Eleven years after it led the charge for slate PC computing, Microsoft is in an awkward place: Apple, a newcomer to this market at least, has seized the hearts and minds—if not yet the pocketbooks—of consumers with a new type of slate PC computer called the iPad. And while Microsoft promised a response to the Apple challenge in 2010, that response never materialized in any meaningful way, with the software giant's partners only slowly releasing a handful of tepid iPad alternatives by the close of the year. So Microsoft has big plans for 2011.
According to my sources at the software giant, and corroborated by a report in The New York Times this week, Microsoft will make a strong showing at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January by presenting a new generation of slate PCs that will take on the iPad. I've been told to expect many different devices from a variety of hardware makers.
The New York Times even has some specifics, noting that both Dell and Samsung will be among the hardware makers offering PC-based iPad-like products in 2011. The Samsung device in particular is described as "similar in size and shape to the Apple iPad, although it is not as thin. It also includes a unique and slick keyboard that slides out from below for easy typing." Photos of such a device have appeared online in recent days.
Although the iPad is seen as a huge success, that's relative, and compared with the traditional PC industry, it's a non-event—so far, at least. Apple has sold only several million units, and iPad sales in the most recent quarter were actually disappointing, falling well below all analyst estimates. Still, perception is king these days, and Microsoft is seen as a slow-moving technological dinosaur for letting Apple create a new market, even if that market is only a tiny percentage of the size of the traditional PC market.
To counter these concerns, Microsoft points to its own success in the netbook market, which was created by Microsoft competitors as a way to end-run around the software giant with Linux-based solutions that used no Microsoft software. Today, virtually all netbooks run Windows, not Linux, and the software giant believes it can trigger a similar transformation with slate PCs, relegating Apple yet again to also-ran status.
What's held up this perhaps fantastical future is the underlying hardware platform. As with netbook PCs, Microsoft's traditional PC maker partners weren't ready for the iPad, and Intel in particular didn't offer a chipset—with its integrated microprocessor and graphics processor—that could offer the thin size, performance, and battery life of the iPad in 2010. But that's changing in early 2011, when new slate PC designs based on Intel's new Trail platform arrive. In fact, according to recent reports, the first generation of Oak Trail-based PCs are currently in production.
So will 2011 be the year that Microsoft sinks the iPad?
I doubt it, frankly, and I think that Apple is going to see far more success in this new generation of highly mobile, highly connected computing devices than it ever did with desktop computers. But don't count Microsoft out, either: I suspect the software giant and its many partners will surprise people with the quality of at least some of these new offerings.
And let's not forget Windows 8, which could usher in its own set of innovations around motion control and natural computing. That new system should be on new PCs by mid-2012.