- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft Corp.’s CEO, is one of the brightest people I’ve ever encountered in computing. His comments Monday at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center certainly garnered attention: Microsoft’s Windows 7 operating system, Mr. Ballmer declared, will soon power a line of devices that will compete with Apple’s iPad.

Though not using the “i-word,” his intent is clear from what he said: “Windows 7-based slates, they’ll come with keyboards, they’ll come without keyboards. They’ll be dockable. There will be many form factors, many price points, many sizes. But they will run Windows 7. They will run Windows 7 applications. They will run [Microsoft] Office. They will … be very good for the kinds of scenarios that all of us are going to see for knowledge workers … that want to have something that works super well at work, but also supports their kind of personal interests.”

Except for the “run Office” part, isn’t all that more or less what folks get from Apple’s i-you-know-what?

Mr. Ballmer’s words are not to be taken lightly: I have no doubt that Microsoft and its partners — Asus, Dell, Samsung, Sony and Toshiba were names he mentioned — will soon offer these devices, and probably at attractive prices. The iPad starts at $499 and bulks up to $829. Within those price points, there’s a fair amount of room for Microsoft’s hardware partners to work.

The question, of course, is what these hardware makers will deliver. Let’s say it’s a slate with a 9-inch or 10-inch (diagonal) touch screen. So far, so good. What’s the battery life? What kind of Intel processor will it use? Wi-Fi is a given, and so would be Bluetooth. How about 3G wireless communications? And what other connections will it have? One USB port, or three? Will there be a slot for a SecureDigital card?

Mr. Ballmer and his colleagues, presumably, have these answers figured out. But how far can the “slate” go without bumping into the very popular netbook platform that Microsoft quickly glommed onto a couple of years back? Will the $399 tablet or the $399 netbook represent a better value, and can anyone be persuaded to buy both? Oh, and what will then happen to the $499 desktop PC?

Coming up with a super-successful computing platform isn’t easy; that’s obvious. What’s less obvious, and more like alchemy, is coming up with a product that users will want to snatch up in droves. That is a rarity, and a great challenge as Microsoft, even without saying it, steps up against Apple’s iPad, which in its first 80 days sold a mind-bending 3 million units at retail.

One of the key elements that has made the iPad such a success is, of course, the 2-year-old iTunes App Store, which has made the creation and marketing of applications for the iPad such a delight. Yes, Apple gets a nice bite out of sales of each application, but users get stuff Apple has reviewed and approved, an easy way to buy new programs, and everything is designed to a certain standard — at least in theory.

How this will shake out for Microsoft is anyone’s guess. The firm’s previous attempts to puree Apple’s app prowess have been, shall we say, less than fruitful. The Zune media player is a nice idea, but you probably couldn’t find a Zune user on Metro if you tried. That “Kin” Windows-based phone with social networking features? Scrapped after way less than 60 days on the market. Ouch.

It’ll probably come down to what Microsoft’s software developer community creates, something Mr. Ballmer tacitly acknowledged: “If we don’t build good stuff, you can’t drive it. And if you don’t drive it, we can’t have great success and keep the wheel spinning.”

As they used to say on a certain 1960s TV show: Tune in next week, same Bat-time, same Bat-station.

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