Microsoft's killer tablet opportunity

Forget about outdoing Apple's iPad and give us the features that finally improve the way we work

Imagine, for the sake of argument, that you run a company that isn't Apple and want to make money selling tablets. How might you go about it?

What you wouldn't try to do: Out-Apple Apple.

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There's no point trying to outslick the company that's perfected slick user interfaces. First of all, you won't succeed. By the time you get close to matching iOS, Apple will have moved on to the next level of fashionable semi-functionality. Apple's software is somewhat like the Kardashians: It always looks good if your tastes run that way. Its capabilities are quite a different matter.

Nor does acknowledging second-best status on the slickness front have to translate to lack of competitiveness. Recall that, give or take a year or two, Microsoft Windows has looked like what you might get if Apple sold Macintoshes in kit form to hobbyists -- sorta like it, only clunkier and with rough edges. And yet, Windows have outsold Macs everywhere except in homes, schools, and marketing departments by maybe a 20:1 margin. The user interface matters, but it isn't the whole ball game. Heck, it isn't even an inning.

No, the game isn't beating Apple at its own game. The magic buzzword is to "differentiate" and show what your technology will do that Apple won't even care about, let alone beat you at. One possible answer: Help individual employees be more effective at their jobs.

Here are three features the iPad lacks -- and almost certainly will continue to lack for quite some time -- that fit the bill. I should be charging Steve Ballmer for these ideas, but I'll settle for a freebie if Microsoft, or any other tablet maker, ends up making a gadget that incorporates them.

Killer tablet feature No. 1: Have a file system

No, I'm not the first person to point this out. This isn't even the first (or second, or third) time I've said it myself. Nonetheless, helping users stay organized is central to a computer's purpose, and file management is central to that goal.

Killer tablet feature No. 2: The file system is the CMS is the PIM is the email client

Have something to remember? In the iOS world, different kinds of information go into different apps, never to see each other again. When the best you can do for the miscellaneous stuff is the notebook-oriented Evernote PIM (personal information manager), there's plenty of room for improvement, even within iOS's self-imposed limitations.

The Windows world is better: Different kinds of information go into different file types, databases, or applications. On top of that, for any particular thought that needs remembering, users can choose where they stash information. Sometimes they:

  • Save a short Word document on their hard disk or network share.
  • Save a short Word document in SharePoint or some other CMS.
  • Add another tidbit to one long document they put it all into.
  • Send themselves an email.
  • Add a Note or Task to Outlook or third-party PIM.
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