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Technology CompaniesMicrosoftWill the Tablet PC find a new advocate?

Will the Tablet PC find a new advocate?

The New York Times talks with Bill Gates about his role at Microsoft as he transitions out of the day-to-day operations of the company. He says that now his time with the company is limited to a few hours a month.

“Other than board meetings, there’s not much in terms of regular meetings, it’s much more sitting down a couple hours a month with Craig, sitting down a couple of hours a month with Ray.”

Bill Gates has been one of the strongest public executive voices at Microsoft for the Tablet PC. He rarely misses an opportunity to mention the importance of “natural input” technologies, Tablet PCs, or touch. He gets it. Computers are more than boxes under a desk, or QWERTY concoctions, or tethered experiences. Speech, ink, touch, wireless, ad-hoc networks, and the like are a sprinkling of today’s technologies that can be used to expand the computing experience.

Of course, Bill Gates is going to continue to have a strong voice in the tech industry for years to come, whether he’s involved in the daily operations of Microsoft or not, so hopefully he’ll continue to give Tablets the nod when it’s appropriate. And I hope his vision will continue to inspire new adopters and developers inside and outside of Microsoft.

But I still can’t help but wonder which executive at Microsoft might become the operational champion of Tablets within Microsoft. (I’m presuming, of course, it needs one, which is debatable. But since I believe that Tablets still need a strong voice, I’ll continue along with this thought experiment–ill conceived as it may be.)

A technical advocate makes sense. At the technical top within Microsoft are Craig Mundie and Ray Ozzie. Craig Mundie, according to published reports, dedicates himself to long-term strategies, which might be a match. Tablet PCs definitely need some long term thinking. I don’t see the OEMs doing this, nor any other industry leaders. Microsoft gave birth to the modern Tablet, it’s the one that has to continue to nourish it. And there’s much more to do with Tablets. I still want better network support, multi-touch, improved touch interaction with applications, more Ink 2.0 for the Web 2.0, and so on. I haven’t heard Craig Mundie speak much in public so maybe he’s the voice I’m thinking of.

Ray Ozzie, on the other hand, is widely concerned with current day technology creations within Microsoft. He’d also be a great candidate. However, Ray Ozzie has his hands full with some basic survival issues–and Microsoft’s need to expand further into the “services” realm. Ray Ozzie has a huge responsibility here and unless there’s a way to couple Tablets into this, I don’t see Ray Ozzie being our new Tablet foster parent. He could surprise us all by carrying a Tablet to his next public events, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

There’s another possibility here. And that as Bill Gates steps aside, competing companies see opportunity niches that may reinvigorates Microsoft’s competitive spirits. It’s a round about way of getting someone at Microsoft to lead the Tablet charge, it does kind of fit Microsoft’s competitive culture.

For instance, The One Laptop Per Child’s (OLPC) XO laptop has some interesting “Tablet-like” features. It has a display that folds down into “reading mode.” And most interestingly, the XO has a wide writing pad next to the keyboard. It’s not a writing surface on the display, but a built in digitizer is more than most computers can boast. MIT wants to tens of millions of these over the next few years. If they are able to achieve this, it would mean that XO “Tablets” would outnumber Microsoft-inspired Tablets in very little time. My guess is that the XO numbers will be more modest, but then again I’m not that good at predicting the future.

Then there’s Apple and its touch innovations. The iPhone’s touch capabilities are amazing. Easy to use gestures. Simple interactions. They’re just nice. And rumors have been spreading for awhile now that Apple is going to integrate touch further into its computing devices. Who knows what this means, so stay tuned.

Now there is one other executive that could become a strong Tablet advocate: Steve Ballmer. Here’s why: Have you ever noticed that in lots of his presentations he carries, gasp, sheets of paper that he seems to scribble notes on. Doesn’t this make bells go off in your head? It does mine. I imagine if there was a small, super-lightweight Tablet, with an active digitizer, tricked up with touch, boasted a big enough display that a 40+ person could read it, and kept going as long as he did, that he might just become a heavy Tablet user–at least on stage. I’m thinking of something on par with the Haiku, which Microsoft showed a year or so back. Actually, I’d also throw in a camera who’s pictures auto sync with a public blog so wherever Steve goes he could take pictures of the audience or whomever, complete with inked autographs when appropriate, to show how easy and natural it all is. Forget a written blog, Steve. Go with a photo/ink blog. How much cooler could you get? No need to worry about saying something wrong on your blog, just capture it with pixels and ink. I’m sure it would be an instant hit. We’d all check in to see the world from Steve’s perspective.

Hmmm. We’ll short of any of this happening right now, it looks like our work is cut out for us, and we’ll need to keep our collective voices up. With all the momentum behind Tablets on the go in businesses and Tablets in education, there’s no doubt that Tablets/UMPCs will continue to grow. That’s for sure. Now whether the market can double or triple in size from this year to the next–well, uh, who knows. That’s where strong advocacy is a must. To date Microsoft marketing for Tablets has been lackluster. There have been attempts at it, but nothing with much passion. Maybe there doesn’t need to be any. Maybe.

There are extremely passionate Tablet advocates within Microsoft, though. Extremely strong ones. If you went to Mix07, you might have run into a few in the Sandbox area or talking ink during several Silverlight presentations. Is this enough? Could be. I’m a firm believer in the power of the individual–even at a large corporation, such as Microsoft. Whether the person is inside the company or outside the company, a single person or a small group can have huge, industry-changing impact. In fact, I think most major changes within the industry have been inspired by the DNA of a small number. Sometimes large numbers are involved in the execution, but most often a small number get it going and continue to communicate its value. So, yeah, it’s possible, that a handful of people inside Microsoft can keep the Tablet story going. Executives not needed.

If nothing else, this is going to be interesting to see how this pans out. My prediction, for what it’s worth, is that things won’t change much over the next year or so. What you see now is what you’ll continue to get. There’s momentum in the Tablet market that’ll keep it going–even if no one does anything–and I’m going to safely predict that many people will continue to do much more than nothing. So we’ll be safe. For awhile. I do hope though that Tablets find an even stronger voice–somewhere. I’d argue that there’s been an opportunity for a stronger voice since Day 1 even. This isn’t actually something new. But it is probably more important now than ever as Bill Gates transitions more and more to the next big thing.

Loren Heiny (1961 - 2010) was a software developer and author of several computer language textbooks. He graduated from Arizona State University in computer science. His first love was robotics.

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