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Microsoft Re-Enters the Tablet Market

Tablet computing has been the buzzword among hardware manufacturers and software developers since the first credible Apple tablet rumors came to light at the end of last year.  Now it seems like you can’t turn around without a new tablet prototype being featured in an Engadget article, but many folks are quick to forget that tablet computers have been around for years.  Ten years ago Bill Gates stood on-stage at the Consumer Electronics Show and demonstrated the benefits of using tablet devices, and since then Microsoft has run Windows on countless tablet PCs.  Despite that the tech industry’s perception of what a tablet should be has changed drastically in the past year, and there are rumblings coming from Redmond about a new tablet offering from Microsoft.

Ballmer Speaks
So how do we know about Microsoft’s renewed interest in tablet computing?  Steve Ballmer (CEO of Microsoft) has told us of course!  He was quoted in an article published on July 12th in which he stated:

“Over the course of the next several months you will see a range of Windows 7 based slates that I think you’ll find quite impressive.  This is a terribly important area for us.  We are hardcore about this.”

An additional article was posted on TechCrunch today detailing a new Microsoft study in which the company is inviting iPad users to visit their campus, presumably to research their likes and dislikes when it comes to Apple’s tablet device.  In a Facebook post Microsoft’s User Research Group asked iPad users – particularly students – to visit Redmond for 2 hours at a time so they can study how the iPad is being put to use. 

The Courier, This Is Not

Microsoft Courier: We hardly knew ye.

This isn’t the first news we’ve seen about a promising new Microsoft tablet computer in the past year though.  Last September, when the entire tech world was brimming with anticipation for the rumored (at the time) Apple tablet, a video of an intriguing booklet-style tablet was leaked.  The device’s codename was Courier, and it has since been attributed to Microsoft.  The device showed a ton of promise but there was some skepticism amongst the gadget blogs as to the legitimacy of the product.  Was the Courier simply a prototype, a mock-up of a potential future device, or was it the real deal?  Unfortunately Frank Shaw, Microsoft Corporate VP of Communications, has since confirmed that the Courier project has met its end:

“At any given time, we're looking at new ideas, investigating, testing, incubating them. It's in our DNA to develop new form factors and natural user interfaces to foster productivity and creativity. The Courier project is an example of this type of effort. It will be evaluated for use in future offerings, but we have no plans to build such a device at this time.”

So we know that Microsoft has made deals with several hardware manufacturers including Asus, Dell, Samsung, Toshiba and Sony to work on tablets.  We also know that the tablets will not be based on the Courier prototype.  Well then, what will Microsoft tablets look like?

Windows 7 to the Rescue!
Based on what has already been shown at various events including this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, it would seem that the tablets produced by Microsoft will take on the hardware style of the iPad: monolithic devices which use touch as the primary input method.  What’s more it has been confirmed that these devices will be running Windows 7, so the only question is what flavor of the popular operating system will be employed?

Up-and-comer: Windows Phone 7

The examples that we’ve seen already, such as the HP Slate, seem to lean towards Microsoft’s original tablet approach.  The Slate, which was the featured demo of Microsoft’s 2010 CES press conference, runs the full-blown desktop version of Windows 7 that has been modified to allow for touch input.  Basically, it’s a tablet computer from 2003 minus the stylus.  With that said there is still potential for the company to expand upon what they’ve already created with the Zune, Windows Phone 7 and the Kin phone projects.  Those devices also run Windows 7 but it has been heavily customized for touch input from the ground up, and has a sleek and stylish appeal that can be a strong competitor with the likes of Android OS 2.2 and iOS 4.

Personally I’m hoping that Microsoft will lean towards using their mobile operating system on whatever tablet devices they have in development, and based on their interest in the iPad it would seem that’s the plan.  If advancements in mobile computing have taught me anything in the past few years it’s that a user’s experience with a smartphone or tablet computer is significantly different than that of desktop computing.  Factor in the complexities of working with a smaller screen size and multi-touch input and I think the only way to succeed is to build a custom software solution specifically for these devices.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Windows 7 on my laptop, I’m just not sure if I want it on a device that can fit in my pocket.