Microsoft Phone and Tablet En Route: Riding Apple's Coattails?

We've covered bits and bobs about Microsoft's "Project Pink" Zune smartphone before, but the device since disappeared from the news. It's back again, matched with exciting rumors of an MS Tablet PC. Doesn't this all sound familiar?

Project Pink has a complex rumor history on the Interwebs, and before Zune HD came out it was even thought to involve that project. Microsoft's also had its suite of Windows Mobile OS's out for years, so people were really confused by the idea of an MSphone. But Mary Jo Foley over at ZDNet has been digging, and found out more of the skinny on the device...and despite a complete lack of corroboration from MS, it's fascinating.

First off, it's going to be MS-branded, but not made by Microsoft—which isn't really a surprise. It will be a smartphone, with advanced services like Zune video and music subscription. Mary Jo speculates it could have a form-factor a bit like the Sidekick, given that Danger, the makers of the Sidekick, has long been part of Project Pink. It'll apparently be based around an WinMo7 core, which is again no surprise—the latest version of WinMo6 is only just beginning to hit the streets. WinMo7 is significantly more advanced, and it makes sense to base a premium product on your premium OS. But WinMo7's been often delayed, and won't make it into phones until later in 2010, which leaves the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show as a perfect preemptive launch event—much as the iPhone and Pre were teased well ahead of their actual on-sale date.

Mary Jo believes Pink is definitely real and on its way. She's encountered information from Peo Orvendal (a Senior Development Lead at MS) on LinkedIn which includes the line "Working in the new V1 Pink team at Microsoft." While that's still circumstantial, it's definitely a positive sign.

But Pink isn't the most nerve-tingling rumor from MS: there's also more evidence that MS has its own slate/tablet touchscreen PC on the way. It's surprising, but at the same time it's not surprising—Bill Gates seriously jumped on the Tablet PC idea years ago, aggressively promoting the idea and pushing for Windows to incorporate tablet-friendly design. Although Bill's efforts resulted in a decent slew of tablet and convertible-tablet Windows machines, the technology just hasn't been there to support a proper implementation until recently, and tablet PCs have remained an oddity.

No longer, apparently: Microsoft's Chief Experience Office and former Xbox launch artist, J Allard, is reportedly in charge of a new tablet effort, with some serious support from MS's Surface team. That last bit makes perfect sense, since Surface has had a generally great reception (apart from derision at its massive cost) and a tablet incorporating some of Surface's innovations would be a better product than a plain old Windows one. The device is still deep in development, but could break the surface surprisingly soon—though probably not until after Apple's fabled iTablet makes its debut.

And that, of course, is where these rumors get fascinating: Think about it.

  • Microsoft's has not launched a hardware product for years that's wowed the world and captured armloads of devoted fans. Apple's done it three times, with the iMac, the iPod and the iPhone. 
  • Apple's just launched a new OS which is an intensive work-over on its previous successful one, Microsoft's soon to launch a new OS which is a radical overhaul of its previous failed one. 
  • Apple's iPhone is taking the world by storm, and the folks at Cupertino are surely working on version 4 already, given the surprisingly sparse updates applied to the version 3 device. Microsoft's seeing the smartphone market drift away into Apple's, Google's and Palm's hands, and apparently has a new smartphone on the way. 
  • And finally Apple's iTablet must be one of the most hotly-rumored gadgets in recent decades, and is heavily tipped to appear early next year...just as MS is reportedly working on a similar touchscreen slate-like device. 

It all looks like Microsoft's slipped off the leading edge of technology a bit, and it's now following just behind—leaving Apple glittering at the very sharp end of consumer electronics. If I were Steve Ballmer, I'd wait to see what Apple's iTablet looks like, and to get my iPhone competing smartphone perfect before launch too. That way Apple's exposed to all the risk first. But it's a tricky game—if these rumors all prove true, MS runs the serious risk of appearing like the late-arriving, copycat, also-ran competitor to Apple's gadgets.

[via ZDNet]

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  • Jeana Horne

    MS has always had a first to market mentality, which as we've seen with the previous OS release, doesn't really work. They are engrained as the industry standard with the Office products, email clients, and OS. I feel they would be wise to make their next "wonder" product, actually "wonder"-ful instead of skimping around the edges to get it out into the market and cleaning up afterwards. Instead of riddled with operational and security flaws as we've seen in the past.

    Just my two-cents.