Fresh rumors from a source in Korea say that a new tablet computer, built by Samsung and sporting Microsoft's upcoming tablet-centric OS Windows 8, will be revealed at MS's BUILD developer conference next week. Bill Gates championed the idea a decade ago, but it never took off. With Samsung embroiled in a patent war with Apple over its Android tablets, perhaps this time MS's persistant innovation may pay off.
It's been almost exactly a decade since Bill Gates, as CEO and founder of Microsoft, took to the stage at the Comdex show for his keynote address, "wowing" the crowd by unveiling a prototype for a new kind of computer—portable, flat, with a touchscreen and coming with a number of useful new applications that let users interact with software in new ways. He called it a tablet PC, and predicted "next year a lot of people in the audience will be taking notes" with them.
That didn't happen. Tablet PCs, in the form of pure slate designs and convertible laptops are still made, and do sell, but they absolutely did not revolutionize the market, much less lead to a "post-PC" era. These are two things Apple's credited with for its amazing iPad, which it's very careful never to call a "tablet" at all. Where Gates's devices were criticized for their clunky pen-centric "overlay" on top of plain old Windows XP, size, poor performance and battery life, Apple's tablet has a wholly new, famously swipe-y UI that's optimized for a touch-based interaction and hardware that's designed to deliver useful power as well as decent battery life in a super-portable format.
The technology for Gates's machines, meanwhile, just wasn't mature enough. But while Microsoft can be accused of complacency in many areas of business, it has at least kept innovating. Its Windows Phone 7 OS, designed for smartphones and most likely spurred into existence by the sudden paradigm shift caused by the iPhone (which also radically shook up a market that Microsoft more or less created, but didn't succeed in exploding), has been met with general approval, even if its initial sales weren't impressive. Microsoft has kept the pressure up though, and the upgrade to Windows Phone 7 Mango adds a host of new featurest that keep the OS at the cutting edge being honed by Apple and Google, and in some ways (such as the dynamic home page) surpassing them.
Which brings us back to the Samsung Windows 8 tablet. Samsung has been developing its technical smarts for decades, and some of its hardware technical expertise has been key in components for the iPhone and iPad. It has leapt into the new smartphone and hardware markets with a host of its own devices, and though it's easy to accuse Samsung of merely cloning Apple's excellent efforts, (something the courts seem to agree has happened), it has definitely crammed its own innovations in hardware and software into the devices, too. If any company has the manufacturing wherewithal to build a smart, sleek powerful tablet that runs synergistically with MS's operating system, it's Samsung.
Then there's Windows 8 itself. It's actually slightly mysterious, and MS has kept its design secrets pretty tightly held. We do know it's inspired by the clever designs from Windows Phone 7, and MS has really come good on its promise to have a "Natural User-Interface"-centric future OS that lends itself to the same kind of gesture-based interaction as iOS. Current rumors also suggest that it'll run Windows Phone 7 apps, giving Windows tablet users access to thousands of exisiting apps in the way iPhone apps also run on the iPad.
Plus Microsoft is retaining a conventional history-inspired Windows experience behind the tablet UI "layer," and that will be a potent tool to attract many potential buyers who are tempted by the new tablet paradigm, but can't tear themselves away from a Windows-based world through nervousness or because their business needs are so tied up with MS software.
Which leads us to wonder: Can MS carve out a decent niche in the new tablet market...with Samsung's help? Both firms have the incentive to do so, and their parallel innovations in hardware and software could synchronize nicely. We suspect that the iPad will continue to dominate the market for some time, because Apple has stolen a massive lead, as well as the lion's share of the public attention, and has been aggressively innovating itself (rumors about the iPad 3, due early in 2012, suggest it'll have a high resolution screen that makes most laptops hard to gaze upon). But with Samsung once burned in the Android tablet game, and MS's huge installed userbase and fans as rabid as Apple's, it's possible that the device the two reveal next week could really turn into something that sells rather well. Better late than never, eh Bill?