Hopefully I got you with that “Kin” reference, but it wasn’t just for sensationalism purposes. For the last year every reporter/analyst/blogger out there has been waiting for Microsoft to pull some new Tablet/Slate thing out of its ass and challenge Apple. The amount of noise around the Courier (a prototyping effort) and its cancellation is but one example of the noise in the system. What they don’t understand is that at best some skunkworks project like Courier would be another Zune (a great technical achievement that didn’t fit with any other Microsoft product and achieved no significant market presence) and at worst another Kin (an incredibly embarrassing failure that makes everyone wonder how Microsoft could be so screwed up). What Microsoft needs is not some skunkworks, one-off, counter-strategic tablet offering but a real, credible, 100% strategic, “future of the company” tablet. And that just isn’t going to, just can’t, happen in 2011. And I’ll try to go through why. In the meantime, Microsoft will muddle through with tablets based on existing non-optimal but otherwise strategic platforms such as Windows 7. And, hopefully Microsoft will reveal its full strategy this year as well. Because much of the market will wait for Microsoft to deliver something tangible, but people won’t wait long if they think Microsoft just doesn’t get it.
This brings me to the three dynamics at play. The first is what some not-so-affectionately refer to as “the lost 5 years”. This is a reference to the Longhorn project and the Windows Vista release it delivered. Essentially, Microsoft spent 5 years and put out a release that no one wanted. This has kept Microsoft in catch-up mode for the last few years so, for example, instead of Windows 7 being about doing all kinds of wild and leading edge kinds of things it was about putting out a great traditional Windows release to shore up the franchise. Mission accomplished. Unfortunately, the market started to change while the Windows 7 effort was underway and has left Microsoft out of sync with the latest developments. So whereas it was the pioneer in tablets, at the start of the Windows 7 effort tablets hadn’t caught on and little enhancement for them was planned. And so Windows 7 shipped just a few months before the release of the iPad, with no focus on tablets other than the traditional Windows Tablet support.
The second part of this is the question of vision. Does Microsoft just not get it? There could be a lot of debate about this of course and it is not a black and white subject. Again, Microsoft was the pioneer in tablets. When it got into this a decade ago it targeted Information Workers first, both because that is a cornerstone of Microsoft’s business and because the hardware costs of the day would keep the technology out of the reach of consumers for a number of years. However, lack of IW adoption soured many on tablets and there was a lot of continuing skepticism on when tablets would become mainstream. Just to avoid making this seem like a pure Microsoft blind spot, at iPad launch most industry observers still questioned its viability. They thought that a few enthusiasts would buy it, but that it was a niche market. I’ve seen recent articles that still question the actual size of the tablet market. Yes Apple sold 15 million iPads in the first year. That compares to hundreds of millions of PCs sold each year and many more phones. But I think most of us believe it’s the start of a major transition to computing based on Natural User Interface (NUI) rather than the Graphical User Interface (GUI) style of computing that has dominated since the late 80s. And Microsoft has indeed demonstrated that it gets NUI.
How much of Microsoft’s tardiness in tablets is execution versus vision? Look at pretty much any Microsoft video of the future from the last four years and you’ll see NUI and Tablets, and very little in the way of traditional PC (Monitor/Keyboard/Mouse) presence. Here is a montage of the OfficeLabs videos that Microsoft put on the web a couple of years ago (and which you can also find on Microsoft’s PressPass site):
So then, why isn’t Microsoft aggressively delivering on this vision? Go back to the “lost five years”. Now imagine going to discuss the future shown in the above video with the Windows leadership at the start of the Windows 7 project. Imagine getting told something like “that’s a great future, but we’ve forgotten how to crawl; we have to learn to crawl again before we can run”. Remember Apple actually got into worse shape, Not only had they forgotten how to crawl, they had just about drowned. Microsoft actually bailed them out. Sadly for Microsoft, Apple was just hitting its new stride as Microsoft found it needed to re-learn how to crawl. But if you look at Surface, Windows Phone 7, Kinnect, and some NUI work that did make Windows 7, you can see Microsoft is actively working towards this vision even if not as aggressively as many would like.
