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Ray Ozzie and the myth of the Tablet PC

In this TechFlash interview with Ray Ozzie last week during PDC, Ozzie talks about some of the great things he sees in Windows 7 including the forthcoming multi-touch features:

“Windows 7 is just innately, if you play with it, a great release. I think the doubters will see — if there was anything that we had done that they lost their confidence in, we’re past that point, and I think that the positive thing that will draw people in, in many cases, is the touch work. I won’t go so far as to say it’s the next mouse, meaning it will be on everything and you have to use it. But it’s not going to be like the Tablet PC, where it was truly niche. I think it will go broader and broader. Because it’s such a hot thing in phones now, that will just drive the technology and manufacturing costs down and the PC will benefit, just like we’ve benefitted from televisions dropping the cost of LCD.”

Despite the fact that I agree with much of what he’s saying here–in particular, that the iPhone has convinced people of the value of multi-touch and that its value spreads far beyond one platform, I think Ray Ozzie has been drinking the “Tablet PCs are niche koolaid.”

I wish Microsoft executives wouldn’t speak this way by using terms like “niche” to describe the Tablet PC market. Talk about trying to put a ceiling on their own products.

If you ask me, Tablet PCs (and its usage model for flexible, natural input) are not innately niche. What is the case, is that Tablet PCs have been sold like they are niche. The manufacturers have kept the prices high–keeping the volume down and off of store shelves. Even Microsoft itself has relegated the Tablet features to its premium SKUs rather than making them available in low-cost educational PCs where isn’t it obvious that there’s great value and need for them? And feature wise, we keep coming back to Tablets and IT. Yeah, I wonder why that might be? Might it be the niche thinking of some large northwestern company? Huh? Ring a bell?

And one more thing, from Day 1 many people saw the value of touch, multi-touch, and multi-user input in Tablets. The form factor was a good one to showcase the value of these features. But there was too much niche thinking that held it back. Too many people thought they’d be niche features, that they were too hard to implement, that they had too little value. Of course, all that changed with the success of the iPhone. However, roll the clock back. The UMPC was one step in the right direction by adding touch to a more mobile platform and trying to reduce cost. And just think what would have happened if Microsoft had followed through with Haiku. The iPhone would have been nice, but I bet Apple and the iPhone would not have been crowned thought leader it is today.

Anyway, I wish Microsoft wouldn’t talk down its own innovations. Yes, Tablet features go far beyond just a notebook. That’s what’s so cool about all of this. Imagine computers more aware of what you’re trying to do, or play, or communicate. And imagine “computers” that are more than a desktop or a notebook. Imagine the blur between not just a phone and a computer, but a (still or video) camera and a computer. See the possibilities? That’s what’s so exciting.

Tablet PCs and their featues are a beginning. I fully hope and expect that they will continue to evolve. But is there really a need to continue with the Tablets are niche thinking? Come on. My concern is that we keep on limiting our thinking, we’ll miss out on the “obvious” innovations like the Haiku once again. What a waste that would be.

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