Can Microsoft Grab the Brass Ring?

| Editorial

Microsoft has had plenty of opportunities in the post PC wars world to grab the brass ring. In 2002, Microsoft, with its business focus, passed on music. Then, in 2007, Steve Ballmer scoffed at the iPhone. Now, we're on the precipice of a third revolution, the next generation tablet. Will Microsoft turn its back one more time?

In the Beginning

On October 23, 2001 Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPod. While it wasn't the first MP3 music player on the market, it was the first to combine a large (at the time) hard disk with Macintosh syncing and an easy, intuitive UI and controls.

Microsoft passed.

Many years later, as an after thought, Microsoft rolled out the Zune which, by all accounts, is a marketplace failure.

On January 9, 2007, at Macworld, Steve Jobs unveiled the original iPhone, and Apple started to ship in the U.S. at the end of June. Steve Ballmer publicly scoffed. He outright dismissed it because the iPhone doesn't have a (physical) keyboard. That, he said "... makes it not a very good e-mail machine."

Microsoft passed.

To be fair, Microsoft was deep into Windows Mobile and saw its role as the provider of the software for smartphones. Happy with the numbers of mobile phones with Windows Mobile and not in tune with the hunger for integrated hardware and software and apps -- and not deeply connected with the general population, Microsoft saw no advantage to geting into the phone hardware business. The company never imagined the prospect of 85,000 iPhone apps and 2 billion downloads two years later.

Meanwhile Apple has sold an estimated 30 million iPhones and 20 million iPod touches through Q4 2009.

The Third Wave

Now we're on the verge of a third revolution with the personal tablet. I'm not saying that I know Apple will ship a 10.7 inch screen tablet, a super-sized iPhone. However, the tea leaves point that way, and we know that we're all begging for a personal video player, game machine, textbook and newspaper reader.

So the Microsoft corporation's executive leadership would have to be complete idiots to not cash in on the new wave of mobility, especially considering the state of the newspaper publishing industry. It doesn't require a lot of insight or business acumen to see that newspapers, book publishers, game developers, and the entertainment industry are all creating a critical convergence for a personal tablet. At least in my opinion, which is what this article is all about.

So one has to suspect that Microsoft would be gearing up for a new platform, a last chance to create a new OS for the 21st century. Once and for all, Microsoft could have a platform that would allow them to re-write their OS and re-write the future. It's too late for a Microsoft Windows classic in a "blue box" while they build a replacement OS. They had that chance a few years ago and passed.

However, the iPhone has demonstrated that many, many typical tasks can be accomplished with finger gestures. Twitter has a maximum of 140 characters. E-mail is full of scams. New paradigms will emerge as Apple and others fully exploit something that can build a new future with a new OS foundation. That means new methods of communication and collaboration.

I believe that Microsoft is exploring exactly that new OS paradigm. Meetings at Microsoft, nowadays, must be filled with chatter: "Are we going to allow Apple to steal the third wave too?" [Followed by the ritual throwing of chairs.]

The Challenge

The result has been a series of concept videos as Microsoft flops about, looking for a vision -- since there's nothing to copy yet except the iPhone OS. The company is probably thinking ambitiously. They'd like to leapfrog the iPhone OS and build a foundation for a new mobile computing future.

With foresight and planning, a day could come when the desktop PC and Windows derivatives die a slow death. Perhaps in ten years. At that time, we'll have a little black box server in the office with a 50 TB flash drive and all our daily operations will be conducted wirelessly on a personal tablet.

Can Microsoft grab the brass ring? Are the concept videos designed to not only flesh out some concepts, but buy time, give Apple pause, allow Microsoft to develop their own equivalent of iPhone OS and Cocoa touch? And do it now, not when it's too late three years from now.

Microsoft is still a wealthy company. It could spin out a completely separate devision as IBM did with the IBM PC under Philip Estridge. Build a new OS for a new platform.

Can Microsoft do it?



Tens years? really? We are all going to be finger painting with our fat fingers do all computing task in ten years? This reminds me of other tec writers who have claimed my industry, design would all forgo mice for hand gestures. Anyone who does graphic design, of any kind must laugh when they read that. That the x-acto knife precision of a cursor would be replaced by fat fat fingers. That just my industry where people can develop a lifelong tic over the placement of a pallet window in Photoshop.

Ten years?

What about other technical fields such as computer science,  medical research, aerospace? All their tools will be re written for this new paradigm which by all accounts is for media delivery. Never mind the DECADES we have spent to arrive to where we are today.
Ten years?

