Ina Fried on why Microsoft missed the tablet boat

Ina Fried of CNET, who’s been following the Tablet PC and UMPC scene for years, has posted her take on “How Microsoft foresaw–and still missed–the iPad.” Worth a read if only for a refresher on the situation. She’s spot-on in describing the business side of the problems, but I don’t think she quite hits the root of the technical problem.

She points to Microsoft’s Origami concept being too far ahead of the hardware technology and how the work that went into Vista (then known as Longhorn) came at the expense of other projects. She also notes the unwieldy power requirements of running the desktop version of Windows on what’s supposed to a mobile device. All good points, but to me, the problem has always been the interface.

The standard Windows interface is great when you’re working at a desktop with a mouse and keyboard. The problem is a slate or convertible in slate mode doesn’t have a mouse and keyboard. The pen and multi-touch input offer capabilities beyond either, but as mouse and keyboard substitutes, they’re still a compromise, and that’s how Microsoft has approached tablets this whole time – as a compromise.

I appreciate all they’ve done with gestures and ink, but those options still sit on top of an interface designed for mouse and keyboard. Even if it were possible to run Windows 7 on a tablet with the same responsiveness and battery life as an iPad, that interface designed for cursor control would still be there. ritePen has been great in helping me be as pen-centric as possible, but it’s still just a fix on top of a not-so-friendly interface.

Another problem she skips is that prior to Vista, Tablet PC was a separate version of Windows XP. It was just XP with added functionality, but had they stuck with that path, Microsoft could have incorporated a lot more tablet-specific functionality than was possible by folding it into Vista. A lot of tablet-specific stuff got hidden away in subfolders during the fold, and I suspect the ending of a tablet-specific OS subtly but strongly affected the market in a negative way.

Ina ends her post by asking if Microsoft will continue to pursue tablets from a software-only stance or build their own device. I don’t think that matters. Either way, they need to break away from that desktop-based interface and give us something designed specifically for tablets.

Comments

  1. djblois says

    I disagree partially – you are correct it is the interface but I do not think they should make a separate product. I feel they should make Windows have a Tablet interface as well as a Desktop interface. One that will switch to Tablet interface when in Tablet mode or on all the time if on a Slate Tablet. This would change the whole interface, including any programs installed to a more finger/pen friendly interface while still giving me the full power of a desktop computer. This is a much better idea than have them work on a completely different product. We just started having converged devices that can do it all – now we are going backwards and making specialty devices again? that makes no sense – lets go forward/ not backward.

    • Sumocat says

      If they can pull off a dual system, that’d be great, but the tablet interface is the one getting shortchanged here. I can plug a mouse and keyboard into any Tablet PC to turn it into a desktop, but I need at least ritePen and Firefox with my extensions loaded to make a Tablet PC acceptably pen-friendly.

  2. GoodThings2Life says

    Sumocat…

    At least you have the option of having ritePen and Firefox with extensions on the PC. The whole beauty of Windows has always been they provide the core experience, developers provide the rest. We can all second-guess and debate what the core should be, but ultimately all we can do is voice our opinions and frustrations along the way.

    With that in mind, name an OS that *IS* pen friendly? Mac OSX? No… Linux? No… Windows? Yes… more or less, and can be extended.

    I’m not saying I disagree that Microsoft has missed HUGE opportunities in recent years. Oh yes they have, most certainly! Really it’s just like Windows Mobile 6.0… the technology is there, the experience just needs a major refinement and revamp.

    As for the mobile/desktop experience, I agree the mobile experience has its place. But damn it, give me options! I’m sick and tired of everyone insisting that the light-weight, low-function mobile OS is the way of the future!

    When the Star Trek Next Gen team goes on an away team mission… everyone carries tricorders. But while Crusher carries a medical tricorder, Geordi is carrying an engineering tricorder that I guarantee has a lot more oomf! I want to be Geordi out in the field, not a red shirt!

    • Sumocat says

      GT2L: Your argument seems to be self-defeating. If the OS is just the core experience and I rely on developers for the rest, then just about every desktop OS could stack up to Windows on pen-friendliness. Seriously, with Linux or Mac versions of ritePen and a few other apps (Firefox is already cross-platform), I’d have maybe 80% of my tablet experience. I’d still give Windows an advantage, but that edge is absurdly narrow when I factor out applications.

  3. Jeff Jackson says

    The fundamental problem with windows tablets can be summed up in one word: Wacom. To be more specific, the Wacom digitizers in windows tablets has always been a gimped version (only 256 levels of pressure, no tilt, and worst of all, no PhotoShop support) that added $1000 to the price of a comperably configured laptop (though to be fair, recently the premium has been more on the order of $500).

