The problem with Windows 7 tablets: they still run Windows

Despite cool hardware shown at CES, Microsoft struggling to adapt Windows to tablet age

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and cohorts drew some major applause at CES by showing off new tablets running Windows 7, and for good reason. New devices from Acer, ASUS and Samsung are sleek and have innovative form factors, for example dual screens and slide-out keyboards. But the advances can largely be attributed to the good work of Microsoft's hardware partners. The problem with Windows tablets is that they still run Windows.

That's not to say Windows can't be adapted to the tablet age. Microsoft would argue that the devices shown off at CES this week prove Windows 7 is tablet-ready, but analysts aren't necessarily ready to agree.

The issue, says Aberdeen Group research analyst Andrew Borg, is that Microsoft is still using pre-iPad thinking.

Microsoft bashes Apple at CES while previewing next-gen Windows

"Microsoft's comfort zone is with what we might call Tablets 1.0, which were based on stylus and 'digital-ink' interaction, and used a unipoint (not multi-touch) touchscreen interface," Borg wrote during the course of a few e-mails we've exchanged since Ballmer's keynote last night. "Apple's iOS replaced that metaphor once and forever (call it Tablets 2.0) with gesture-based interaction on a multi-touch touchscreen interface.  It's fundamentally a different use case: the first assumes the presence of a keyboard along with the stylus which simply replaces the mouse or pointer; the second doesn't replicate the traditional computer desktop or laptop metaphor, it replaces it."

Let's give credit to Microsoft where credit is due. There was a real "wow factor" when they demonstarted prototypes of tablets coming out within the next few months, and it shows that Microsoft is working closely with hardware partners to get some cool devices into the hands of consumers. Samsung, for example, is coming out with Windows 7-based tablets that have a slide-out keyboard, and ASUS has a standalone tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard. The ASUS device will use a combination of stylus and finger-based touch, and will be able to tell the difference between the stylus and your hand.

Most visually striking, in my opinion, is the Acer ICONIA, which has two 14-inch touch screens that can both be used for Web surfing and all the other stuff you'd do with a Windows tablet. But one of its coolest features is also a reminder that Windows 7 is still much more a desktop than a tablet operating system.

The feature in question lets you turn the bottom screen into a full touch keyboard, complete with mouse trackpad, simply by pressing ten fingers onto its surface. It's an undeniably impressive engineering feat, but it's also a reminder that Microsoft isn't ready to abandon the keyboard and mouse setup we're used to on the desktop. Granted, even iPads and Android tablets have soft keyboards. But my impression from last night's demos is that the keyboard is necessary because the Windows Start menu and other classic Windows features will remain key parts of the operating system's user interface, even on tablets. That's not making me want to buy one.

Microsoft did give a technology preview of the next generation of Windows, which will run on ARM processors and support system-on-a-chip architectures. But Microsoft hasn't shown off the user interface for Windows 8 (or whatever it's called) so we'll wait and see what the next generation looks like.

Borg says a newsworthy Microsoft tablet announcement would have been a gesture-centric mobile operating system, like Windows Phone 7, "but we didn't see that, not even a hint of that." In fact, Microsoft said at CES it's still planning to restrict Windows Phone 7 to, well, phones.

Microsoft has innovated on gesture-based technology with Connect, which is basically a tablet so large it can serve as a small dinner table. A new version of Connect was previewed at CES. Kinect for Xbox 360 also shows the innovation coming out of Redmond when it comes to new ways of interacting with technology.

Borg, though, says he's worried Microsoft doesn't totally get it when "it" comes to tablets. What he calls "Tablets 2.0," in which the traditional desktop is replaced by something completely new, like the iOS or Google's Android, isn't what he saw at the CES keynote.

"The industry and consumers vote with their feet, and the second model has already prevailed for devices beyond desktops, servers and laptops," Borg says. "Witness the consolidation of smartphone, tablet, and digital TV on gesture-based mobile OS kernels. Although Microsoft has shown avid and innovative adoption of the new user model for smartphones with Windows Phone 7 and Kinect, they have not shown the public that they view the tablet opportunity with that same level of innovation and attention to detail.  What they have announced at CES is basically Windows 7 on a Tablet 1.0 model."

As a final, personal note, I don't own a tablet yet but am considering whether to buy one in 2011. Although I spent $1,400 on a MacBook Air and believe it was well worth it (it's the fastest and lightest computer I own) I'm hoping tablet prices will drop because I think $500 to $700 seems too pricey for a companion device that I'd probably just use on plane rides and some other circumstances. $200 or $300 seems reasonable for a tablet to me, but that doesn't seem to be in the cards yet. While the iPad is obviously the most popular device, I think the release of Android 3.0 later this year will fuel a new wave of competition with hardware vendors releasing innovative form factors at lower price points. An Ubuntu Linux tablet could be fun and cheap, too.

I use Windows 7 at work, and have no problems with it except for the long startup times and constant Windows updates. It also seems far more secure than Windows XP, but I don't see myself using Windows on a tablet unless the operating system underwent a significant overhaul or if I was intending to use it primarily as a work machine. But I think the biggest reason Apple and Android have the leg up over Windows is the pair of robust app stores with hundreds of thousands of lightweight applications. Microsoft is in the early stages of building a Windows Phone 7 store, with 5,500 apps available, compared to 200,000 for Android and 300,000 for Apple. A viable app store for Windows tablets would go a long way toward bringing Microsoft up to par, but this will be difficult because Microsoft is using different operating systems for mobile phones and tablets.  

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.