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Windows tablets: doomed to fail?

20 years of trying, and Microsoft still can't win at the tablet game

Microsoft has been pushing tablets since the early 1990s, with little or no success. So will Windows tablets ever succeed?

The iPad made the modern tablet market explode, but Microsoft spent the decade between the birth of XP and the iPad's launch evangelising tablets. And as we can see from the tabletisation of Windows 8, it hasn't given up yet.

Microsoft's history with tablets is as long and torturous as its struggles in the mobile sphere. Back in the early 90s, Microsoft introduced ‘Windows for Pen Computing' (WPC). Not the first tablet operating system (OS), WPC was a software suite for Windows 3.1 that added pen input to early Windows x86 PCs. WPC allowed stylus-wielding execs to launch an onscreen keyboard, bark voice memos and make handwritten digital notes. There was even a primitive handwriting-recognition tool.
 
Microsoft improved on the first WPC in time for Windows 95, and made pen input intrinsic to all Windows OSes from XP forward. In fact, the release of XP was an important event in the history of desktop, laptop and tablet PCs.

With XP's 2001 release, Microsoft defined the term ‘tablet'. Tablets would be, it said, fully functional x86 PCs with pen, handwriting and voice input. Note the omission of touch.

Microsoft and its partners then produced ‘tablets' that were, well, laptops that allowed you to scratch around with a pen. It tried a parallel approach with Smart Display back in 2002/3. A monitor with no standalone functions, Smart Display worked only when tethered to a PC.

Microsoft finally moved things on when it started touting ultramobile PCs in 2006. At last, its Windows OS was available on small and light, touch-centric devices.

But unlike Apple, Microsoft is reliant on third parties to design, build and market its products. So while it was promoting tablet and ultramobile PCs to an unlistening world, its partners were knocking out cheap netbooks to fulfil their clients' mobile needs. And while it was the master of the desktop, tablet and mobile remained pale imitations of the main event.

Indeed, whether it was coincidence, a spoiler or an unkind irony, only weeks before Apple's Steve Jobs announced the iPad and stole the tablet market, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer launched with great fanfare the latest iteration of Windows tablets: the HP Slate PC. True to form, the Slate came and went, after the iPad.

Now most versions of Windows 7 offer handwriting recognition, multitouch and the rest. Specialist Windows tablets continue to find a niche in specialist business markets. But to be a truly successful tablet, the OS needs to be build for touch, not merely touch-enabled. Windows is a desktop OS grafted on to tablet hardware, useful only to those who don't want to cut the Windows apron strings, and lacking the built-for tablet ARM hardware. Apple didn't use OS X on the iPad, after all.

But there is hope for Microsoft. The last iteration of OS X lost the word 'Mac' from its name, as Apple slowly leans toward iOS 5 as its primary platform. If Windows 8 is able to become the success story Microsoft hopes it will, it'll be the first tablet-friendly Windows, and the game will truly be afoot.

See also: Windows 8 and why Android is the new Windows

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