So What Are Microsoft's Tablets? Chopped Liver?

Yesterday, on the way home from my interview of Free Software Foundation founder and president Richard Stallman, I listened closely as Slate's Farhad Manjoo told NPR's Neal Conan the facts about Apple's forthcoming tablet PC: that there are no facts. Well, there's one. Apple's brand has gotten so powerful that everyone including
Yesterday, on the way home from my interview of Free Software Foundation founder and president Richard Stallman, I listened closely as Slate's Farhad Manjoo told NPR's Neal Conan the facts about Apple's forthcoming tablet PC: that there are no facts. Well, there's one. Apple's brand has gotten so powerful that everyone including the stock market is putting faith in pure vapor as though the tablet mode of Microsoft's Windows 7 doesn't matter. Nary a mention. What gives?The credit Apple is already getting for reinventing the tablet market is 100 percent lock stock and barrel based on the belief (faith for many) that Apple can do for tablets what it has done for music and smartphones. Although I love Apple (I made the switch to Mac OS X over 2 years ago and have never looked back and own several iPods), I'm unconvinced that a tablet from Apple can achieve the same sort of market success.

For the latest Apple tablet news opinion and conversation, be sure to check out InformationWeek's Special Report: Tablet Wars -- Can Apple Three-peat?

Should Apple CEO Steve Jobs introduce a tablet on January 27th as many expect him to do (ok.. one other fact... Apple is launching something on January 27th.. we just don't know what it is), there is no doubt in my mind that its industrial design will be something to behold. And, should Apple launch a tablet, there will be some number of people who have to have one just to impress their friends and colleagues. Because Apple controls both the hardware and the software, the way the touch screen and buttons are integrated into the operating system (a derivative of Mac OS X? a more capable iPhone OS? Who knows?) will likely leave other tablet makers (Amazon, Lenovo, HP, etc.) asking "Why didn't we think of that?"

Yes. When Apple enters a new market, it never enters without innovating. But for it to be a market success, it may also have to defy certain laws of physics and so far, no one has done that.

Price: First, what exactly might an Apple tablet be and why would people want it? For Apple to call something a tablet, it will need to be substantially bigger, faster (more processor), and more capable (more memory/storage/screen/etc.) than the iPhone. More more more translates into cost and cost translates into price. A tablet from Apple will no doubt cost as much if not more than many notebook or netbook PCs.

Amazon's black and white Kindles, which Apple will clearly have to outdo (and can Apple not do color?) start at $259; a price that Amazon isn't making much money on and for good reason. It's a razor. For a Kindle to be useful, you have to buy the blades (the content) from Amazon.

A tablet from Apple will have to go well beyond what a Kindle can do, venturing way more in the direction of what the tablet features of Windows can do. Like the iPhone, it will need color, both wi-fi and 3G capability (the Kindle is 3G only) and will need to support third party applications -- either those for Mac OS X or those for the iPhone. My guess is iPhone because by making this choice, an Apple Tablet also becomes better revenue generator for Apple. Apple gets a cut from the price of every application sold through its App store (not to mention what it gets if the tablet is used to get content from iTunes which it's certain to do).

To justify the cost, the first obvious question to any buyer will and should be: can I use this instead of my netbook or notebook because I really don't want to carry both with me everywhere I go? The answer will need to be an unequivocal yes and as such, you can expect the tablet to have a very slick "soft" keyboard; one like what the iPhone has, but that comes closer in size to a real keyboard.

Given its proximity (in functionality) to a Windows-based tablet, another question for many should and will be whether they should consider a Windows-based tablet instead. Microsoft and systems manufacturers are all over the tablet space at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week. Microsoft is expected to discuss its forthcoming tablet (Courier) today (something different than Windows). Also at CES, Lenovo and HP are among the PC makers introducing new tablets this week.

Can Apple come into the market with something so unique that it justifies the expense in light of the alternatives? Well, there are other factors like....

Battery Life: I took a lot of heat when the iPhone first came out for writing and speaking ad nauseum about how business users could end up dissatisfied with the iPhone's battery life along with Apple's choice to not go with a removable battery for those of us that would be happy to carry spares with us.

Should Apple come out with a tablet, it will be equally interesting to see what design choices it makes when it comes to the battery. If a tablet is expected to support multiple radios, a fair amount of storage, and a decent-sized color touch screen, the power requirements will be non-trivial.

In its Kindle, recognizing that users detest frequent refueling stops just to read books (and other content), Amazon largely managed the power envelope challenge by not going with color or a backlight (which makes it very difficult if not impossible to read in the dark).