    If ten years ago, TabletPCs had come out with the power of even a low end Wacom tablets at a price premium in line with the price of a low end Wacom tablet, I think the landscape right now would be very different. I’m convinced that Wacom actually actively did everything they could to kill TabletPCs to protect the insane profit margins the Cintiq tablets have.

    As far as touch goes, I’ve never understood why they don’t just treat the touch screen as a large touch pad. It’s a paradigm that works great for laptops, and with the larger size, by making the response non-linear, you could have great precision for small movements while still being able to move the mouse from one side of the screen to the other with one swipe, and still have all the benefits of hovering.

    • acerbic says

      No, Wacom doesn’t add $1000 or even $500. Proof: HP Touchsmart tm2t which costs at most $300 more than a comparable laptop and the convertible construction also requires other additional stuff than just the digitizer.

      • Jeff Jackson says

        OK, poking around, you’re right. It’s a $300 premium for a gimped Wacom that still isn’t as good as a $80 Bamboo Pen. That’s now. When I bought my Gateway C-120X, it was most definately a $1000 premium however. And for all other tablets out there even today, it’s more than $300. The HP TM2t is the cheapest of the lot.

    • acerbic says

      Furthermore, Wacom doesn’t strike me as an infinitely stupid company, which it would have to be to deliberately sabotage a potential massive market for their components to protect the profit margins from selling a few dozen super expensive Cintiqs.

      IMNSHO the tablet pcs were killed by the manufacturers’ mass hypnotic belief that very few people want them, so they can be sold with obscene profit margins to the few people who really want them and so because of the high prices very few people want them…

      • Jeff Jackson says

        Having worked 25 years in the high tech computer industry, I’m long passed being amazed at the seemingly infinite stupidity of most companies.

  4. Gary Harrison says

    I have a more fundamental take on the subject. Marketing was(and still is) completely missing. I’m pretty connected to the computing world, having attended Comdex when it was in Chicago. I’d never even heard of a tablet until I saw a co-worker using a TC1000. I never knew such a computer existed!! Now, 2 TC1100’s later, we’re not much better.

    Since the “touch and handling” factor is such a key to tablet usage, I’d like to upgrade to a 274Op, but not until I can play with one. Can I find one…anywhere? Nope. I guess they don’t really want to sell them.

    Gary (Inking on my OLD ‘1100)

  5. Modnar says

    Yeah I too would agree that the interface is major sticking point but as stated above marketing around the Tablet-ness is lacking totally.

    Furthermore the tools are there (Namely WPF to the developers out there) to create proper purely Touch and Pen interfaces its just a matter of will, time and good design for them to happen.

    • acerbic says

      The mindlessly repeated mantra is that you can’t have Windows 7 on a slate because it’s not perfectly touch optimized and there are no perfectly touch optimized applications for it, but iPhony OS was made for touch from the beginning, so all slate devices now must have some phone OS on them.

      I’d like to see just one pundit point out that Windows 7 and its’ applications

      • acerbic says

        (dang enter key!) …CAN BE MADE touch optimized but a phone OS WILL NEVER run real applications, only crummy “apps”.

        • Scott says

          I feel your pain.

          I just broke down and dropped my $$$ on a T730…when I’d really rather have a slate (I’ll probably pick up a used st6012 when the price falls to what my st5022 is getting now ;) )

      • Modnar says

        Oh fully in that windows 7 is not optimized for a slate being used purely for touch. But as with everything one size does not fit all. There are suituations it doesn’t work and situations it does.

        My original point is that it is entirely possible (its just few ever do) to make applications which are from the ground up designed to be used with touch (in specific form factors). Heck it technically is possible to make a basic exact same looking ipad clone for windows or OSX (yeah the desktop os) for that matter. Whether its practical or not is another matter as interface and features alone doesn’t make it popular or not its the whole package (hardware, battery life,user noticed performance, features, marketing and brand appeal etc) which can easily be said MS failed on the whole package as it doesn’t control the whole package whereas on the whole Apple scored a hole in one and is selling them in droves.

  6. Jonathan Wilkinson says

    Regarding your final comment: MS looked like it was doing that with Courier… and then pulled the plug!

  7. Hari Seldon says

    I completely agree with the premise of the article, I find it hard to understand how commenters here don’t get it. Of course it’s the interface. remember, windows is a WIMP interface – Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device, completely inappropriate for a tablet, sure you can do it and you can steer a car with your feet – don’t make it a good idea.

    my 0.02 euros

    Hari

  8. T Lewis says

    How Microsoft blows it:
    Open your Control Panel…Count the apps that control basic tabletpc behavior:
    “Pen and Touch”
    “Pen Tablet Properties”
    “Tablet PC Settings”

    3 configuration menus! 3? Why not one? I’ve used tablets heavily since 2003 and still get baffled by the settings and conflicting options.

