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12/8/2010
11:38 AM
Paul McDougall
Paul McDougall
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Windows 7 Slates Won't Be Home For Christmas

Microsoft’s failure to get consumer-friendly tablets in stores for the holiday season could result in a frosty year-end quarter for the software maker.

Back in October, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer promised new, Windows 7-powered slate computers "by Christmas", if only to ensure his company didn't get flattened like a reindeer on the interstate by Apple and Google during the holiday shopping season.

Earlier, in June, Ballmer told financial analysts that Microsoft would introduce a sledful of Windows 7 slates "over the course of the next several months."

I'm not sure what season it is in Redmond--maybe because the Northwest is full of pointy-shaped evergreens year round it hasn't dawned on Ballmer that Yuletide is here. But for the rest of us, the appearance of festive shop displays, Salvation Army Santas, and Macy's balloons and miracles on 34th Street all say, "It's Christmas time!"

So where in the name of Kris Kringle are the Windows tablets?

I put that question this week to Microsoft, whose reps pointed out that Hewlett-Packard is now shipping the Windows 7-based Slate 500. But surely Ballmer wasn't referring to an $800 device aimed at insurance adjustors and healthcare workers when he conjured visions of elves boxing up Microsoft-powered tablets for airborne distribution to boys, girls, and geeks around the world.

(Microsoft also noted that China's Hanvon is now shipping a Windows slate. Hanwho?)

Microsoft's failure to deliver to consumers a product that can go toe-to-toe with the iPad or Android-powered tablets like the Samsung Galaxy indicates it could be a blue Christmas for Microsoft—despite the fact that the year-end quarter is traditionally one of the strongest for tech vendors.

Check the big box retailers' Sunday flyers, peruse display cases at your local electronics shop, or just talk to friends, family, and co-workers: The overwhelming message is that this year's hottest gadgets, whether smartphones, tablets, or even TVs, will be running software from Apple and Google, not Microsoft.

That's pretty shocking for a company that all but dominated consumer computing just a couple of years ago through Windows-based PCs and software. Redmond's only hope for the holidays is Kinect, its new hands-free motion control system for the Xbox. By all accounts, it's a very cool system that's well ahead of anything available for rival Sony's PlayStation 3. It proves Microsoft is still capable of true innovation when it gets out of its own way.

There's just one problem: Kinect is sold out at many stores (though you can get one at Wal-Mart if you're willing to pay big for an overpriced bundle). So sales of Microsoft's one potential holiday hit could be hurt by supply constraints.

Granted, there are still 17 shopping days left until Dec. 25. But most consumers have already made up their minds about who's getting what this year. So even if Microsoft does unveil an avalanche of new Windows tablets between now and Christmas (and there are virtually no indications this will happen), it's too late. The Polar Express has left the station.

Maybe next year, Microsoft?

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