Microsoft to Unveil Touchscreen Windows Tablets This Week

Microsoft will be unveiling a version of Windows for touchscreen tablets (a.k.a. media tablets) to compete with Apple’s iPad this week, according to a report from Bloomberg. The company will be making the announcement at the AllThingD’s D Conference, which is taking place this week in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California.

This giant tidbit comes in an otherwise scattered story about Acer CEO J.T. Wang complaining about the level of control that Microsoft is imposing on the OEMs licensing the new OS. According to Mr. Wang, Big Redmond has placed “troublesome” restrictions on which processors can be used in tablet devices utilizing the new device.

“They’re really controlling the whole thing, the whole process,” Mr. Wang told Bloomberg at the Computex trade show taking place in Taipei. He didn’t specify what those restrictions are, but he said that chip suppliers and PC makers alike, “all feel it’s very troublesome.”

Steve Ballmer introducing the HP Slate in 2010

Steve Ballmer introducing the HP Slate in 2010

Microsoft was an early pioneer with tablets, introducing Windows for tablet PCs more than a decade ago. The devices didn’t sell well, however, and the company isn’t even a player in the media tablet market created overnight by Apple when it introduced the iPad in January of 2010 (it shipped on April 23rd).

Windows is designed for a mouse and keyboard, and the few Windows tablet devices that have shipped (and not sold) since the iPad’s introduction have all been stylus-based devices that are full PCs, not slimmed down media tablets designed to be operated with a few touches like Apple’s iPad and competing Android tablet devices.

During that time, Microsoft has also been mum on its plans for competing in this new market, an uncharacteristic move on the company’s part, which is better known for pre-announcements and FUD vaporware than it is for running a tight, leak-proof ship when it comes to its plans. Bloomberg’s sources are unnamed, but the media company said that Windows President Steven Sinofsky will be unveiling the OS (and devices that use it) at D, while Microsoft vice president Steve Guggenheimer does the same thing at Computex.

There’s no indication yet if the OS will be based on interface concepts introduced with Windows Phone 7. The company could go that route, of course, or it could introduce something that is more akin to Windows 7, but optimized for a touch interface. Whatever the company’s course, Bloomberg’s sources said that Microsoft is rushing the new OS market.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has twin demons giving him cause to rush. The first is the above-mentioned reality that the king of operating systems isn’t even a player in the media tablet space. Microsoft simply has zero entries in a market that will see as many as 70 million devices sold, according to estimates from one company, Jefferies Group, though that company seems oblivious to the reality that only the iPad is actually being bought by customers.

Whether or not Android devices are selling, however, Apple will sell at least 20 million iPads in Calendar 2011, while Microsoft will sell precisely zero devices without an entry in the market. Until such a time as the company rectifies this shortcoming, Microsoft is ceding ground to Apple, giving free momentum to the iPad and Mac maker as the innovator and controller of the media tablet space.

This is something that Mr. Ballmer must work hard at changing lest the howls from his other demon, a growing minority of shareholders calling for his ouster as the company’s chief executive, in part because he has let smartphones and media tablets pass his company by.

If Microsoft can come to market with a media tablet that is competitive (this reporter has already voiced the opinion that Microsoft is one of only two companies that can mount a realistic fight against Apple in the media tablet market), if the company can launch with solid hardware from its partners and a lack of major bugs in its software, if the company can launch with the kinds of content deals and app development consumers clearly want, and if those consumers then buy those devices, it will do much to repair his shrinking reputation.

Unfortunately for Mr. Ballmer, those are a lot of “ifs” to overcome.