How Microsoft lost the tablet war

For the frustrated CIO who finds his repeated admonishments about the wonders of the IT department falling on deaf ears, it is worth examining how Microsoft has mishandled its foray into tablets, as there may be some striking parallels.

People from technology analysts to commentators have been proclaiming Apple's victory in the "tablet wars" for several months, but the watershed moment for me was when I was visiting my parents and my mother, a gifted artist but less-than-savvy technology user, pulled out her shiny new iPad. Watching Apple dominate this category of devices in less than 18 months has likely been an exceptionally frustrating experience for Microsoft, the company that made the first large-scale move into tablet computers over a decade ago, and now they are not even on the playing field. Looking at Microsoft's continued missteps is an instructive process for anyone in the technology industry, especially CIOs tasked with developing, delivering, and driving the adoption of new technologies. So, what can we learn from the company that effectively invented a new category of computing devices, only to see an upstart revolutionize the market in one-tenth of the time?

Make it usable

While Microsoft spent years on technical problems such as handwriting recognition and pen interfaces, Apple recognized the tablet format was about two critical areas: battery life and portability. While I disagree with Steve Jobs's assessment that pen-based tablets are "dead," the crop of devices that weigh as much as an unabridged dictionary and get around three hours of battery life are a difficult sell.

Sell a scenario

One of Apple's core strengths is its ability to sell different usage scenarios. Most of their device-related commercials show a disembodied finger working with the device to solve a common problem. There's rarely a mention of features, specs, and technologies; just someone completing a common task. Potential customers identify with these tasks and get excited when they see a device solving a problem they've experienced in the past.

Microsoft abandoned mainstream tablet advertising long ago, but when you look at what's out there, you find talk of vertical markets, enterprise integration, and other business babble. Look for a common-use case for the device, and at best you'll find pictures of a doctor caressing an awkward-looking tablet with an X-ray image on it or generic, smiling construction workers pointing at a device. Neither scenario speaks to the average person with real work to get done or that same person who wants a device that lets them watch a movie, take notes in a meeting, and share a presentation. In short, Apple leaves you envisioning yourself using the device, while Microsoft and its partners leave you wondering what the heck the device actually does.

Bring out the right product, at the right time, to the right people

There's a fair argument that Microsoft was well ahead of its time with the first tablets it developed in the late 1990s, but once those were trickling out the door, it seems the company enhanced the basic 1990's era product, rather than making major shifts based on what consumers were suggesting they actually wanted.

Microsoft continues to talk about "vertical markets" (seemingly code for having given up in the consumer space), while Apple rides the tidal wave of delivering a device that normal people actually want to use and  that then gets adopted in a corporate environment.

Leverage your strengths

Apple had a decent touch-based operating system from its successful iPhone and had a reasonable catalog of applications for the device. Early criticism of the iPad was that it was essentially a larger iPhone. While that may be true, Apple took a successful device and leveraged that success. Microsoft has an exceptional application catalog, which makes the iPads pale in comparison, but a weak touch interface. Rather than building a compelling interface and leveraging that catalog and near-universal hardware compatibility, Microsoft seems to poke its head up occasionally and wave around the products that the market has been panning for the last 11 years. Microsoft even has several tablet-centric features of its Office suite that are compelling to all that see them, yet they treat them like a state secret, with only the most enthusiastic consumers taking advantage of them.

While I am not ready to write Microsoft out of the tablet game, they have clearly lost the first several rounds of the fight. For the frustrated CIO who finds his repeated admonishments about the wonders of the IT department falling on deaf ears, it is worth examining how Microsoft has mishandled its foray into tablets, as there may be some striking parallels.