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With iPad-like touch tablets about to take over the mobile space, and eventually the desktop, Microsoft has been presented with an amazing opportunity to dominate business computing for the next 30 years.
Will Microsoft let this one slip away?
Learning from Cisco
The Cius comes with a docking station, which connects it to the network via Ethernet. When you remove the tablet, the device kicks over into Wi-Fi connectivity automatically or, if a Wi-Fi network isn't available, 3G or 4G mobile broadband.
Like the iPad, the Cius can do presentations, pushing video to an external LCD display. It has an on-screen keyboard, and can be used with a physical keyboard. An internal accelerometer auto-orients the device.
Cius is different from the iPad in many ways. For starters, the screen is smaller -- 7 inches diagonally, compared with the iPad's 9.7-inch screen. And it's lighter: just 1.15 pounds compared with iPad's 1.5 pound weight. It supports USB, SD cards and has both front- and rear-facing cameras.
The Cius is not so much a peripheral device to a human being (as is the iPad) but a peripheral to other Cisco products. A front facing HD video camera (with zoom function) enables high-quality video calls that optionally hooks into Cisco TelePresence systems. A pre-installed virtual desktop client application connects to the Cisco Collaboration Architecture. Communications software installed on the Cius is compatible with Cisco Quad, Cisco Show and others. The Cius also supports Cisco Unified Communications Manager and the Cisco AnyConnect Security VPN client.
For companies already using Cisco gear and platforms, the Cius is a slam-dunk laptop alternative.
The biggest difference is that Cius and iPad fall into two completely different categories of computing device -- as different as laptops from cell phones. The Cius is 2nd-generation WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointing device) device, like any PC or conventional laptop. It has a touch display, but that touch feature is simply a layer that substitutes for a mouse. (The Cius offers native support for an optional mouse.)
Unlike PCs and unlike iPads, the Cius is designed to serve primarily as a thin client: Applications are installed in the data center, rather than on the client (although Android apps can be installed on the device as well). Optimization for a thin client architecture is touted as one of the main benefits of the Cius.
The iPad, on the other hand, is a 3rd-generation MPG (multi-touch, physics and gestures) device.
Comparing the Cius with the iPad is like comparing a command-line UNIX box with a Macintosh 25 years ago. They could be more or less shaped the same externally, but they were defined by user interfaces from fundamentally different generations of computing. The UNIX machine was more enterprise-ready and powerful and the Macintosh was just a toy for consumers.
But which represented the future: Command-line or GUI?
The Cius is not like the iPad at all. They are utterly incomparable in function, features, purpose and above all, in fundamental category. That they are superficially shaped similarly (as tablets) is irrelevant. My Frisbee is shaped like dinnerware, but their purpose and functions are very different.
I'm not dissing the Cius here. It sounds like a great device, and will probably find its niche as vertical device and as a general purpose mobile extension to Cisco communications systems.
Comparing Cius with iPad is a symptom of the incredible short-sightedness that exists among some companies in the industry and even some pundits and journalists.
In 1977, Ken Olson, the president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), said: "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
Companies that don't understand the appeal (and inevitable ubiquity) of MPG computers today are like people who didn't understand the appeal of home computing in 1977 -- doomed to be replaced by the very thing they didn't understand.
Is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer the Ken Olson of 2010? Absolutely not. Microsoft is one of the few companies that truly understands the power of MPG.
Microsoft's Mobile Troubles
I believe that three years from now, MPG tablets like the iPad will be the dominant mobile device for consumers, and five to seven years from now will be the dominant mobile device in enterprises.
Within a decade, most desktops will be MPG devices like the iPad, not WIMP computers like today's PCs and Macs.
Microsoft is being left behind in the mobile space, which is fast overtaking desktop computing as the major way people connect and compute. Its phone OS, now called Windows Phone 7, has been marginalized by RIM, Android and iPhone. Microsoft's grand plan for the space between cell phones and laptops, called Ultra-Mobile PC was utterly crushed by the netbook tsunami.
