Microsoft Talking Tablets; UI Issues Remain Unresolved

Tablets and mobile devices are central to Microsoft's plans for CES 2011. In addition to its demo of an early Windows 8 build running on ARM CPUs, the software giant will be demonstrating a number of tablets running Windows 7. If this sounds familiar it's because Microsoft did much the same thing last year—but very little came of the company's push a year ago. Analysts expect the slate/tablet market to explode over the next few years and Redmond wants a piece of the action. It's less than-clear, however, if the tablet version of Windows 7 is capable of standing up to the competition.

Spend a few hours with Windows 7's current multitouch mode and you'll soon be wondering why the company bothered. Win 7 may support multi-touch but it's designed around the same keyboard+mouse paradigm that dates back decades. Touch is reasonably good for scrolling, especially if there's no mouse with horizontal-scrolling support available, but most documents and websites avoid horizontal movement as much as possible.

Acer has demonstrated its own Windows 7 tablet; we expect to see more of it at CES

True, Win 7 supports various gestures and offers a virtual on-screen keyboard, but basic OS functions are clearly not designed for the fat-fingered. At higher resolutions (or smaller displays) it's increasingly difficult to correctly tap the desired shortcut, resize windows, or use program menus. The problem could be exacerbated within various applications which may or may not have been redesigned for easy access. Windows 7 x86 tablets will be compatible with desktop software, but GUI problems could limit the practical value of this feature.

Microsoft has plenty of experience designing mobile OS's but the long-running Windows Mobile series has never been anyone's idea of a svelte, sexy solution. Using Windows Phone 7 would resolve most of the problems that make Windows 7 unattractive as a multitouch OS, but WP7 and W7 share a brand, not a framework. MS could create a hybridized "Tablet Edition" OS via cross-pollination, but has never so much as hinted that it's considering such a product. The company need not necessarily opt for such a radical option, but we're doubtful that we'll see tablet vendors clamoring to ship slide-out keyboards or styluses that other OS's can avoid using altogether.

Of all the technical hurdles standing between MS and a significant chunk of the tablet market, UI design seems the most likely to stymie the company's plans for its own slates. Windows 8 on ARM will be exciting, but MS is years behind iOS and even Android when it comes to fielding a digit-devoted operating system. When Ballmer unveils the 2011 product lineup he'll hopefully have a fresh set of tablet-friendly changes to discuss.

Note: The trend-setting French have struck again. Although it won't be formalized until January 12, the French government is considering exempting tablets using Windows 7 from the mandated copying fee that affects devices based on iOS or Android. French tablet manufacturers like Arcos are unsuprisingly grumpy about this.