Apple's iPad tablet touches a nerve in Redmond

Microsoft has been pursuing the notion of a tablet PC for a decade now, but its efforts have yet to produce a device most consumers want to carry.

Surely, there are going to be some people beating their heads against a wall in Redmond today.

After a decade of pursuing the notion of a tablet computer for consumers, it now appears possible, if not likely, that Apple will be the one that gets credit--and the revenue--for making the product mainstream.

Although PC makers have been selling tablet-shaped computers for years, the idea has caught on mainly in niche business markets like health care and transportation, rather than as a device for the average Joe.

Bill Gates showed this prototype Compaq tablet PC at the 2001 Comdex trade show. Microsoft

But that's not to say Microsoft hasn't been trying. Bill Gates first talked about the idea of a Tablet PC at Comdex back in 2000.

A year later, Gates rolled out various models, including one Compaq prototype that resembled a giant version of its iPaq handheld.

"Next year I hope a lot of people in the audience will be taking their notes on a Tablet PC," Gates told the Comdex crowd.

But few took him up on the offer.

Microsoft continued to refine the notion, improving the handwriting, but the products remained a niche. Most of the "tablet PCs" that have sold have actually been notebook computers with a rotating screen as opposed to the slate models that are similar to Apple's device.

More recently, the company worked on a consumer tablet effort known as Project Origami. Microsoft managed to get considerable buzz for the notion--even before people knew what Origami was.

The first few details sounded appealing. The idea was to lay the groundwork for a consumer device that was like a Windows PC, but smaller, powered by touch, had all-day battery life, and cost well under $1,000, ideally around $500.

The products that emerged though, such as the Samsung Q1, ended up costing too much and had limited battery life, blunting their appeal.

Apple, meanwhile, has a tablet that starts at $500 and has 10 hours of battery life.

That could be a key selling point. "Folks have always been interested in tablets, said IDC analyst Richard Shim. "It's just that the price points have always been too high. That's changed, clearly."

Shim said IDC estimates that Apple will sell four million to five million iPad tablets this year. That compares to an estimate of just 1.3 million Tablet PCs--only 170,000 of which will be slates. (Last year IDC says about 1 million tablets were sold, 125,000 of which were slates, as compared to about 875,000 that were convertible PCs)

Of course, the fact that Apple has unveiled the iPad tablet doesn't guarantee its success. Although the company has had a string of hits, it has also had products that either had only modest impact (think Mac Mini) or less (Apple TV). That said, it has come in at a lower-than-expected price and also has the option for relatively cheap 3G data, albeit from AT&T.

Microsoft, meanwhile, hasn't given up on the tablet. With the addition of multitouch in Windows 7 the company is hoping that a new generation of tablets will hold more interest. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer showed a prototype HP tablet running Windows 7. I'm told the device is expected mid-year and uses an 8.9-inch display. In a video, embedded below, HP's Phil McKinney says that the company has been working on an entertainment-oriented slate for the past five years.

Microsoft is also exploring the notion of a dual-screen tablet, code-named Courier, a video of which leaked out early last year. In an interview with CNET , Microsoft entertainment unit head Robbie Bach confirmed the video was genuine, but wouldn't say where the project stands now.

"We do a lot of exploratory videos on a lot of different products," Bach said in the interview, which took place at CES earlier this month. "The video that went around the Internet that was the so-called Courier is just another example of those. We do a lot of those. We don't comment on them."

Here's HP's video on its slate. (It is a promotional video, so don't click unless you want to watch what amounts to a five minute ad.)

 

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