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10/13/2010
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AT&T, Microsoft At Odds Over Tablet Plan

Wireless carrier's CEO says slates should be driven by mobile operating systems, not full-blown desktop clients like Windows 7.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega and Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer were all smiles when they joined each other on stage Monday to introduce AT&T phones built around the new Windows Phone 7 mobile OS.

"When Steve and his team showed us Windows Phone 7 we knew it was going to be a winner," said de la Vega, at a launch event in New York City. Indeed, AT&T this year plans to introduce Windows Phone 7-based devices from HTC, Samsung, and LG.

But smartphones are just one of tech's two hottest categories. The other is tablets, or slates—and Ballmer and de la Vega appear to have very different takes on the type of software best suited to the latter.

Throughout most of this year, Ballmer has promised to deliver tablets powered by the company's Windows 7 desktop operating system. "We've got the application base, we've got the user familiarity, we've got everything in our favor," Ballmer said at a meeting with financial analysts in July.

But de la Vega on Monday said mobile operating systems, with their responsiveness, energy efficiency, and lightweight footprint are far better suited for tablets than their PC-bound counterparts.

"There's a tablet revolution going on. Almost every major OEM is coming up with a tablet device," said de la Vega, in an interview with a CNBC reporter outside the launch event. "The size, the ease of use, is going to be fantastic for the industry," said de la Vega.

The AT&T exec left little doubt about the types of devices he wants his company to carry. "The interesting thing about tablets is they're going to be driven by mobile operating systems as opposed to desktop operating systems," said de la Vega, outside of earshot of Ballmer.

de la Vega should know what works when it comes to tablets. His company is the sole 3G carrier in the U.S. for the hot-selling iPad, which is driven by Apple's iOS mobile operating system. From the sounds of it, Microsoft could be out of luck, at least as far as AT&T is concerned, if it attempts to shoehorn Windows 7 into a plastic picture frame and call it a tablet.

With the holidays fast approaching, Microsoft has yet to fulfill Ballmer's promise to introduce tablets in time for Christmas—raising questions about whether the company has decided to go back to the drawing board to design slates around Windows Phone 7 rather than Windows 7.

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