During his Consumer Electronics Show (CES) keynote address back in January, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer infamously held up a prototype HP tablet device and declared, in not so many words, that Microsoft was back in the Tablet PC game. "We're talking about something that's almost as portable as a phone, and as powerful as a PC, running Windows 7," he said. "\\[This\\] emerging category of PCs really takes advantage of the touch and mobility and capabilities of Windows 7, and is perfect for reading, for surfing the Web, and for taking entertainment on the go."

The discussion is infamous (and paradoxical) because Microsoft has actually been hawking Tablet PCs since 2001, when it began innovating in this space almost a decade before Apple's iPad, and because this "emerging" PC category has yet to happen: Not a single PC maker, including HP, has delivered a Windows 7-based slate PC so far this year.

Whatever the details, industry pundits have been quick to jump all over Microsoft for not being able to quickly (re-) jump into a "new" market that's being defined by a competitor, in this case Apple, which has seen sales of its limited and hobbled iPad tablet device skyrocket. Microsoft, they say, is a dinosaur, too slow to react and meet the needs of today's customers. Microsoft's best days are behind it, they say, and despite evidence to the contrary—record profits and revenues, and growing unit sales in its most recent fiscal quarter and year, PC sales growth alone outstripping iPad sales by a huge margin, and more—these pundits also claim that the software giant's entire business is going to collapse. Any day now. Well, maybe next quarter.

What's most amazing about all this Chicken Little posturing is that these same pundits seem hopelessly unaware of the rest of the industry's ability to react to the iPad "threat." Industry darling Google, for example, has yet to deliver a version of its Android system tailored for larger, non-phone devices, and there aren't any actual iPad-sized Android devices out there from major manufacturers.

And what about HP? The company snatched up ailing smartphone market Palm for $1.2 billion, announcing its intention to expand Palm's WebOS to tablet devices. And where is this mythical HP WebOS-based tablet? It turns out that product has been delayed until "early 2011," about three to nine months after the first Windows 7-based Slate PCs will arrive. In fact, HP said explicitly that it will deliver its own Windows 7-based Slate PC "in the near future," several months ahead of its WebOS offering.

So, remind me again why Google and HP get a free pass while Microsoft gets nothing but criticism, please.

The last time Microsoft faced this kind of criticism was when ASUS jumpstarted the netbook PC market by mating the free Linux OS to very low-end laptop hardware. ASUS utilized Linux because Microsoft didn't, at the time, offer a low-cost version of Windows, and Linux quickly became the netbook OS of choice. Until, that is, Microsoft entered the market. Now, Windows dominates netbook sales, and Linux is again the afterthought it should be on the client.

Microsoft's public pronouncements about slates and other next-generation Tablet PCs have recalled this netbook experience, and the company believes it can perform a similar about-face in the coming days, confining the iPad to also-ran status. Whether that's possible is uncertain and largely unrelated to the central argument here. Sure, Microsoft is reacting to the iPad. But so are other industry heavyweights. From what I can see, Microsoft and its hardware partners are closer to delivering viable, Windows 7-based iPad competitors than are the other major players, which will offer Android and WebOS offerings.

Whatever happens, this holiday season should be interesting, regardless of which platform you prefer.