As of the writing of this post, Apple has sold approximately four million iPads. This number is estimated to be higher than the combined sales of Windows tablets over the last eight years. That’s right, Microsoft has been making tablet computers for years, so what are they doing wrong that Apple got right and what do they need to do if they want to compete?
In 2003 I acquired the HP TC1100 tablet computer running Windows XP Tablet Edition. The reason I got this laptop was that I thought it would make sense to take notes by hand during meetings and that it would also be useful for marking up documents for editing. The device worked great for taking notes, and the handwriting recognition was impressive. However, navigating the software and operating system underneath it was horrible.
It was very obvious from the start that what Microsoft had done was taken their desktop and laptop operating system and tagged on pen interface technology. The pen was essentially a replacement for the mouse, there was even a mouse pointer that moved with the pen! In the end, I used the computer as a laptop and every once in a great while I’d use the pen interface. I have talked to other people that purchased Windows tablets and understood that they had similar experiences. The tablet was a fun gimmick for about a week, but once you use it on a regular basis it just becomes a slow, overpriced notebook computer.
Why is the iPad such a success? I believe that can be answered with another question: does the iPad operating system look at all like OS X? No! Apple didn’t follow Microsoft’s lead. They didn’t take their existing software and interface design and try to jam it into a new form factor. They looked at the form factor and designed an interface and operating system that works with the device.
With a Windows tablet, when I was using the pen input, I always had a feeling that I was using the wrong tool for the job. Like I was using a screw driver to hammer in a nail. Apple’s touch interface was designed to be operated with the human finger in mind. As a result, it feels natural to use the device and it minimizes frustration. What I find funny is that Microsoft doesn’t seem to realize that this is a big reason why Apple is succeeding with the iPad. Already, there have been multiple announcements of new Windows tablets that are supposed to compete with the iPad. These new devices have touch interfaces, but guess what else they have? Windows 7! I think that Windows 7 is a great desktop and laptop operating system, but it will be just as horrible of a tablet operating system as Windows XP and Vista were.
In order to compete with Apple in the tablet market, Microsoft hardware partners need to build tablets that have interfaces designed from the ground up for touch devices. From what I’ve seen and heard, their new Windows Phone 7 user interface may fit the bill. Why they aren’t building tablets using this new operating system is anyone’s guess, but it’s a stupid move. By coming out with new tablets running Windows 7 right on the heels of the iPad, the poor user interface on the Windows tablets are going to be that much more apparent.
If the Windows Phone 7 OS isn’t ready for use on tablets, Microsoft should hold off on releasing tablets. However, in typical Microsoft fashion, they should announce that they have one in development. I think that just the promise that there is a device coming that will have a good user interface and tie into existing services like Live and Zune may cause some people to pause. People that were planning on buying the iPad or an Android tablet may wait to see what Microsoft’s product has to offer.
Microsoft is behaving like people have changed. They seem to think that the reason their tablets didn’t sell well four years ago is because people didn’t want tablet interfaces then. Microsoft is acting like now that Apple’s iPad is selling so well that it must mean everyone is now ready for Microsoft’s tablet offering. Well, Microsoft will learn soon enough that this is wrong.
Their new tablets won’t sell any better than their old ones. The people didn’t change, the device landscape changed and instead of changing along with it, Microsoft is trying to sell us stale products. They’ve been down this road before, I guess they just didn’t learn their lesson. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to seeing how Apple improves on the iPad, how the HP PalmPad turns out and how other companies can innovate with tablets running Android. All the while, I’ll try not to laugh at Microsoft’s pathetic attempts to compete in this arena.