Steve Ballmer at next year's CES showing off the Windows tablet PC that wowed the world in 2010. Photo by Microsoft Sweden on Flickr. Some rights reserved
Shall we call it a tablet reboot? The well-informed rumours suggest that Microsoft's chief executive Steve Ballmer will unveil a raft of tablets at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January.
Or as the New York Times's Bits blog put it:
"Next month, at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft will give it another try, presenting a slew of new slates that it hopes will offer some competition to the Apple iPad, which has quickly become the leader in this space.
"According to people familiar with Microsoft's plans, Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's chief executive, is expected to announce a number of these devices when he takes the stage at C.E.S., showcasing devices built by Samsung and Dell, among a number of other manufacturing partners."
OK, let's play flashback! Party like it's January 2010 and you're in CES watching a "snooze-athon" (© Jack Schofield) presentation by Steve Ballmer: "while Ballmer did show three tablet or slate computers, including a slick-looking multi-touch HP model, again he showed them only briefly. The HP slate appeared to be running Amazon's Kindle software for Windows, which means you can have a decent ebook reader with a colour screen."
Or as PC World put it at the time, "HP Slate lowers the bar for Apple's Tablet PC". Ouch. Remember, the iPad hadn't been launched at that time, so nobody knew what it would do or be able to do. There weren't a plethora of tablets from Android handset makers; in fact the idea of them hadn't been floated. It was, all in all, a more innocent time.
PC World was unrelenting: "If revealing the HP Slate at Ballmer's keynote was, in fact, a scramble to try and steal Apple's thunder and be the first out of the gate with a hot new tablet...I mean slate PC, it backfired. Exploiting such a high profile event as Ballmer's keynote speech at CES for an underwhelming presentation of a mediocre device just lowers the bar for Apple."
And now, Ballmer is coming back to do it all over again, except that this time HP has abandoned Windows 7 on tablets because it has bought Palm. Then again, Dell is pitching up again (despite having done a mini-tablet in the form of the Streak). Oh, and Apple will have sold around 10m of those iPad things, compared to zero when Ballmer was last on the stage.
The question remains, though, of why on earth Microsoft is yoking its tablet wagon to the three-legged donkey that is Windows 7 on a tablet, rather than going with its consumer-facing and potentially very elegant Windows Phone 7 interface, which (I keep saying) could be a knockout on a tablet.
But the tablet fumble, and the fact that Ballmer is having to do it all over again, is making some analysts uncomfortable. The Seattle-based Techflash reports that
"Goldman Sachs technology analyst Sarah Friar sees challenging times ahead for Microsoft in 2011 as it attempts to address the threat from tablet computers such as the iPad and mobile operating systems such as Android. In a research note released this weekend, Friar wrote that it will be a 'more challenging year' for Microsoft with top-line growth slowing from 12% to 7%."
"Only" 7% is the sort of growth that most would be happy with, of course, especially if they're already the size of Microsoft. Techflash continues, quoting Goldman Sachs:
"A tablet response is still not forthcoming and our early read on Windows Phone 7 has not yet changed our view that Microsoft's share in mobile OSes will remain at only the single-digit level," Friar wrote. "For an unlocking of shareholder value, we continue to look for a more aggressive dividend, a more focused consumer strategy, and stronger Cloud-Azure traction."
Again, ouch. Though there's a good contract win for Azure today with Transport for London using it for its live data feeds.
However Joe Wilcox thinks that this is too hasty a dismissal of Microsoft - and particularly that the leak about the CES announcements was a reaction to the "bad" Goldman Sachs news:
"Microsoft doesn't need to sell bazillions of Windows tablets to leverage its cloud. The company can tactically offer cloud services/apps for Android and iOS tablets. It's a sensible way to help businesses to maximize their investment in existing Microsoft software and/or hosted services. Ideally, Microsoft should control more of the applications stack, but "not ideal" doesn't mean the Titanic sinking. Yes, 2011 looks challenging for Microsoft, but it's also chock full of opportunities. "
Just don't expect them necessarily to be in tablets running Windows - at least, not Windows 7.