all the fan boys better be careful what they wish for because Apple is becoming the Microsoft of the new decade. :)