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Ghost of Gates' tablet haunts Microsoft's future

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Almost ten years after Bill Gates personally bought into the idea of the tablet PC, Microsoft's hawking the concept as something fresh.

It was Comdex 2001, the dawn of a new decade and a new century, when Microsoft's then chairman and chief software architect unveiled prototype tablet computers from Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu and Toshiba in a bid to chart the future.

Gates predicted the tablet would become the most popular form of PC within five years. Tablet PCs, launched in 2002, accounted for just two per cent of global PC sales by 2004 and remain - at best - a niche-market as OEMs like Toshiba, ahem, "broadened" their relationship with Microsoft.

Interestingly, just over five years later, it's been netbooks and non-Windows based smart devices such as smart phones from Apple that have proved wildly popular.

Nine years after Gates, it was the turn of chief executive Steve Ballmer to deliver what passes for vision these days at Microsoft at the start of the new decade.

Ballmer unveiled three Tablet PCs, from Hewlett-Packard, Archos and Pegatron at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Microsoft's CEO steered clear of the hyperbole employed by his friend and former colleague, sticking instead to homey phrases such as it's a "great, little PC" and referring generally to the tablet as "an emerging category of PCs".

This time history is at least on Microsoft's side. The PCs demonstrated by Ballmer use Windows 7's touch-based input. Back in 2001 the operating system was Windows XP so there were no fingers. Instead, you switched between a keyboard and what passed for the brave new world of input - a stylus tapping, skating and scratching its way around the interface.

Windows 7 consists of APIs that can be exposed to let you input using your fingers.

Also, in 2010, there's a little more acceptance of the whole idea of a mobile, touch-based device. That's no thanks to Microsoft, though. It's down to the work of Amazon with its Kindle. It was notable that the tablet Ballmer demonstrated - which is now called a slate - ran Amazon's Kindle software for the PC.

Also, the revolution in online services and applications for download makes the proposition more viable. One of the things that hampered Gates' tablet was the fact ISVs had to write their applications especially for the new device.

Menawhile, HP's got an early track record in touch: it's built the TouchSmart PC, running Windows 7 that lets you pinch, touch, rotate and scroll applications using your fingers.

While the currents are flowing in Microsoft's favor nine years later, Microsoft and Windows are showing early signs of struggling and there are strong doubts over whether the Microsoft slate can break out of the niche the tablet PC found itself stuck in.

Microsoft is following, not leading, this market. Manufacturers who adopt the slate will need to pay Microsoft to license Windows 7, making the economics tough in a market where OEMs can use Linux in all its flavors - even Google's Android - for free and get greater returns and are allowed more options in terms of customization of software.

For all the supposed "wow" factor of Ballmer's unveiling, and the excitement leading up to the CES announcement around the HP device, what he showed amounts to another PC form factor. It moves the ball along and will mean additional Windows revenue for Microsoft, but it won't take the market in a new direction.

As All About Microsoft's Mary-Jo Foley and others have reported, the device was not the Courier multi-touch dual-screen device leaked in September last year.

That's a problem further compounded by the fact that what Ballmer unveiled at CES, the Mecca of the consumer gadgets world, won't excite the all-import hypesters and hipsters that are the early adopters and evangelists it must woo. "We're talking about something that's almost as portable as a phone, and as powerful as a PC, running Windows," according to Ballmer.

"Almost"? Really? Has Microsoft's CEO heard of the netbook or the iPhone, devices that are actually as portable as a phone and are as powerful as a PC, but don't have to run Windows?

Noting like pitching it low for the coming decade, Steve. ®

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