Microsoft between a rock and a hard place with tablet announcement

Let's talk about this tablet that Steve Ballmer is supposed to show off tonight at the CES opening keynote. The New York Times said the announcement "could be one of Steve Ballmer’s riskiest trade show moves in years." and I find myself nodding in agreement.

Whether or not this announcement is intended as a direct response to the much-rumored Apple event that may or may not be happening on January 27th, consumers will perceive it as one. And if the Times is to be believed the end product won't launch until mid-year, while Apple's (again, assuming the rumors are true) will hit retail in March. It's going to look like Microsoft is playing catch up, so the product better be something really special, or really cheap. If the iTablet costs $800-$1000 and Microsoft can launch a tablet at $400-$500 then plenty of folks will wait a few months in order to save 50%.

There's been some speculation that the device will be the Courier that we talked about back in September. The Courier's dual screens are probably enough to differentiate it from the iTablet, but then Microsoft has the challenge of the enTourage eDGe which was on display at the CES Unveiled event. From what we've heard, the eDGe isn't quite as capable a device as the Courier, but it'll probably be cheaper and at a glance the two devices seem similar.

So either way, Microsoft has a challenge in front of them. If they unveil a traditional tablet then they'll be up against the (presumably more expensive) iTablet and the cult of Apple. If they introduce a dual screen device then they're going to be competing with a smaller start-up and be challenged with explaining why the MS device is (more presumptions on my part) more expensive. And in either case they'll be hitting retail after their competitor, which brings another set of challenges.

The Keynote is tonight at 6:30 PM PST and Microsoft is streaming coverage of it here.

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