Many iPhone users have ended up disappointed with Apple's choice of battery design. Those who push the device for all that it has to offer have to plug in multiple times daily to refresh at least some of the battery so as to get them through the day. But with a tablet -- particularly one designed for consuming books, newspaper, and magazine content (many agree that a tablet from Apple would be a response to Amazon) -- that sort of frequent refueling may not be acceptable. It will need to last longer and the last time I checked, Apple hasn't figured out how to defy the laws of physics. They have the same challenges that all device makers have (by the way, Google wisely chose to equip the Nexus One it released yesterday with a removable battery).

Should Apple choose to go with a replaceable battery design, then buyers should consider the cost of spare batteries with the overall cost of the system when comparing it to other alternatives such as those based on....

Microsoft's Tablet(s): For at least half a year, maybe more, the book industry has been shaking a bit in its boots because it knows like the rest of us do that Apple must respond to the threat from Amazon. Originally, with iPods and iTunes, Apple created and owned the market characterized by the highly turnkey acquisition of largely un-piratable audio. Apple has since diversified its knack for doing this so well into other areas including video.

Meanhwile, in its Kindle, Amazon has that knack too, but for books. A great tablet can't just do the Web, music, and video well. It will have to do books, newspapers, and magazines.

The good news is that if you like the Kindle for its turnkey ability to acquire and read books but hate it for other reasons that a real tablet might solve (ie: lack of a backlight), then you can have your cake and eat it too. All it takes is the loading of Amazon's free Windows-based Kindle software onto a Windows tablet.

There are shortcomings. Like the free Kindle software for the iPhone and iPod Touch, Amazon's Kindle for PC cannot read certain types of content like newsapapers and magazines that are available to the Kindles themselves. But if you're using Windows as your tablet, then you can also get to that content (or most of it) by way of your Web browser.

So, by loading the Kindle software onto a Windows tablet, you end up with a relatively robust bookreading tablet that's portable and capable of doing pretty much anything you'd want any device of that size to do (with out having to carry another device to do some other computing-related stuff). Additionally, there isn't just one industrial design for a Windows tablet. Like with Windows itself, there are multiple manufacturers out there competing for your dollars. This means a variety of compelling tablet designs and price points.

Microsoft: Serious about tablets? Microsoft for its part, could do much more to market this currently available and very viable "alternative" to Apple's vapor. For example, a quick visit to the tablet home page on (the first link you get after entering "tablet" into the search field) reveals a woefully out of date site with bad links. Windows XP gets top billing, there's a link to upgrade to Vista (who'd want to do that?), and the question "What's a Tablet PC?" links to a retired page.

Shame on Microsoft. It's during this time when everyone's attention to tablets is heightened that it should be reminding the market that Microsoft actually has a pretty good offering that's worth checking out. For business users in vertical markets, Microsoft has some critical mass too. There are plenty of tablet-enabled Windows applications designed to make certain types of walkabout-workers way more productive than they'd be with notebooks or workstations. Everyone at my doctor's office is equipped with a Windows tablet and the way they're set up is a real testimony to the sort of efficiency that e-health solutions can introduce to the healthcare industry. Any updates to my medical records that come as result of the taps that a nurse at my doctor's office makes on her tablet are reflected in the systems at my local hospital as well (with my permission). Tablets are an important and successful part of the formula.

As for Microsoft, the truth is that there's no longer a tablet specific version of Windows. Full tablet functionality including the support for touch screens comes built-into Windows 7 and is simply enabled by loading Windows 7 onto an existing tablet PC such as Lenovo's Thinkpad X6x's (X60, X61, etc.).

Additionally, as said earlier, Microsoft is expected to offer details of its new Courier tablet at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas today. But, in some ways, I find it surprising that Microsoft feels the need to squeeze something in between Windows 7 and Windows Mobile. Maybe Windows 7 is enough.

Editor's Update 1/7/2010: Last night at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer revealed a slate manufactured by HP and apparently, Windows 7 is enough because that is indeed what it runs.. Gizmodo quoted Ballmer as saying "They're more powerful than a phone and almost as powerful as a PC. Perfect for reading, surfing the web and taking entertainment on the go." Also, according to Gizmodo, it will be available later this year. See Ballmer Calls Apple's Hand, Introduces "Slate PCs" At CES for my take.

David Berlind is the chief content officer of TechWeb and editor-in-chief of David likes to write about emerging tech, new and social media, mobile tech, and things that go wrong and welcomes comments, both for and against anything he writes. He can be reached at [email protected] and you also can find him on Twitter and other social networks (see the list below). David doesn't own any tech stocks. But, if he did, he'd probably buy some and Amazon, given his belief in the principles of cloud computing.

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