This week's unveiling of the Samsung Galaxy Tab stoked the already formidable fire lit around tablet devices by the Apple iPad. And with several other contenders coming to market in the coming months, tablets should be a common sight in the coming year, particularly in the workplace, thanks to their unique combination of power, simplicity, and portability. But will Microsoft, long prized for its business-centric offerings, manage to get in on the action?
Though the iPad has transformed the way users think of tablet computing, Apple has never shown much consistency in courting the business world. Still, its overwhelming popularity with consumers has helped the iPad penetrate into the boardroom more than most pundits expected. (In my daily travels, it's not uncommon to encounter two or three iPads in any sizeable business meeting.) And though its image as a consumer toy has dampened its appeal for IT managers, the iPad does support portable computing features that are essential for businesses, such as remote data wiping, encryption, and Microsoft Exchange support.
Compared with the iPad, Samsung's Galaxy Tab has made greater overtures to the business world. Unlike the AT&T-only iPad, the Galaxy Tab is available on all four carriers, allowing virtually any business to incorporate it into an existing 3G contract. It also boasts twice the memory of Apple's tablet, while weighing in at under a pound. Making it more attractive to professional users is the fact that it ships with the bolstered Exchange support and security features of Android 2.2. And though the majority of Android apps still need to be modified to take advantage of Galaxy Tab's 7-inch, 1024-by-768 display, several essential ones have already made the leap.
So how will Microsoft respond to the rapidly evolving tablet landscape? The company has been a longtime loser when it comes to tablet technology, even as it's pioneered the space almost solo. Microsoft has spent the better part of a decade unsuccessfully trying to get people to use Windows XP on slabs that were little more than clunky, chunky laptops. If Ballmer and Co. want to compete in this new tablet market--and it is probably crucial to do so--Microsoft's going to need to come up with a much more elegant entrant than any of its previous attempts.
Microsoft's best bet for tablets would likely be an optimized Windows Phone 7. Our early looks show that Windows Phone 7 has the raw makings of a good smartphone operating system. But even if it's polished into a gem by its eventual release date, it's still a generation behind iOS and Android. And the recent news that neither Sprint nor Verizon will be selling Phone 7 devices until early 2011 (completely missing out on the holiday market and pitting it head-to-head with the probable release of the iPhone on Verizon) further hampers its making inroads into the mainstream.
In my view, Microsoft doesn't have many opportunities left to make itself relevant in the mobile market. It has bought time thanks to the profusion of enterprise users who rely on Windows-based systems and have forgiven the company's mistakes in its mobile OS development. But this market is evolving with unprecedented speed. Microsoft needs to stop playing catch-up and start making dramatic strides if it doesn't want to be a dinosaur in the dawning tablet age.