by Shane O'Neill

Microsoft Waits on Tablets: Better Late Than Buggy

Apr 20, 2011
Data Center

As Android tablets and the RIM Playbook gain little ground against the iPad, Microsoft's waiting game is looking smarter.

Recent data about tablet PC trends — ok survey results — point to strong demand for a real Windows tablet. Meanwhile, Microsoft is, you know, working on it.

First, research firm Forrester conducted a survey of 3,800 U.S. consumers a month ago and the number one OS people wanted in a tablet was, surprisingly, Windows.

But the problem is Windows 7 was not designed for the tablet form factor and multi-touch functionality. Microsoft continues to tout its “Windows 7 tablets” and, yes, Windows 7 does run on some expensive tablets (Asus Eee Slate EP121) and hybrid notebooks/tablets (Dell Inspiron Duo). But a true tablet-ready version of Windows that works on ARM-based chips will not arrive until Windows 8 ships, likely in the second half of 2012.

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A second report making the rounds — Goldman Sachs’ 2011 IT Spending Survey — confirms the strong desire for Windows on a tablet. This time it’s businesses. In a survey of CIOs, 32 percent of respondents said Windows is the tablet operating system they expect to deploy in the highest volume in their organization, second only to Apple iOS at 42 percent.

Quick aside: The Goldman survey results were not kind to RIM. The QNX operating system that runs on the newly-launched BlackBerry Playbook finished last with only 7 percent of CIOs planning to deploy it. On top of this, the Playbook is getting mostly negative reviews.

The folks in Redmond are treating tablets like a fad, and should consider themselves lucky that both CIOs and consumers are being patient with Microsoft’s languid tablet strategy.

But maybe Microsoft is on to something. Maybe all this tablet urgency is overstated.

Sure, Apple has sold approximately 20 million iPads, but it is one product from one company. Does that justify an entire market? Does a tablet market even exist yet?

In a Technologizer blog post, veteran technology journalist Harry McCracken argues that no real iPad competitors have stepped up, and until they do there is no “tablet market.” It’s up to Android-based tablets (Samsung Galaxy Tab, Motorola Xoom) and the brand-new BlackBerry Playbook to create this market. And so far, iPad competitors have suffered from uncompetitive price points and mixed reviews.

“It’s entirely plausible that no Apple competitor is going to have all the pieces in place for success in 2011,” writes McCracken. “2012 sounds more plausible, but even then, it doesn’t feel like a sure thing.”

The slower this so-called tablet market materializes, the more time Microsoft will have to design the ultimate Windows OS for tablets.

A year and a half is a loooong time. But most Windows tablet buyers of the future are the Windows 7 PC users of the present, and they will gradually migrate to tablets. With Windows mobile phones — another area of slow development for the company — Microsoft did not have the luxury of piggybacking on the PC legacy as it will with Windows tablets. This will buy Microsoft some competitive time.

Does it buy them a year and a half? That’s debatable, and Microsoft is taking a risk by driving the slow road to tablets. But being a little late to the fledgling tablet party beats rushing a buggy product to market just because the iPad noise got too loud.

Shane O’Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook. Email Shane at