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Windows tablets on parade, but the crowd has iPads

Windows tablets are stuck in a past that insists on keeping designs firmly planted in the PC world. Maybe this is fine for some businesses, but consumers prefer the iPad, even if those consumers are "businesspeople" attending a Microsoft conference.

LOS ANGELES--At Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference here, Windows tablets were on display tables but not in attendees' hands.

Many Windows 7 tablets, like PCs, have a host of connectors, and sizable heat vents.
Many Windows 7 tablets, like PCs, have a host of connectors, and large heat vents. Brooke Crothers/CNET

Windows 7 tablets from Fujitsu, Motion Computing, TabletKiosk, and others occupied a sizable swath of display area inside a pavilion devoted to Microsoft hardware and software partners. But walking the floor for five hours made it quickly apparent that iPads--being used by attendees--occupied the entire pavilion.

To be fair, Windows 7 tablets exist because they meet a need. For example, the retail and health care industries are big customers. And companies like Fujitsu and Lenovo will likely continue to provide hardware to those markets.

But the classic Microsoft tablet PC design does not--and never will--appeal to the much larger consumer market, where Apple and the Android camp now dominate.

There are plenty of reasons why consumers--including the "businesspeople" attending WPC 2011--don't buy Windows 7 tablets. And, conversely, why they do buy Apple's iPad. Two big reasons are the fact that Windows 7 has not been optimized for tablets and the popularity of iOS apps versus older "legacy" Windows applications. But design also plays a big role.

Windows 7 tablets are essentially designed to be PCs. And they look a lot like PCs, just without the keyboard. Or, in some cases---like the Lenovo X220 or HP EliteBook 2760--they already have a keyboard.

As jaded as I am, I am still mildly shocked to see, in the summer of 2011, so many large, thick, PC-like products that seem to defy contemporary tablet design. Instead of extreme portability, you get thick, heavy hardware laden with connectors and heat-venting grills.

And, yes, there are people who buy these tablets because they run all of their favorite Windows applications. But that's not where the lion's share of the consumer tablet market is headed. And it's not just Apple that's headed in the opposite direction; it's companies like Samsung and Motorola. And others like Amazon will follow.

Let's hope Windows 8 moves Microsoft into that market. The sooner the better.