Switched On: Padded Windows

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|03.07.11

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Switched On: Padded Windows
Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

At the launch of the new iPad – superior for video chat, group presentations, and cutting cake -- Apple didn't miss a few opportunities to rub salt in the open air vents of Microsoft's tablet efforts. Apple noted that sales of the iPad have exceeded those of every other tablet PC ever sold, and that Microsoft (along with other competitors) were chasing doomed strategies that extended outmoded models.

Microsoft has been clear that it will continue to use its "desktop" operating system – Windows – rather than its mobile operating system – the device-specifying Windows Phone 7 – as its operating system for tablets. Considering the critical importance of an intuitive touchscreen UI on tablet -- where Windows Phone 7 excels and desktop Windows has struggled -- this seems risky on its face. But it is important to remember from Microsoft's perspective that the question is not whether Windows is the best choice for tablets but whether it is a better choice for Microsoft than Windows Phone. While the company faces an uphill battle regardless of which OS it chooses, its flagship could be the better answer for several reasons.

Differentiation. It's funny to think back to the launch of the first iPad and all the snickering about how the 9.7-inch slate was just an oversized iPhone. Now, smartphone OS competitors such as Android and webOS are making the jump to tablets. If one accepts that tablets are – as Apple noted at the iPad introduction – something between laptops and smartphones, why is the approach of a streamlined desktop OS less valid than the idea of a beefed-up mobile one? Microsoft's top-down approach sets the stage for a differentiated approach to the market.

Multiple Personalities.
As Steven Sinofsky noted at the announcement that Microsoft would support ARM processors with the next version of Windows, the venerable OS has proven incredibly flexible in dealing with many different hardware form factors (and, indeed, input methods) over its history. Whereas Microsoft is tapping Nokia to expand Windows Phone 7's hardware support, many third parties are highly motivated to port Windows drivers to the next version of the operating system due to the OS's massive installed base.

Mac iPadification.
Steve Jobs has drawn a line in the sand between tablets and PCs, but at the same time has moved to bring many iPad features to the Mac line including interface elements such as Launchpad and multitouch gestures. True, Apple uses the trackpad for these gestures rather than the screen, citing the need to avoid arm fatigue, but what if the screen shifted down to a less tiring angle just as the new HP TouchSmart does? A svelte PC like the MacBook Air could be reconfigured to competitive tablet dimensions.

Form factor creep.

If tablets will be the "cars" of computing and PCs the "trucks," Microsoft cannot afford to relegate Windows to 18-wheelers.

As CES, Samsung showed off a notebook with a sliding keyboard that ran desktop Windows while ASUS showed off an Android tablet – the Eee Slate Slider -- that ran Android. As the tablet market grows, it's likely that we will see some of the hardware variation we've seen in the smartphone market where some touchscreen devices have QWERTY keyboards and others don't. As this becomes the case, it muddies the waters for Microsoft to have Windows Phone 7 on some devices with a netbook form factor and desktop Windows on others. If, as Steve Jobs has said, tablets will increasingly be the "cars" of consumer computing devices and PCs will be the "trucks", Microsoft cannot afford to relegate Windows to 18-wheelers.

Apps close the gap. It was clear from the iPad 2 launch that Apple is not shying away from throwing processor-intensive apps such as GarageBand and iMovie – two of the most processor-intensive products from the Mac's iLife suite – at the iPad. If tablets are really migrating from being primarily content consumption devices to content creation devices, then Microsoft can make a strong case for an OS with more mature capabilities to facilitate this next generation of apps. Apple's addition of video-out mirroring capabilities also shows that we may be demanding more of tablets in terms of the interconnects that Windows already supports.

None of this is to say that Microsoft will win in the tablet space. The company has much to prove in terms of whether it can make tablets running Windows competitive with others in terms of battery life and whether it can create an experience that feels more optimized than some of the other offshoots of Windows throughout the years. Microsoft may have good cause to believe, though, that tablets are ready to pronounce, "I'm a PC."

Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.
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