    And this isn’t geek stuff. To really get steady, basic use out the tabpc, you need a grasp of these options. It’s the typical MS practice of handing the bewildered customer a bowl brimming with disjointed crap and walking away, congratulating themselves on how full the bowl is.

    This seems like a small thing – but it’s exactly where Apple gets it, while MS just thumps along, oblivious, exhaling hype and bleeding customers.

    I can imagine Steve Jobs taking a nervous peek in the Control Panel in 2008, during all the touch hype that Win7 was getting, and chuckling to his Ipad team, “Relax, guys – we’ve got nothing to worry about”…

    T

  9. Joe says

    I feel your pain, as a Tablet user (X200t for now) there just won’t be a pen + touch evolution coming from Apple. It seems that touch is just in fashion right now and until some manufacturer “gets it” (by say, putting an active digitizer in the Libretto W100) the general public will continue to think an iPad is the best a tablet can be.

  10. Paul Harrigan says

    The idea that Windows 7 cannot be made into a touch device is really rather startling. Consider the acronym that Hari mentioned.

    Windows — A windowed interface makes as much sense on a slate as it does on a desktop — i.e., being able to drag things next to each other in order to compare, do cut-and-paste, and so on is still valuable on 10″ of real estate. It makes no sense on a phone, I suspect, since the screens are so small. Windows 1 Phone OS 0

    Icons — both Win7 and a Phone OS have this, so there’s no difference. Windows 2 Phone OS 1

    Menus — Both have menus. Phone OS’s simply use icons for the menus. Still, the icons are easier to use in a slate device, so it’s probably fair to say that the phone interface this one. It would not be hard to have an icon-based shell on Windows, however. Windows 2 Phone OS 2

    Pointing Device — What the Apple people commonly forget is that fingers are pointing devices. With active digitizers, you can have both, though, for better drawing and text entry, as well as for media consumption. Windows 3 Phone OS 2

    Yes, this might take a little code, but the interface really is not the issue.

    I think the real issue is cutting the underlying power expenditure of Windows to fit the mobility demands of a slate.

  11. acerbic says

    With a proper (= Wacom) digitizer and pen you can use an interface designed for mouse just fine. You can point, hover, click, drag, right click, it’s all there.

    The requirement that a tablet/slate computer must be all touch, totally different from regular Windows is an infuriatingly idiotic canard. Here’s why: many computer tasks simply inherently require a pointing device more accurate than a finger. Only a completely braindead iFad zombie would prefer to edit a photo or draw or even select text in Word with a stubby sausage if something sharper can be used. For a handheld device a pen is the practical, obvious solution, why on earth fight it?

    I posit that a general purpose consumer touchscreen tablet/slate only needs some fully touch enabled applications for the casual, passive uses: web browser, e-book/pdf reader, media player, games etc. and a launcher interface for them. For the active, productive applications and managing the OS it’s quite ok to need a pen because you really need one ANYWAY.

    Dear pc manufacturers, don’t let Apple zombies eat (any more of) your brains and start selling us the Windows 7 slates with pens that we want.

  12. Mark says

    I had a Samsung Q1 for a while and it worked really, really well. It was Windows in all it’s glory but once you got past that, it was the best tablet I ever owned. But as mentioned above, it wasn’t a tablet in the same way the iPad is a tablet. It was a computer forced to use a stylus and there’s a big difference between that and a tablet. The shame of it is that Microsoft was SO close. Had they put some real thought into a decent UI for the Q1 and the like, they could have owned the tablet market. Instead they left it up to OEMs to define the interface and we’ve all seen the results of letting HP and Dell and the like put together a UI. Now Microsoft says they “get it” and it will show with Windows Mobile 7 but who really cares at this point? The iPad isn’t perfect but it’s a magnitude better than anything Microsoft has produced. Who knows, maybe Microsoft will come up with something truly innovative, dictate to hardware manufacturers what they can and cannot do with the system, put it on hardware that can actually run the system without the emblematic slowdowns and crashes that have always defined Microsoft mobile products in the past and come up with a real winner. But if I was a betting man, I wouldn’t put much money on that horse to win. They have to win back hardware manufacturers such as HP which means they’ll let HP and the like run roughshod over them and once again we’ll be expected to buy underpowered, overpriced tablets loaded with the usual garbage to the point where step one in ownership is buy a store copy of Windows and install it over the slop. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that if Apple was a person I’d have already been arrested for assault but in this area, they’ve defined the market and with a single product. Microsoft would probably do well to stick with what it does best…whatever that might be at the moment. Office?

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