Paul Thurrott writes:
This week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will take the stage for a keynote address in which he will largely focus on tablet-based computers that are based on Windows and aimed largely at stemming the success of Apple’s iPad. If that seems like déjà vu to you, you’re not alone. Ballmer did exactly the same thing at last year’s CES keynote as well.
To massive laughter….
The difference, of course, is that PC makers will ship dozens of iPad competitors in 2011, compared to just the flimsy smattering of alternatives that arrived in 2010.
Quality not quantity….
In fact, the only true iPad competitor that appeared in 2010 was the Samsung Galaxy tab, a 7-inch tablet that runs on Google’s Android OS and not on Windows.
Runs it poorly….
For Ballmer, this year’s CES keynote isn’t just a do-over, it’s a chance to reset the playing field and refute the growing sense that Microsoft just isn’t competitive in new markets anymore.
A growing sense based on past performance….
As such, his keynote is shrouded in mystery. Microsoft’s PR firm has denied any pre-show briefings, for the first time ever, and the company’s Windows division will not be on hand at the show to provide in-person meetings after the keynote. This too is unprecedented.
According to sources at and close to the software giant, Microsoft is expected to reveal its plans for a new version of Windows, optionally based on ARM chipsets, which will be used on a new generation of thin and highly mobile devices. These devices will physically resemble Apple’s iPad in many cases, will offer up to 10 hours of battery life, and will run a stripped down Window version.
If they’re running Windows anything they won’t be getting 10 hour battery life, not to mention the whole touch UI aspect. Microsoft doesn’t have anything like iOS. And by that I mean a mobile OS derived from pieces of a larger more mature desktop OS. Windows Phone 7 isn’t based off Windows 7, but is a complete new OS
Microsoft won’t have a new UI for these devices until Windows 8 ships in 2012, so it is relying on its partners to create new Windows 7-based UIs for these devices in 2011.
Because they’ve done such a bang-up job in the past….
And while this rumor hasn’t been confirmed, Ballmer will almost certainly show off this early Windows 8 UI at CES, which explains why the Windows team won’t be on hand at the show: The company wishes for its public demonstration during the keynote to stand on its own and for individual reporters and bloggers not to get mini-scoops by plying Microsoft employees for information.
“Don’t buy an iPad! Look what were doing 2 years from now!”
This strategy is in keeping with Windows division head Steven Sinofsky’s way of doing things, and maps nicely to the Windows 7 schedule as well. You may recall that Microsoft’s first Windows 7 revelation came in mid-2008 when it showed off the multi-touch interface for that OS. That was followed by a private beta in late 2008, a public beta in very early 2009, and the final release of Windows 7 in October 2009. Tracing the Windows 8 schedule back from its planned mid-2012 release, we get the first UI revelation at CES 2011 this week, a private beta in mid-2011, and a public beta in late 2011. It all makes sense. But it’s all just conjecture at this point. Conjecture that makes plenty of sense if you know how Sinofsky’s team works.
What Microsoft is fighting here isn’t so much the iPad of 2010, but rather the iPad of the future. Apple’s first iPad release is missing some very obvious key features, but the company will move quickly to fix that, as will a new generation of Android-based competitors.
Let’s skip ahead a few chapters. Apple will do stuff right (maybe not everything all at once, but a handful of features done really well and then build off a solid foundation) and Android Tablets will do a lot of stuff, but none of it with any design sense or polish.
Apple will release its 2010 iPad sales figures sometime this month, but if we assume a blockbuster holiday season, the company could have sold as many as 14 million of them. That’s a tiny percentage of the PC market….
A market that will become increasingly less relevant as time goes on. But given that Microsoft took it over it must still mean something.
….but the size of the tablet market is expected to grow dramatically as capabilities improve—up to 40 million units in 2011, for example—as cost goes down, and as the competitive ranks expands. Microsoft intends to be part of that competition and do to the tablet market what it did to the netbook market: Seize control from the initial dominant player and turn it into part of Windows-oriented PC world.
In a dream world. Netbooks where always nothing more than cheap laptops. When people saw them they saw just another laptop and carried with them all the preconceptions they had grown up with (“where’s the start button?” and “the blue ‘e’ is the Internet!”). Tablets (at least a year ago) carried none of this pre-conceptions. The problem for Google and Microsoft is that Apple took “the tablet space” and turned it into “the iPad space”. “iPad” has become like “iPod”; a word that people use as short hand to describe a much larger market.
This strategy isn’t far-fetched, and while many—myself included—feel that the software giant is moving too slowly, the truth is that it could in fact catch up with and even surpass Apple and the Android camp. On the other hand, there are factors that make the tablet market quite different from that of the netbook market. And the biggest difference is apps: Both the iPad and Android are serviced by tens of thousands of proprietary apps that enhance the value of those platforms and engender a form of lock-in to the users who have already spent time and money downloading and paying for those apps. Switching to an alternative would require them to give up those apps. And that may prove to be problematic for existing customers.
Which, others will note, doesn’t really matter. Even if Apple had a blockbuster year for the iPad in 2010, there currently are less than 15 million tablets out there in the world right now. And if you accept the fact that this market is only going to grow, that means that the majority of tablet users a year or two from now won’t have app lock-in to worry about, as they’re effectively new customers.
New iPad customers….
But Microsoft will need to support its tablet products with app stores of their own, much as it does for its Windows Phone smart phone platform. And a version of the Windows Phone Marketplace aimed at these new devices is the logical place to start. Will Microsoft announce such a thing at CES? It’s something to look for. If they don’t, their new Windows version, and the tablet market that will spring up around it, could be stillborn.
So there’s a lot to look for at this year’s CES, from a Microsoft perspective. There will be some Windows 7 and Windows Phone 7 momentum, but also looks to the future for both platforms in the form of Windows 8 (on PCs) and the slew of functional and bug fix updates that the company desperately needs to ship for its smart phone platform. I expect to hear about a new Windows version that will run on both ARM and Intel-type hardware, enabling true iPad alternatives from the Microsoft camp.
Anything running a desktop won’t be an iPad anything….it’ll be a rehash of a decade old failed strategy to show horn Windows into everything Microsoft can find.
The company will talk up its video game advances, particularly the Kinect, and should explain how getting a Kinect now is actually an investment, since the device will work with Windows in the near future as well.
Again….trying to make a desktop OS more relevant than working on a decent mobile strategy…..
Make or break? Not quite. But in a tech industry where perception often trumps reality, Microsoft needs to fight back. I expect an aggressive CES presence. Anything less and we’ll be dealing with “Microsoft is dead” stories for the rest of the year.
You can bet on it.