Ballmer on tablets, PCs and more (Q&A)

In part two of CNET interview, Microsoft's CEO says even one iPad is one too many, but demurs on whether his company must do more than customize full-blown Windows to compete in tablets.

NEW YORK--While Microsoft showed off Windows Phone 7 yesterday as its answer to the iPhone, many are still wondering what the company's response will be to the iPad.

CEO Steve Ballmer has noted on several occasions that there will be some Windows 7 slates this year, but that's not the answer to the question--Microsoft has had tablets for years. The real issue is how Microsoft plans to respond to the iPad's instant-on abilities, it's long battery life, and the fact that it's easily navigated with just a finger and no need for a keyboard.

Steve Ballmer, speaking with CNET on Monday after Microsoft's New York launch of Windows Phone 7. CNET

"You will see a set of things from our partners, essentially around the holidays," Ballmer said following the launch event here for the new mobile OS. He added that Microsoft's position will be strengthened with the arrival of Intel's Oak Trail processors next year.

Asked whether Microsoft needs to do more than customize full-blown Windows for the tablet, Ballmer demurred.

"I think probably the things of tomorrow are best left for tomorrow and the things of today are best discussed today," he said.

In part one of our interview with Ballmer , we talked primarily about Windows Phone. In part two, we moved beyond the phone, hitting on tablets and the PC market as a whole. Here's an edited transcript of part two of our interview:

Q: You talked about Google as chaotic in the Android space. They are talking about your computer being your memory, some stuff that potentially sounds a bit creepy. Do you see an opportunity to sell yourselves as the big tech company that is not creepy?
Ballmer: I hadn't thought about it that way. We can pitch ourselves as the guy who is coherent but flexible. The chance to do that, to always have a great experience, and to be wonderfully individual is a unique thing we get to do.

Tablets are clearly an important piece of the consumer puzzle. You guys have had tablets forever, but one of the things that makes the iPad compelling is its really long battery life and instant-on abilities. Can full-blown Windows slim down fast enough or do you see a need for, say, a grown up Windows Phone device that is bigger?
Ballmer: I think probably the things of tomorrow are best left for tomorrow and the things of today are best discussed today. So today, I will focus on Windows Phone.

There's very little I won't do when I am on my phone. I certainly do the typical e-mail. I make phone calls, not surprisingly, a lot of them and I don't want those phone calls dropped. I actually am fairly active on Facebook.

Might there be an opportunity for both Windows tablets and Windows Phone-based tablets to both co-exist?
Ballmer: I think when there is something to say we'll say it

You said recently, I think it was when you were in Europe last week, that you can look at a room and know how many iPads are there, how many Macs, how many PCs. Are you concerned with the number of iPads you see in those rooms?
Ballmer: You certainly see more. You certainly see more than I would like. One is more than I would like.

On the other hand, it depends what people are doing. Certainly someone who wants to sit and do an interview and take notes and scroll around, they are unlikely to find that device very comfortable. It doesn't stand up on its own. It doesn't have a big screen and keyboard. I'm not taking anything away from what Apple has done and certainly we have our work cut out for us.

We're starting to enter the holiday period. I guess the decorations are already going up. How is the PC market looking?
Ballmer: We'll see. I don't want to make any predictions. There's way too many factors--market share, economics, blah, blah, blah, but PCs have been healthy; they are growing. Most forecasters have PCs up double digits and that's on a base that's 350 million. On the other hand we've got more competition for the PC than we ever have.

The board in its annual evaluation faulted you for not moving fast enough in mobile. Do you think that's just a criticism of the past and you are moving fast enough now. Or is it still an area where Microsoft needs to move faster than it is?
Ballmer: I think we're moving fast. We've got to see how the market responds. I think we are going to get great response to the new Windows Phones and that's the key. If we get that done and we keep up the pace of good work that we are doing, I feel pretty good.

What do you do on a phone? What are the things that matter the most to you?
Ballmer: There's very little I won't do when I am on my phone. I certainly do the typical e-mail. I make phone calls, not surprisingly, a lot of them and I don't want those phone calls dropped. I actually am fairly active on Facebook.

I do, in fact, travel a lot, so the fact that I can take my Office with me is important. And I can take some videos to watch and music to listen to. It's all great for me as a mobile person.

Are there things that you think we will be doing a couple years from now on our phones that we don't do today that you want to be positioned to be able to do well?
Ballmer: I think we are going to see a continual evolution of the way these things interact. This will be a projector some day. We'll be able to do more and more with sensors. You've seen what we've done with Kinect. You can let your mind run wild of what that might mean in a mobile context.

The question I get asked the most is what is Microsoft thinking about tablets. You guys have had tablets since 2003. They are a little surprised that the iPad has been out there for almost a year and we haven't seen that direct competitor. You said at the financial analysts meeting that it is priority number one . How long do you think it takes to answer that question, to have something that directly competes?
Ballmer: Like I said, you will see a set of things from our partners, essentially around the holidays. And then they will get an enhancement (next year) , which I highlighted, from Intel, which will be very valuable, as we get their next generation Oak Trail processors. It's also an important part of our road map.

What kinds of things do you think people want to do on a device of that type? Do they want a full PC experience?
Ballmer: People want everything they can do on their PC and more. They want long battery life. They want instant-on and they want everything they can do on their PC. They really want all of those things. Today, there is a set of compromises. They want a variety of hardware form factors--with a physical keyboard, without a physical keyboard. People really want choice and diversity, I think. We're working hard to provide what we think is the solution that people want. I know others are too. That's why competition is a great thing.

 

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