In my last post, I discussed the near-complete absence of Microsoft in the ongoing tablet wars, despite the fact that they effectively created and owned the category until the arrival of the iPad. Likely to their chagrin, Apple has dominated the tablet market in a matter of months after Microsoft spent years attempting to gain traction for its Tablet PC form factor.
It's easy to sit on the sidelines and critique a company, and one that has had as many dramatic successes in technology is bound to also make its share of missteps. Therefore, rather than just throwing rocks, here is how I'd attempt to regain a foothold in the tablet space if I were Microsoft.
1. Fire the committee
Microsoft's Tablet PC had the classic "designed by committee" feel, as opposed to the cohesive vision imposed on the iPad by the larger-than-life personality of Steve Jobs. The former gives you a device that checks off most of the technical "requested feature" boxes but lacks a cohesive user experience, and it misses the boat on key elements like battery life and quick booting.
Microsoft needs an iconoclastic personality driving a tablet device, working with a group of people who have expunged innovation-killing concepts like vertical markets, enterprise sales, and channel partners from their vocabulary. While this may seem anathema to a company that derives a significant portion of its revenues from business customers, Microsoft has a highly successful example in its Xbox division, where a handful of strong personalities took on an entrenched competitor and came to dominate an industry through a consumer focus, rather than the old enterprise standby.
2. Get your head out of the cloud
I've written extensive about "cloud computing," and my core contention is that no one cares about "the cloud" save for a handful of IT folks and marketing wonks. The rest of the world, from Fortune 500 CFOs to the grandmothers of the world, can't tell cloud computing from a storm cloud and have no interest in the technical wizardry that makes it happen. They do, however, get excited about compelling services, whether those come from clouds, client servers, or tin cans and bailing wire.
My mom loves her iPad but can't understand why her iPad and iPhone can't seamlessly share pictures with her computer or easily print and share documents with others. I believe Apple is making a tactical mistake by emphasizing "cloud" in its marketing for the next iteration of its connected services and running after offerings I'm not sure are all that exciting to the masses (I have yet to meet someone chomping at the bit for "music in the cloud," for example).
Microsoft has built or bought a raft of cloud-centric products, and rather than worrying about whether they are called cloud, Azure, Sharepoint, etc., they should make them tie deeply into all product offerings and work seamlessly and ubiquitously to the point that they pass the "mom test." Integrated products that share data seamlessly across devices are likely to be the future in this space, and if Microsoft can combine the right pieces into a cohesive and compelling offering, it could differentiate its tablet product and beat competitors and their disorganized offerings to the punch.
Continuing with the Xbox analogy, the console was an also-ran to gaming giant Sony until the connected Xbox Live offering hit the shelf with a simple and compelling story: play games with your buddies, even if they're half way across the world. Microsoft could replicate this strategy only if it gets away from talking about clouds and shows real-world, emotive situations where all this stuff actually comes in handy for real people. If you truly want to make waves, build exciting applications that tie into your cloud platform for Android and iOS, leaving users pondering what wonders would await them if they adapted a full Microsoft experience.
3. Go schizophrenic
The common complaint about the current crop of tablets is that they're best for content consumption; poking around the web or playing a quick game is no problem, but writing War and Peace is still best done on a traditional computer. Microsoft has the technical prowess to make what might resemble a split personality tablet of sorts -- capable of doing all the iPad-type tasks instantly, yet also able to load traditional Windows applications and pair with a wireless keyboard for all the things that currently require a traditional laptop or desktop computer.
While this might look like a niche at first glance, the dozens of add-on keyboards and other jury-rigged attempts to make the iPad act like a laptop seem to indicate a strong market. Just as the netbook was going to be the world-conquering "4th screen" that faded as quickly as it arrived, tablets are going to have to offer more value than they currently do, and a multi-role device seems like a compelling differentiator. Take this to the next logical, conceptual step, and you have a multi-role device that's your notepad and Excel workhorse in the office, movie screen or e-reader at the gym, and gaming device at home.
4. Realize the price of admission
The price of admission to even compete in this market is a small, sexy device with a minimum of nine hours of battery life. Anything less on the hardware front will simply be ignored and suffer the fate of HP's tablet -- stillborn until placed on a money-losing fire sale. Microsoft should select a competent hardware partner with a knack for producing good looking hardware, something they're seemingly doing if rumblings about Samsung producing initial devices are correct.
While deepening its tablet investment after a decade of spinning its wheels and reentering a highly-competitive market are daunting prospects, Microsoft has a proven ability to take out entrenched competitors. Hopefully, some of the Tablet PC experience can migrate to a product that combines the best features of Windows with an iPad-like experience into a multi-role device.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.