Getting Windows 8 Tablets Right: It's Kind of a Big Deal

Microsoft is doing a full-fledged unveiling of Windows 8 tablets, which if successful in the real world, could solve a lot of Redmond's problems.

Nine years after Bill Gates showed off his vision of a Windows tablet in 2002, Microsoft is … um … still without a tablet.

The stylus-based tablet Gates displayed all those years ago did not catch on for a variety of reasons: they were clunky, the price was high, consumers were not ready yet to abandon the keyboard and mouse. It was a good idea at the wrong time. With the iPad in 2010, Apple had the right idea at the right time, with near flawless execution.

Microsoft has continued to flirt with tablets in recent years, only to fail to execute. At CES 2010 Steve Ballmer showed off some Windows 7 slates, none of which were ever released.

Now Microsoft is betting the farm again on tablets as the company plans to do a full-fledged unveiling of Windows 8 tablets next week at its BUILD conference for developers in Anaheim, Calif. Windows 8, designed with multi-touch functionality and a bold new user interface, is not due to launch until next year.

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Rumor has it that Microsoft will offer BUILD attendees quad-core tablets running Windows 8. That would make this Microsoft's most significant step in its jaunt toward Windows 8 and tablet availability. To date, Microsoft only briefly showed off Windows 8 features in early June when Windows chief Steven Sinofsky did a demo at the All Things Digital D9 conference.

We all know that Microsoft tends to create its own deadlines and then extend them to dangerous, almost self-destructive, levels. It did that very thing with mobile OS Windows Phone 7, waiting until Apple's iOS and Google's Android OS had won over the loyalty of consumers everywhere before releasing WP7 in Oct. 2010. Almost a year after its release, Windows Phone 7 has made little, if any, progress in terms of sales or market share.

Microsoft is singing the same tune with tablets, a red-hot market that is on a serious growth trajectory. Research firm Gartner slashed its worldwide PC shipment growth forecast for 2011 from a 9.3 percent year-over-year increase to only a 3.8 percent year-over-year increase.

The tightening of consumer and business spending is one reason for the drop. But another is tablets.

"Generation Y has an altogether different view of client devices than older generations and are not buying PCs as their first, or necessarily main, device," said Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner, in a release. "For older buyers, today's PCs are not a particularly compelling product, so they continue to extend lifetimes, as PC shops and IT departments repair rather than replace these systems."

Why is getting tablets right is so important for Microsoft? It's not an exaggeration to say the company's survival depends on it. Microsoft is widely regarded as a plodding non-innovator, stuck in the past and relying on cash cows Windows and Office. If Windows 8 tablets generate sales and excitement, it will prove to consumers, enterprises and Wall Street that Microsoft can compete in an innovative new market, that it has a plan for competing in the post-PC era. It will set Windows 8 apart as the version that nailed touch-screen technology on tablets. It could help curb the flow of developers and entrepreneurs to iPads and Android-based devices. It could help lift Microsoft's eternally flat stock price.

Microsoft is wise to get this tablet thing right before releasing Windows 8, even if they are late to market. When the first generation of tablets running Windows 8 launch in about 12 months, the iPad, which has already sold 29 million units, will have had a two-and-a-half year head start. Tablets running Android such as those from Motorola, Samsung and a rumored device coming from Amazon, will also make headway in the next year. Talk about being late to a crowded market.

Nevertheless, premature releases have hurt RIM's BlackBerry Playbook and the Android-based Motorola Xoom as they both awkwardly try to compete with the mighty iPad. It's better to be late than buggy, as they say.

Expect the real Windows 8 tablet buzz to begin at BUILD next week and get louder and louder as Windows 8 crawls to its release date a year from now.

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