Is Microsoft's tablet strategy really a good one?

Windows 7 tablets take a very different approach from the iPad and Galaxy Tab, but is it one that users really want?

Earlier this week, I talked about the iPad’s influence on the tablet market and how Microsoft is going to be re-introducing Windows 7 tablets next month at CES. A number of people added their thoughts in the comments of that post. Ironically, there were two completely opposite schools of thought about Microsoft’s tablet strategy that emerged from those comments (which mirror a lot of people’s differences of opinions over tablets as a whole).

The first opinion is that Windows 7 is a better choice for tablet computing than other options like Apple’s iOS, Android, or even RIM’s PlayBook. The attitude is that a Windows 7 tablet is a full featured PC in a slimmer and more portable form than a typical notebook. This gives the tablet full access to all Windows software, the range of enterprise network and Internet capabilities built into any Windows PC, a robust ecosystem of peripherals and accessories, and the option of using a stylus for more detailed input than a finger based tablet or smartphone OS.

The other position is that Windows 7 tablets are trying to put too much capability into a predominantly mobile device. The result is excess costs, an interface that is unsuited to finger-based input and pretty much requires a stylus, offers unneeded complexity of configuration (since the device is essentially a full PC), doesn’t offer apps-optimized for tasks on the go – essentially that simply taking a desktop OS and running it on mobile hardware isn’t a good idea because it doesn’t factor in how people use mobile devices differently than they do a PC.

Both sides make some good points. However, when you look at the tablet market before the introduction of the iPad (the first tablet designed from the ground up around mobile use and not based on an existing desktop OS), you notice that Microsoft introduced tablet PCs about a decade ago. While they did sell, they never emerged beyond a small niche market. That indicates that something about them (price, ease of use, lack of focus on mobility, the stylus, Windows itself, battery life, or something else) was missing the mark when it comes what consumers want. It could also mean that the device was too similar to a notebook that there seemed to be no differentiation of function between the two.

Something about the iPad, and later Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab, and tablet/reader hybrids like the Nook Color, clearly hit that mark with consumers. I think that something comes down largely to two factors: a clear delineation between the tablet and the PC and a focus on mobile use.

The iPad and the Galaxy tab don’t try to be full-fledged PCs. They offer many similar capabilities (email, web browsing, multimedia, gaming, etc.) but they do it with tools designed to be used single-handed, with just your fingers (and with multiple fingers), quickly, and only offering the features that work well within those constraints.

They also don’t focus on large application suites that offer every possible feature for things like text formatting, photo editing, file management, and so on. Instead both iOS and Android break down complex desktop-oriented tasks into more basic forms that are appropriate to the device’s size and form factor as well as to its primary input methods.

Some times these are somewhat scaled down versions of desktop apps (such as text editors or word processors that focus on text entry, basic formatting, and image placement – which are all many people do in such tools anyway).

Other times specific tasks are broken out into separate discrete apps (like photo editors that focus just on color correction and red-eye reduction or photo viewers that offer no editing features but display sharp looking slideshows, turning the tablet into a digital picture frame). In either case, the OS itself and the apps are designed around how people relate to mobile devices and how they use them differently than PCs.

This is a reason that I think Microsoft is making a mistake by sticking solely with Windows 7 on tablets. Windows Phone 7’s interface has a lot of really good things going for it including the Start screen, which I think is a great revolution in smartphone interface design. Unlike iOS or Android, which required some serious tweaks to go from smartphone to tablet (iOS accomplished this when the iPad launched, Android will get there with Honeycomb), Windows Phone 7’s swipe to see more content approach could easily scale to a variety of form factors and resolutions – and would look really good on a tablet.

Does this mean, I’m against the idea of Windows 7 tablets entirely? They’ve existed as a niche market for a while and will probably continue to do so. For some people, who really want a whole PC in that form factor, they’ll be appealing. PCs like expected to ship in March).

Your comments inspired this post. So keep telling us what you think? Does Windows 7 (or possibly Windows 8) stand a serious chance in the tablet market? Which mobile OS is the best tablet option? Is the Nook Color really a tablet or just an e-reader? Keep having your say in the comments.

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