And Microsoft's long effort to mainstream pen-based Tablet PCs has been overtaken by the wild success of Apple's MPG iPad.
That's why I was mildly shocked when Ballmer said this to Walt Mossberg at the recent D8 conference about Apple's and iPad: "They built what they could build when they could build it."
The implication here is that iPad has been hobbled by unreadiness. Instead of waiting until the technology was cheap enough, Apple shipped a tablet with missing features, while Microsoft is waiting until the time is right.
Ballmer's analysis was dead on -- in fact, that's what Apple does. Apple starts out with a grand vision, but always removes features instead of either waiting or shipping features that aren't ready. That's why the iPhone didn't originally have multi-tasking, a front-facing camera or even apps. Apple always ships 1.0 products with limited features. However, the features and technologies they do ship tend to work really well.
What's shocking about Ballmer's statement is that Microsoft's major mobile initiatives have all been beaten by feature-limited devices. Microsoft's breathtaking vision for a wide range of powerful Ultra-Mobile PCs running Windows Vista was sidelined by netbooks that Steve Jobs accurately characterized as "just cheap." Microsoft's cell phone operating systems have long promised Windows-like functionality and power, but have been clobbered by phones that do much less.
In other words, if Microsoft wants to compete in the new world, it will have to ship simpler, less "powerful" products quicker and cheaper.
Microsoft: This Is Your MomentI say Microsoft understands MPG computing because the company shipped the first commercial product in this space, and still one of the best. Microsoft Surface is a vertical-market "coffee table" computer that offers a full MPG experience. Microsoft sells it to hotels, resorts and retails stores for use as a customer-facing marketing gimmick.
Ballmer has promised a consumer version of Surface, and shipped limited MPG support in Vista and Windows 7.
I believe it's already too late for Microsoft to catch Apple in the consumer MPG tablet space. Even a great product launched next year would probably repeat Zune's failed attempt to catch the iPod. By the time Microsoft shipped a great media player, Apple had already locked everyone into iTunes and saturated the public mindset with iPod enthusiasm.
However, the business and enterprise market for MPG tablets is wide open. It's a stunning state of affairs: There are literally zero material contenders right now for the future of business computing!
Opportunities like this come along only once every 50 years. Here's how Microsoft can seize the day:
1) Initiate a massive effort to build an elegant MPG tablet that works like the Surface table.
2) Optimize it for business by building in support for Exchange, Office and other Microsoft business platforms and software and make it really secure.
3) Do not attempt to support Windows applications -- documents, yes, legacy apps, no. Emphasize low battery and processor requirements over raw compute power.
4) Create a new development platform for the device, and work with ISV partners to re-create limited functionality versions of existing applications optimized for MPG. Also: Make it as simple as possible for in-house developers to build custom apps very quickly.
5) Make the device finger-centric like the iPad, but add pen support for scribbling notes and also for a limited vocabulary of pen-centric gestures.
6) Go nuts with sensors, as Surface does. Make the tablet aware of who is holding it, what cell phones and PCs are nearby, so it can wirelessly sync and take advantage of various things like cell phone GPS.
7) Build in voice command, and convince both users and developers to take advantage of it.
Microsoft became the dominant company in the industry because Bill Gates had a clear vision: PCs were the future and the business opportunity was in controlling the software platform. Today, MPG tablets are the future, and the business opportunity is bringing something as awesome as the iPad into the enterprise.
The window is closing. HP bought Palm to deploy its MPG-capable WebOS on tablets. Google's Android platform will gain MPG capability any minute now. Baring all that, Apple itself could stroll into enterprises and dominate there as it has on the consumer space.
The truth is that Palm and Google are playing catch-up, too. And Apple is busy taking over the consumer world.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has the user-interface technology, the expertise, the developer community and the partnerships and business relationships that give it an enormous advantage over Apple. The future of user-facing enterprise computing is Microsoft's for the taking. If only they'll take it.