Foley on Microsoft

Whither -- or Wither -- the Winpad?

Mary Jo Foley weighs in on whether Microsoft actually has a shot in the tablet space.

One of Microsoft's traditional strengths with Windows has been the diversity of form factors, created by different PC maker partners and sold at various price points. Microsoft execs touted the "choice" theme throughout the recent holiday season and are expected to continue to do so at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this month, as well.

The one form factor, however, the 'Softies and their allies still seem unable to master is the tablet, or slate, computer. And even if the 'Softies do end up highlighting another Windows slate at this year's CES (like they did last year with the Hewlett-Packard slate that ultimately debuted as the HP 500 business slate), I'm doubtful that there will be any kind of real contender to the Apple iPad or the various Android tablets on display.

Is the Winpad destined to wither before it launches? Or will Microsoft's marketing and monetary muscle enable the company to avoid being shut out from this increasingly important space?

Microsoft is prepping its real answer to the iPad and Android tablets with Windows 8, which is currently expected to ship in 2012. I studied the Windows 8 planning slides that leaked last year and saw a lot to like in Microsoft's tentative plans. The "Lap PC" -- Microsoft lingo for a Windows 8 slate -- looked (at least as of late April 2010) a lot like the iPad. The Lap PC is meant to be a touch-centric device that can be used in portrait or landscape mode, with a soft keyboard, app-store access and location-aware functionality all built in.

According to the leaked slides, Microsoft and its partners were considering a few additional features not present (at that point) in the iPad or Android tablets: specifically, several capabilities enabled by a variety of PC sensors. A proximity sensor would enable a Windows 8 PC to wake up or sleep when a designated user entered or exited the room. An ambient-light sensor would be able to dim a screen or pause a video if a user was away, aiding in battery-life longevity. Built-in facial recognition technology would automatically log the user in and get the boot sequence started without user intervention, enabling "rapid on." That same recognition capability -- which, not too surprisingly, seemed to be similar to what's possible with the Kinect gaming sensor -- would also allow fast user switching when another designated user entered the Windows 8 PC immediate environment.

As the leaked Windows 8 slides made clear, Microsoft envisions slates as a niche market. Many of the investments planned for Windows 8 will work best on large-screen PCs -- connected, in many cases, to remote displays or wireless TVs. Souped-up, graphics-heavy experiences, such as stereoscopic 3-D, will keep existing PC form factors attractive -- or so Microsoft execs and the company's PC partners are hoping. New hardware experiences will "revitalize the [PC-centric] software ecosystem," according to the Windows 8 slide deck.

The 'Softies and their PC allies are stuck in the world of more always equals better. More powerful graphics, more screen real estate, more multimedia connectivity, more input options -- that's how Microsoft and its OEMs are trying to guarantee they'll be able to charge more money. Even though many users -- including yours truly -- would jump at the chance to buy a slate running the Windows Phone OS, rather than Windows 8, Microsoft is prohibiting PC makers from using the phone OS on slate devices. But what led me to buy an iPad in 2010 was its lightweight, 10-plus-hour battery life and its "shove it in your purse and go" portability -- not the presence of any features that Windows was lacking.

With its Windows 8 Winpads, I think Microsoft is at serious risk of repeating the mistake it made on the smartphone side of its house: spending too much time ridiculing the competition instead of focusing on what its customers want and what its rivals are doing right. Do you agree?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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