What the 'tablet wars' are really all about

As Microsoft, Google, HP, and others react to Apple's iPad, most are missing the point: The real tablet war is about the future of computing

The tech media restarted a "tablet wars" frenzy last week when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced that Microsoft was going to -- honest! -- get serious about tablet computing and come after the iPad. He also promised Windows 7-based tablets "soon."

Meanwhile, Intel is furiously working to port Google's Android OS to run on its Atom chips for use in tablets and slates, Google continues to slog away on its own slate-oriented Chrome OS and is collaborating with Verizon on an Android slate. Cisco Systems has its Android-based Cius networking slate in the works, and Hewlett-Packard announced plans for both WebOS and Windows 7 slates. Asian computer makers such as Acer, Asus, Lenovo, and LG have already promised lots of Android-based tablets for 2011.

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Through it all, Apple has reported it now makes more money from the pricey iPads than it does from its iPod line, and demand continues to be so strong that the company can barely keep up with orders. It's now clear the computer makers grossly underestimated the iPad -- remember all the dismissive statements in February 2009 and January 2010, before the iPad was revealed? And now they're scrambling to jump into the fray, grasping at whatever they can to do so.

But the battle is not just about hardware devices or about mobile OSes. The real tablet war is about the future of computing. Thus, any tech vendor who simply slaps Windows 7 or Android onto a slate, or that tries to compete on trivial specs such as cameras' megapixel counts or screen dimensions, is missing the point -- and that means most of them.

Tablet PCs: A dinosaur in a new skin
Tablets PCs have been around for more than a decade, with little interest from consumers or businesses. Essentially notebooks that don't fold up, tablets were full PCs that used pen-based input to replace the keyboard and the mouse. The health care industry tried them out but found they were too heavy, cumbersome, and battery-hogging to work better than laptops on carts. Other industries tried them as well, but the same combination of flaws relegated them to the status of dust-collecting curiosities.

Microsoft still views tablet computing as a nonfolding laptop, and it has done nothing to address the tablet's design flaws. Windows 7 has poor touch UI capabilities (which Microsoft esssentially stopped trying to improve nearly two years ago) and consumes way too many resources to work on a lightweight, battery-sipping device. A Windows tablet is just a laptop that can't fold up, with a realistic battery life of a couple hours, a heavy weight, awkward size, and difficult work environment because apps still assume users have mice and keyboards.

Microsoft has shown zero understanding that a tablet -- or a slate such as the iPad -- is not a traditional computer in a different box. You'd think a decade of failure and customer feedback about the device's issues across three versions of Windows would have given Microsoft a clue to rethink the tablet as something other than a PC. And the (apparently exhausted) explosion of demand for netbooks in 2009 should have been a clue that users do want something new in portable computing -- just not traditional tablets.

Google's vision: A window to the cloud
Last fall, Google made a splash with its Chrome OS announcement. Due this year, Chrome OS is essentially a browser-as-OS that would run on tablets but shift the processing and storage to cloud-based services and be more of a window to online content and services than a computer. The idea got a lot of buzz for a week or two, and Google says it will release Chrome OS by 2011.

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