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The race between Microsoft and Apple to dominate tablet computing is "on", according to chief executive Steve Ballmer.

Today, Ballmer poo-pooed the iPad, saying that although Steve Jobs delivered some good work, the iPad is general-purpose, while Windows tablets will adapt to particular uses.

We're in an iPad "bubble," Ballmer told the D8 Conference in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Windows tablets mimicking the iPad will soon debut, however, and they'll get "sleeker, smaller, and faster", Ballmer promised in an onstage Q&A with Microsoft chief software architect Ray Ozzie.

"[Apple] built what they could build when they could build it," Ballmer said, according to Engadget. "Is it a flat device? Well yes, but then you plug it into a dock when you need to do more typing on it. The ad from our competition in three years won't be Mac vs. PC, it will be whatever this new device is versus the PC. It's obvious that they're moving in that direction — the Mac will keep its three–per cent market share [That's seven per cent for Macs, Steve.—Ed]... and the race is on."

Earlier at D8, Apple's CEO said PCs are going to be like trucks in the era of tablets, in that not everybody will need one. Ballmer shot back with a swipe at the Mac name. "Maybe there's a reason why you call them Mack trucks... Windows PCs are not Mack trucks. You're going to have different devices, one in your pocket and one not in your pocket, and they'll have different use cases," Ballmer said.

"You'll have a range of devices, there will be different looks. Some people will want the comfort of Windows, as you know — some people might want it to be more customized."

Hammering the truck-car analogy, Ballmer said: "Our cars will get bigger and sleeker and faster and better... but they're still cars."

It was a standard Ballmer-and-Microsoft defensive play on the PC's place in the future of technology, a defense that conflates the idea of the computer with machines that run Windows.

And when it comes to tablets, Microsoft tried and failed under co-founder Bill Gates to rally OEMs on new devices running Windows. Tablets running Windows saw limited uptake, and only in vertical sectors. The iPad is going where Windows failed: into general consumer and business users' hands.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's chief executive tackled the success of another Apple device, the iPhone, that's helped take market share from Windows Mobile.

Ballmer called Apple a "good competitor" having come from nowhere, and attributed the phone's success to the Safari browser. "People focus on the apps, but the browser is really the thing that has distinguished their phones from others," Ballmer told D8 here.

Ballmer is now in charge of Windows Mobile, after the president of the Microsoft group running it, Robbie Bach, announced his resignation last month. "We had to do some cleanup, we did it for Windows, and we're doing it for mobile. And excellence in execution is also part of the equation," Ballmer said. "We have to execute."

It was vintage Ballmer, dissing the competition while living and breathing the PC — but it was also "slightly disturbing Ballmer." In his remarks about the iPad, Microsoft's chief showed the same signs of not getting it that he exhibited when Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, and in more-recent comments about Google .

Ballmer famously laughed off the iPhone in 2007 as an expensive machine with no appeal for business customers because it lacked a keyboard, adding that Microsoft had a "great" Windows mobile strategy.

At D8, Microsoft's chief repeated his past comments that he doesn't understand why Google has two operating systems, Android and Chrome OS. Ballmer might be forgiven for not understanding what Chrome's purpose is. But based on his experience with the iPhone, he'd be well served to try to think about a response to Google's OS rather than merely assuming that everything will be OK — a strategy that failed on the iPhone.

Pushed, Ballmer at least conceded that Microsoft also has more than one operating system.

Ozzie, sidelined during much of the debate, was less defensive. Chrome, Ozzie said, is Google's bet on the future while Android is a bet on the past. "When you install an app you're targeting a device. When you use Chrome, you're looking at a cloud-based future."

On search, the center of Microsoft's competition with Google, Ballmer noted that the company is trying to roll out Bing's integration with Yahoo! in time for this year's holiday season, and that Redmond has "done a lot" to establish Bing as a competitor against what he called "a very large behemoth."

Wait. Did the CEO of the world's largest software company — with 93,000 employees — just call 20,000-employee Google a "behemoth"? Yes, he did. ®

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