For years, Microsoft shoehorned Windows CE, and then Windows Mobile, into mobile phones. The operating system's user interface was all wrong for a phone. It required a stylus, and involved off-putting user interface elements like a Windows-style Start button with cascading menus.
The user interface would have much better on a tablet device, and the performance would've been great. However, Microsoft insisted that partners install full-fledged Windows on tablets.
As a result of this mismatch, both the phones and the tablets failed in the market year after year.
Then consumers gravitated to netbooks. At first Microsoft tried to cram (again) an operating system that was too big for the platform: Windows Vista. But netbook buyers insisted on "lite" software, preferring Linux and then Windows XP.
Windows CE and Windows mobile would have enabled pen-based tablets and ultra-mobile PCs to succeed far more than they have done.
Microsoft finally has a right-sized operating system: Windows Phone 7. It's right enough for phones, but even righter for tablets.
Why "Tablets Are Cannibalizing Netbooks"A Microsoft executive admitted this week that "tablets are cannibalizing netbooks." This is euphemistic corporate spin.
Let me translate: Apple is destroying Microsoft in mobile. "Tablets" is code for iPad, which owns 95% of a rapidly growing market. The netbook market, which is rapidly dying, is dominated by Windows.
The iPad is winning for many reasons, but one of them is that its iOS is right-sized for the platform. The iPad has a netbook-sized screen, but runs what is essentially a cell phone operating system. By downsizing the OS and the hardware, Apple was able to achieve a low-enough-but-profitable price, zippy performance and amazing battery life.
Had Apple followed the Microsoft approach, it would have launched the iPad with OS X running on it. It would have touted the ability of the device to run desktop OS X apps. But it would have cost $1,800, gotten three hours of battery life, weighed three pounds and it would have been slow.
Google will also succeed in tablets in part because Android is also essentially a cell phone operating system.
There is absolutely no question that for a tablet to compete, it must run a cell phone operating system.
If -- despite overwhelming, inescapable evidence and proof for this most basic fact of today's mobile market -- Microsoft fails to put its Windows Phone 7 OS on tablets, then we can safely write off Microsoft in the mobile market.
We can finally say: Microsoft has a fatal blind spot and that it will not and cannot succeed in mobile.
But I don't think that's going to happen.
What Ballmer Said About TabletsIn a recent interview with Ars Technica, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hinted that Windows Phone 7-based tablets are in the works. In a discussion about tablets, Ballmer said: "You'll see some things as you move Windows Phone along."
Ballmer's vague statement is vaguely encouraging. But the company will have to do more than just slap Windows Phone 7 on tablets. First, it has to be willing to compete with Android on price.
Google doesn't charge partners for using Android. If Microsoft charges tablet partners $70 or some other high price for the operating system then Microsoft tablets will be disadvantaged.
Second, Microsoft has to be willing to cannibalize existing businesses in mobile operating systems, tablet operating systems and applications. It needs to get behind the mobile tablet business with all its resources, cultivate massive development on these platforms and offer a compelling line of its own applications -- sorry "apps."
The biggest hurdle for Microsoft culturally is that the company must shed its historic emphasis on "feature-rich." People are overwhelmed with "features," especially on mobile devices. Consumers want simple, which means the elimination of features.
While it appears that Microsoft understands the need to put cell phone software on tablets, it's not clear, and there's no reason to believe, that the company actually has the vision and the self-discipline to embrace the simplicity movement.
In the book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, the authors point out in Law #8 that "in the long run, every market becomes a two horse race." Right now it looks like those horses are going to be Apple and Google.
Microsoft's options are to either look for another, lesser market to dominate for example, to create and cultivate the enterprise touch tablet market or to try to beat Google in the consumer market.
The way to do this is to tweak Windows Phone 7 and optimize it for tablets, keep the price extraordinarily low, cultivate and develop amazing third-party app development and leverage its innate advantages, including synchronization with Windows.
Microsoft researchers have developed some really great ideas in combining touch with pen. The Microsoft surface team has done some ground-breaking work on the development of touch user interfaces as well. The company will need all these resources to beat Google.
Can they do it? Time will tell. In the meantime, the focus should be to avoid the mistake of Windows phone 7, which is to be too late to the party.
I'm rooting for Microsoft. But this looks like the companys last chance. If they fail to get a compelling cell phone-sized OS on tablets right away, it will probably be too late for Microsoft to ever succeed in the consumer tablet space.