On the eve of Windows 8, Microsoft’s Tablet PC turns 10

November 9, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011, marks the 10th anniversary of Microsoft's announcement of third-party Tablet PCs. To commemorate the occasion, we're publishing a series of three stories. This is the second of three. (Yesterday: Confessions of a Windows tablet user)

There’s not likely to be any champagne or fireworks, but ten years ago this Friday, Microsoft’s co-founder and then CEO Bill Gates showed off the first Tablet PC prototypes made by its partners at the giant Comdex trade show in Las Vegas. A year earlier at the same show, Gates had shown a Tablet PC prototype that the software giant had created itself.

The Comdex event was a major unveiling full of optimism for the Tablet PC’s potential. In fact, in some ways Gates hyped the Tablet PC in greater fashion than Steve Jobs did with the iPad at its release more than eight years later in 2010. Apple positioned the iPad as a great media consumption device, not a productivity tool. Here’s what Gates had to say back in 2001:

“The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer,” said Gates. “It's a PC that is virtually without limits—and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

So…close

It should be noted that Microsoft did not invent the tablet computer. There were many earlier failed attempts including Apple’s ill-fated Newton. But Microsoft had proven with PCs that it had the ability to create markets, so when Bill Gates talked, people paid attention. In this case, Gates was well off the mark. By 2006 mobile computing had certainly made great strides with the growing popularity of notebooks. But tablets were nowhere to be found.

The first Windows-powered Tablet PCs weren’t available until later in 2002 from the likes of Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu, Toshiba and Motion Computing. And while they did and continue to serve niche markets like field delivery, hospitals and factory floors, Microsoft’s vision of a Tablet PC running popular Windows applications controlled by a stylus input never reached the mass market Gates envisioned.

“What happened initially with the Tablet PC is that everybody looked at the technology and saw something intuitively good about lightweight, mobile displays that people could interface with using their hands or a stylus,” recalled Mike Stinson, Vice President of Marketing at Motion Computing. “But the touch technology wasn’t ready.”

Over the years Motion, like some of the other early Tablet PC makers, has remained a loyal Microsoft partner, refining its devices, including a number of ruggedized models, to serve what Stinson calls “the walking worker”, or mobile professionals in such areas as sales and support, medical and retail. 

So what happened?

So how was Apple able to swoop in and dominate a market Microsoft seemed poised to take over?

For one thing, these early tablets weighed a least a pound or two more than the iPad and other modern tablets do today and, due to higher component costs, were priced initially at $2,000 and higher.

Another factor was reliance on the stylus for input.

“The big thing that Microsoft has been behind in is touch,” says analyst Tim Bajarin, President of Creative Strategies. “This entire decade they’ve focused on the pen. Apple came along and said the pen is as unnatural for tablets as the mouse is.”

User interface guru Jakob Nielsen agrees. “The stylus has two distinct disadvantages; you can lose it and you have to unholster it, which just takes a few seconds but it’s an annoyance to grab it. And then have to be very precise on the screen,”  says Nielsen. “For casual use, using your finger has advantages; but the stylus can give you a high degree of accuracy.

“In my opinion the real thing Windows tablets did wrong for so long was that they used essentially the same Windows that was optimized for a desktop, mouse and keyboard and put it  on a tablet,” he continued. “That made it clunky.”

A bright future? Depends on who you talk to

While Microsoft’s partners continue to offer a wide array of tablets running the latest version of its OS—Windows 7—the software giant has high hopes for a revamped strategy focused on Windows 8, a new version of Windows optimized for tablets. Windows 8 tablet prototypes, that offer both pen and touch interface, are already widely being tested and the new devices are expected out later next year.

Some early testers, like long-time Tablet PC user Nathan Brookwood, are enthusiastic about Windows 8 potential.

“There are so many little ways that Android and iOS don’t do things that Windows does,” says Brookwood. “If Microsoft and its partners can come out with some great Windows 8 tablets I think they could be a huge winner.”

Others, like venture capitalist Jean-Louis Gassee, aren’t optimistic. Gassee was a Microsoft competitor during his years as an early VP of Marketing at Apple and later as CEO of computer OS startup Be Inc.

“The sad thing today is that Microsoft realizes woefully late that oh, there’s a market there. So what do they do, a Swiss Army Knife product that can be a tablet when needed and a PC when needed to run the old Office applications using the Metro interface,” says Gassee. “They’re Microsoft, they’re going to sell some for sure, but as they say here in California, ‘Good luck with that.’ I think it’s going to be hard.”

The jury is certainly out until next year when Windows 8 tablets finally come to market. Of course by that time, Apple is also likely to have a successor to the iPad 2 out as well.

Apple’s success has clearly shown that Microsoft’s Tablet PC concept failed to reach the broader market of potential customers it covets. Perhaps 2012 will be its comeback?

Meanwhile, if Microsoft does want to celebrate the ten year anniversary of Gates’ Comdex speech, it can certainly look with pride at another announcement he made that day, when he gave the world a sneak peak of the soon-to-be launched Xbox gaming system, which would go on to sell 25 million units. And its successor, the XBox 360, has sold over 57 million units since its debut in 2005.

Microsoft would be more than thrilled with those kind of numbers out of Windows 8 tablets, but even that appears optimistic over the short-term.

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