Can Microsoft Grab the Brass Ring?

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?