Mobile Tech

First Blood Spilled in the New Tablet Wars

“Here in Windows-land, we love us some multi-touch,” wrote Ben Rudolph on the Windows Team Blog as he reviews the new Toshiba Satellite M505 laptop. Rudolph is giving the machine two thumbs up for how well it shows off the touchscreen capabilities in the Windows 7 operating system.

But a laptop isn’t a tablet computer, and Microsoft apparently isn’t yet ready to take the next step that would integrate Windows 7 into a competitor to Apple’s media-friendly (in more ways than one) iPad. In a one-two punch to Microsoft and Windows, various technology blogs and websites reported late last week that Microsoft has ended plans to make its Courier dual-screen tablet, and HP has hit the brakes on production of the tablet computer that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed off in prototype form at January’s Consumer Electronics Show.

Courier’s development was indeed research-based and designed to incubate and test new ideas, according to a post by Microsoft VP of Corporate Communications Frank Shaw on his company’s official blog. “The ‘Courier’ project is an example of this type of effort, and its technologies will be evaluated for use in future Microsoft offerings,” Shaw wrote.

Microsoft currently has no plans to build the Courier, Shaw told the tech blog Gizmodo.

Internal politics played a bigger role, according to Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst at Enderle Group. “The Courier was not based on Windows, and Microsoft products are on Windows turf in Windows-land,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “The Windows Group said, as is often the case there (in Redmond), ‘Hey, our platform doesn’t go on anything but us, so you’re done.’ Often in big companies you carve out turf, and the Courier crossed into somebody else’s turf.”

What About HP?

HP does not comment on rumors or speculation, spokesperson Marlene Somsak told TechNewsWorld, but Enderle hears from his sources that the company was frustrated with how Windows 7 was running on the device. “It’s kind of ironic, because if Microsoft had done the Courier, they might have held on to HP. HP did not want Windows 7. The tablet they built, from what I heard, nobody was happy with it. It was slow, didn’t respond to touch well, it was too heavy, the battery life wasn’t where it needed to be. It would have been killed in review. It was priced OK, but with everything else not working, it just wasn’t happening.”

All this obviously underscores HP’s recent decision to acquire Palm and its webOS operating system. There’s “a 70 percent chance” that HP can deliver a webOS-powered tablet by the end of the year, Enderle said, if the OS can be sufficiently tweaked and production can be fully funded.

“HP is a strategic partner of Microsoft and will continue to be,” Microsoft Senior Director of Communications Bill Cox told TechNewsWorld. Yet the company that wowed mainstream media and select industry segments with its touch-based Surface computing platform three years ago — and crowed last year about all the HP Touchsmart computer support it was getting during the launch of Windows 7 — still faces a challenge as the computing world continues to transition to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

“They have to make Windows 8 a helluva lot slimmer than Windows 7 and get it to run on the platforms,” Enderle said. “Right now Windows 7 is too heavy. There’s too much overhead to run on a tablet with the battery. It just requires too much performance.”

Meanwhile, at Apple’s Cupertino headquarters, Steve Jobs’ company glides to an early, rapidly widening lead in the tablet segment and awaits what competitors will do with devices running the Android OS.

The Next Round in the Tablet Wars

“Apple did it again,” ABI Research analyst Michael Morgan told TechNewsWorld. “They showed the world what this device should and could do. They kind of redefined it.”

Rather than a pen or stylus-based computer with the power of a desktop essentially squeezed down into a tablet, Apple built a device that “was not geared toward content creation, but more about content consumption,” Morgan said. “What Apple showed Microsoft and HP is that if you’re still thinking about a stylus, you’re dead. If you’re going to do this, you’re going to have to do this with hand and finger gestures.”

The hybrid Courier device did indeed use a stylus, but also involved a multi-touch interface. With Microsoft, it may involve going back to the many whiteboards that line office walls on its Redmond campus. “You’ve got platforms and architectures like Windows that really need to be re-architectured or re-envisioned with touch-like interface,” Creative Strategies Consumer Practice Director Ben Bajarin told TechNewsWorld. “Microsoft gets pieces of that, so what they were trying to do (with Courier) was figure out how touch would work.”

If Microsoft wants to get its tablet products to market quicker via its hardware partners, it will have to get real busy real fast. “All of the big OEMs are moving to verticals, trying to do more in-house,” says Bajarin. “Apple is doing it with semiconductors, Google is doing it with silicon. This move back to verticals is very very interesting. If I’m Microsoft, I’m a little bit concerned about that. The volume growth has got to be in mobile devices, potentially in tablets, not necessarily in PCs. Microsoft is losing ground in this battle for large growth opportunities, and one of their biggest partners just bought an OS primarily for those platforms.”

Yet it’s still early in the tablet wars, Bajarin said, adding that Microsoft still has lots of cash for development and employs some very smart people already at work on this problem. It still has time, especially if the enterprise remains a target for tablets.

“That’s a little space in the tablet market that I’m not seeing filled yet,” Morgan said. “A tablet made for the enterprise? Now here Microsoft, as we can see, would have a good opportunity to take this over.” Also, Microsoft has the better head-start in content and media relationships necessary for a business or consumer-based tablet.

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