Here are the nine pieces to the tablet puzzle that Microsoft needs to fit together if it has any hope of making a tablet that matters.
1. Home Grown
The case for Microsoft to go it alone on a tablet is laid out in depth here, but there are two reasons that stand out. First, if you’re looking for a model of success to follow, the vertically integrated iPad is the clear winner over the custerfrakkery of scrambling Android tablet OEMs. Second, it’s not like Microsoft hasn’t been down this road before; the Xbox provides a clear blueprint of how to break into an established market.
2. Xbox Marks the Spot
Maybe the most enticing rumour surrounding the Microsoft Tablet is that it’ll be able to stream Xbox Live content. That could imply some sort of content arrangement; your Xbox Music account, for instance, would be accessible via both your console and your MicroTab. Ditto for purchased movies and TV shows.
But Microsoft should — and hopefully will — take Xbox Live integration a step further. Consider that nearly one in five apps in the iTunes App Store are games, as are 13 of the top 20 grossing apps and nine of the top 10 best-selling paid apps. Apple’s managed to build up that market with virtually no track record in gaming, as well as Game Center, which is limp at best and completely ignorable at worst.
Meanwhile, there’s Xbox Live, which is already 40 million members strong. A built-in user base with decades-old friend lists and achievement point accumulation. What does that mean? Make gaming a huge focus of your tablet, sure, but also make the tablet a huge part of games with a second controller or a split screen — anything to differentiate yourself from Apple’s staid offering and keep up with Wii U without having to release a new console.
You know what the best thing out of E3 was? Microsoft’s SmartGlass, an app that unites your living room’s devices in ways Apple’s AirPlay could only dream about. It’ll work for iOS and Android at some point, sure. But if you’re Microsoft, why not give yourself a headstart?
A SmartGlass tablet instantly gives Microsoft an Xbox liaison and a significant reason to buy content from Redmond instead of Cupertino or an Amazon server. There’s no time like the present to be the future of your living room.
The one hiccup is this: If a Microsoft tablet with SmartGlass is ready now, why wouldn’t the company have have announced it a few weeks ago at E3?
4. Size Matters
The only tablets that anyone has bothered buying in quantity, in the entire history of tablets, are Apple’s wildly successful iPad and the not-a-failure Kindle Fire. The first is a healthy 10.1-inch wunderkind, the second an anaemic 7-inch budget model. Microsoft needs to be in the first category.
The proliferation of 7-inch tablets (and, for that matter, 5-inch mutant phones) isn’t because that’s the platonic ideal of handheld computing. It’s because the iPad is Jaws, and everyone else is getting the hell out of the water. But Microsoft shouldn’t play in the kiddie pool; it’s the only company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with the iPad, and the only one with the patience. You want people watching movies, playing games, editing Word docs on this thing? Give them enough real estate to do it.
Unfortunately, all signs point to a smaller build for Microsoft’s tablet adventure. If that’s the case, let’s hope that a larger version is somewhere in the pipeline as well.
5. ARM Yourself
Microsoft has a long-running love affair with Intel, and rightly so. But while the processor king’s mobile game has improved significantly of late, its famed x86 architecture still hasn’t proven that it can get the job done on handheld devices.
ARM, on the other hand? ARM architecture is behind every successful tablet and phone you can think of. It’s important for Microsoft to stick with what works out the gate; you don’t bring an experimental engine to your first Daytona 500.
6. No Guts, No Glory
And you know what? Don’t stop there. As much as we love Windows Phone around here, there’s no getting around the fact that Microsoft’s hardware requirements have so far brought a knife to a grenade fight. It can get away with that on phones because the WP platform isn’t particularly resource-intensive.
A tablet, though? Whether it’s running Windows RT or Windows 8, a Microsoft tablet is going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting. Games, movies, music, multitasking. Don’t skimp on the specs, or the screen, or the RAM, or the graphics. Give us nerds something to drool over.
7. Put Nook in a Corner
There was a short-lived rumour that today’s announcement was going to be some sort of collaboration with US bookseller Barnes & Noble, perhaps a Windows 8 Nook or a flaccid ebook reader. But while Microsoft sunk $US300 million into Nook recently, it wasn’t for the hardware. It was for the content delivery, something to compete with iBooks, the Kindle and whatever’s going on at Google Play.
Fortunately, the bookmonger has confirmed that it won’t be a part of this morning’s presentation. That doesn’t mean Microsoft doesn’t need Nook; it certainly does for the reasons mentioned above. But it’s much better as a spoke in Microsoft’s wheel, not a cog. If people wanted a Nook, they’d just buy a Nook.
8. Ditch the Suits
Microsoft’s hardware partners have spent years tracking down the holy grail of an enterprise tablet, something business users will flock to because it has that certain buttoned-up something that the iPad doesn’t. This is dumb and always has been.
You know what a consumer tablet is? The iPad. You know what an enterprise tablet is? The iPad. You know what a prosumer tablet is? You’re a terrible person for even using that word. The only nod Microsoft needs to give to business folk is to include its suite of Office applications — no docking solutions, no bloatware, no stylus. Just Word, Excel and PowerPoint. That’s it. You’re done.
9. Please Just Exist
Here’s the thing: There’s also the chance that today’s announcement will have nothing to do with a tablet. It could be an ebook reader. It could be a deep dive into that Yammer acquisition that you lost so much sleep over this weekend. It could be a laser light show set to a Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime. Microsoft’s just not tipping its hand.
So the biggest thing a Microsoft tablet needs, above all else, is to be real. To be a worthy vessel for Windows 8′s mobile ambitions. Microsoft might be as well-heeled an adversary as Apple’s seen. But it’s already already two years behind in the tablet game; the one thing it can’t afford is losing more time.