This Christmas looks set to host the opening shots in a battle which will decide the future direction of mobile computing. Following the runaway success of smartphones and the Apple iPad, the strategic importance of this fight has not been lost on the world’s largest technology companies
Not since the explosion of personal computing in the 80s have so many different platforms of operating system and hardware components made their play for supremacy. Microsoft is going to need to get this right if it is to avoid the fate it suffered in the smartphone market.
Some of Microsoft’s oldest friends don’t seem so sure. At Computex in May, Intel demoed a tablet running Nokia joint-venture operating system MeeGo. Others were more direct: "Windows is too big and it's too full featured for smartbooks and tablets,”said Nvidia CEO Jen Hsun-Huang.
"The good news is that we finally have an operating system to unite behind. Android is an operating system that has gained a tremendous amount of momentum all over the world," he added.
The tablet PC, or the slate as Microsoft prefers to call it, has been tried and failed in the past. We can thank Apple’s continuing role in showing the industry that good software and interface design is at least as important as shiny hardware in a new product genre.
Microsoft views new platforms as a new place to sell old products. The company has two mobile specific operating systems, Windows Embedded Compact 7 and Windows Embedded Standard 7. The in-development Embedded Compact (EC) 7 is the latest version of the old Windows CE, born of the same code base as the aged Windows Mobile.
Windows Embedded Standard is cut-down version of Windows 7, it is a heavy weight operating system just like on the PC, already released to developers. Windows 7 EC is the OS that can run on lightweight ARM-based systems. At the recent Windows Partner Conference, Ballmer said the company was "hardcore" about Windows 7 slates. That’s a strategy that will be keenly tested later this year.
If you’re a hardware manufacturer that is more interested in a tablet device in the upsized smartphone sort of guise, and the iPad is an example of this, then the only Microsoft choice is the latest version of Windows CE. At Computex in May, Asus unveiled the EP101TC tablet running a beta version of Windows CE 7. In the last day we have learned via Netbook News that Asus has dropped Windows CE 7 in favour of Android.
Specifically Android 3.0 or ‘Gingerbread’ as it’s known. The new version of the open source operating system is said to be designed to accommodate larger screen devices. Given Asus had a product on display in May and has chosen to wait until Android 3.0 is released, mooting a Q1 2011 launch, the firm must have good reasons for the move.
Capability and features aside, Windows CE 7 costs money which Asus will have to charge to consumer, making it less price competitive against free-OS rivals. Added to that the company can modify the OS with software features while still maintaining compatibility with Android applications.
These sorts of reasons are why alternative operating systems have been invested in by number of technology players. HP splashed $1.2b on Palm in order to acquire the WebOS operating system and the company has already said will be launching WebOS-based tablet devices, something of a blow given it was an unlaunched HP slate Ballmer had been showing as a Windows 7 device.
Elsewhere Nokia and Intel have partnered on MeeGo, another open source Linux derivative. Intel has good reason to ensure that there are viable mobile operating systems which run on the x86 instruction set, lest it get pushed out by the popular ARM CPU. That could happen if Windows 7 fails to kick off on tablets. That’s why the company has been porting Android to x86 and collaborating with Nokia on MeeGo, even demoing a MeeGo tablet at Computex.
Yet Microsoft is in fact developing a brand new touch-screen OS aimed at the ARM-class device. That product is Windows Mobile 7 but it has made it clear that this is firmly off the cards for tablets in favour of Windows 7. Given Microsoft’s position in the market, some level of industry support is guaranteed and the company also has first mover advantage with Windows 7 tablets tablets due in the next couple of months.
Yet much hedging of bets can be seen in the industry at large and Toshiba is one such example which only yesterday unveiled new tablet products in Australia due later this year. It would say only that it was working on Android and Windows 7 tablets with one due between September and October. That’s likely to be the Windows 7 based.
The first devices to hit the market will be Windows 7 devices and Microsoft is going to have to show some sort of demand. Whether it does or not it does it, these devices will be followed swiftly by an array of slender newcomers running spangly new finger-friendly operating systems such, Android, WebOS, Meego and even the iOS 4 update for the Apple iPad.