Are you for real?

John Martellaro

Dave:  Not only must we extrapolate hardware and industry trends, we must also extrapolate how our use of computers change.  I remember when Dvorak scoffed at the mouse because we had to take our hands off the keyboard. It would never fly.

New technology brings news ways of accomplishing tasks in ways that are outside our current habits.  I have no doubts that brilliant developers will provide new ways of achieving the same results, sans mice.

Steve Ballmer couldn’t envision e-mail on a smartphone without a physical keyboard. Extrapolating current techniques to 10 years in the future is dangerous.  In my opinion, we’ll all be achieving, writing, and creating content in ten years without the current, “old” technologies.



I think your idea of a wireless office with personal tablets is great. Where I work we are using workstations running thinclients, either remote Windows from a Terminal Server or Ubuntu on a limited desktop from a terminal server over ethernet. So the idea is not as far fetched as it sounds. I think though the emphasis is on SLOW death. Thin clients and terminal servers have allowed my company to not update their desktops. The 400 Mhz celeron systems that ran Windows when new are still running, albeit as thinclients. Companies will milk out every penny of value, out of systems and then mine the carcasses for parts to keep other ancient systems going for as long as possible before upgrading to new. So while I think your model of the post PC office is very possible, 10 years seems rather optimistic for those of us in the trenches.


Somewhere voice recognition weeps in the corner. Remember just about 10 years ago some people believed that VR was going to replace the keyboard.

Touch screens will continue to become popular but I wouldn’t say the keyboard will be dead in 10 years just yet.


I just can’t see it happening with Ballmer at the helm.  The man is simply not a visionary by any stretch of the imagination.  Lately, he seems to be spending more time whistling by the graveyard than at the office polishing his crystal ball.


Voice recognition died not because computers can’t recognize patterns in speech but because speaking to computers is not practical. Can you imagine an office full of people talking to their computers? It would sound like a noisy call-center. Think also of the security issues and privacy lost when your instructions to the computer can be overheard.


I think MS would be smart to stay out of - or at least minimize any involvement in manufacturing and marketing hardware.  Their success to date in that arena is not so hot, whereas their success at marketing and selling mediocre (at best) bloatware to a majority of the computing world is, literally, unsurpassed.

As Apple is a hardware company and is (so far) wisely staying within that market (OSX being the main marketing tool to make Macs worth more than the average PC), so MS is - and should remain - a software company.  If they were to forget trying to grab onto some petty share of every new gizmo market to come along, they should concentrate on bringing out a truly GOOD OS, a truly GOOD office suite, etc. etc. etc.  As long as they let new trends bend turn their heads, any effort they make in all arenas is going to be divided, with poor results - VISTA anyone?


...speaking to computers is not practical. Can you imagine an office full of people talking to their computers? It would sound like a noisy call-center. Think also of the security issues and privacy lost when your instructions to the computer can be overheard.

With headsets one can speak these things in a low voice, even quieter than routine conversation. Simple noise filters can mitigate or eliminate ambient office noise.

Sure, keyboard entry (physical or screen) will need to remain available, for not only certain security and privacy issues (“YES, MYMAC, I SAID I WANT TO GO TO LOTSA-HOT-BOOTY-SHAKIN DOT COM”) but also for visual and technical needs that just won’t likely ever work with voice.

Exclusions and limitations acknowledged, most users could still make very effective use of voice input for many needs. Remember, what we call Laptops today were a “portable computer” fantasy some 20 years ago. Today, they’re moving toward becoming THE computer for most of us.


Well I, for one, rely on voice recognition every day.  I’m a nurse practitioner, and I use Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictating my progress notes.  The problem is that “progress notes” can come out as “pro gas nodes” way to frequently.


Voice recognition died not because computers can?t recognize patterns in speech but because speaking to computers is not practical. Can you imagine an office full of people talking to their computers? It would sound like a noisy call-center. Think also of the security issues and privacy lost when your instructions to the computer can be overheard.

Exactly… I never said VR died because it wasn’t any good at what it supposed to do, it just wasn’t practical. Actually VR isn’t really dead, some people use it and it works perfectly within the context what they do.

But I would put touch screens in the same class as VR ? good and functional for certain types of input… but not necessarily going to be the main input for the majority of computers over the next 10 years. That doesn’t mean it won’t be around or gain in popularity.

I am also in agreement that newer technologies replace older technologies… so something will come along to replace the keyboard… But for now and the next 10 years the keyboard is still king.

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