So there is a third factor that I haven’t talked about yet, and that is Microsoft’s history with one-off projects. Some years ago a number of people at Microsoft feared that the Playstation 2 Sony was working on would become an alternative to the PC in the home. They concluded that just making the PC a better home entertainment device wouldn’t be enough to fight off the PS2, but that Microsoft needed to have its own gaming/home entertainment console. And so the Xbox was born. Freed from the constraints of compatibility with other Microsoft technology, the PC ecosystem, channel, etc. they focused very sharply on the gaming market and how to win it. Despite a number of setbacks they had a huge success on their hands. A model for going after consumer businesses was born and became the Entertainment part of the Entertainment and Devices business. They tried again with Zune, achieving technical success but no market success. Moreover, they actually screwed up Microsoft’s media story along the way which is now fragmented amongst Windows Media Player, Windows Media Center, and Zune. Then with the Windows Mobile effort focused on Information Workers, they tried to create a consumer smartphone with Project Pink which eventually produced the Kin. But a funny thing happened on the way to Kin; Microsoft woke up to the importance of the consumer smartphone and decided to mainstream the effort and make it a key platform. Once the Windows Phone 7 effort was real, Project Pink made little sense. Unfortunately it wasn’t killed, but I will leave that discussion for others. The same forces saw that consumer tablets weren’t getting enough priority and started the Courier effort, with the same kinds of parameters. In other words, it was a narrow response to a specific set of consumer needs but not likely a platform to make tablets mainstream. And so while most observers saw the death of Courier as an indication that Microsoft was stifling innovation, I saw it as an indication that Microsoft realized tablets were too important, too strategic, to produce another Zune or Kin. However, only time will tell which viewpoint is the correct one. And “both” is an acceptable answer too.
Most observers yearning for a Microsoft (consumer) tablet in 2011 seem to either want a “Kin Tablet”, or a Windows Phone 7 tablet, or to put a better skin on Windows 7. I’ve already dismissed the idea of a “Kin Tablet” so lets talk about the other two. Windows Phone 7 was a crash effort to product a smartphone competitor, and the team was consumed morning and night (and weekends and holidays) with that task. They produced a V1.0 release which didn’t ship until a few months after the iPad. There is no way they could have produced a tablet version at the same time, at least not without having slipped the Windows Phone 7 release into 2011. And that would have been fatal in the phone market. They could have started to work on WP7 Tablet support this past October after the Smartphone shipped, but they do still have a lot to do to be competitive in the smartphone market. Which should they prioritize, CDMA support so they can bring Verizon and Spring on board or a tablet? What about support for Asian languages so they have a global product? And now the Nokia deal. Etc. So while they could indeed be working on a WP7 Tablet, I think the primary mission for the WP7 team is to fight the Smartphone battle, and even if they want to do Tablet support they are tied up. Yes, if Microsoft is desperate enough they could put together a separate team to tabletize WP7, so I don’t entirely rule out this possibility. But I’m a skeptic. One of the things Apple did right was to downsize Mac OS to create IOS rather than building something else that sort of looked like Mac OS inside. As they upsize their IOS-based offerings, including potentially replacing Mac OS with IOS someday, this is a real advantage for them. Android has a similar advantage with its Linux kernel. Meanwhile Windows Phone 7 is still based on the Windows CE operating system kernel, and it has scale up issues. Whatever other componentry is in play, I think Microsoft will want a mainstream tablet to be based on the Windows NT kernel used in mainstream Windows and Windows Server. They should also bring the Windows NT kernel to their smartphones, but again that is off topic.
That leaves one other short-term possibility, skinning Windows 7. That’s what Microsoft is encouraging OEMs to do, but it doesn’t provide a satisfying answer. As we all found with the skinning of Windows Mobile 6 and 6.1, it wasn’t a competitive answer because as soon as you got below the skin the UI wasn’t finger friendly. Even Windows Mobile 6.5 (and particularly 6.5.3), although finally fully finger friendly, was not a modern enough experience to maintain let alone grow market share. For Microsoft to have a competitive tablet you need developers to build finger friendly apps, and for that you have to give them the tools, APIs, and guidance for them to really fit into the platform. That also implies an optimized NUI experience for the platform. And what about an App Store? Are you competitive without one? And you don’t want to send developers down the path of developing for one application model/UI model in 2011 and then introduce a different one a year or two later. So I don’t see Microsoft trying to take Windows 7 too far down the consumer tablet path as it would just be another WM 6.5. Too little, too late.
So what will Microsoft’s real consumer tablet solution be? Well, to quote Sherlock Holmes, “when you have eliminated the impossible….”