Microsoft released its first tablet 10 years ago. So why did Apple win with the iPad?

By Preston Gralla

Ten years ago Microsoft released its Tablet PC, with Bill Gate saying "within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America." Things didn't work out that way -- the Tablet PC died, and the iPad eventually took the world by storm. What went wrong?

Gates showed off a prototype of Microsoft's Tablet PC at the COMDEX Fall 2001 computer show in Los Vegas. Manufacturers including Acer, Compaq, Fujitsu, and Toshiba said they would release Tablet PCs in the second half of 2002.

Here's how a Microsoft press release described the Tablet PC:

The size of a legal notepad and half the weight of most of today's laptop PCs, the Tablet PC is a full-powered, full-featured PC that runs Windows XP and combines the power of desktop computing with the flexibility and portability of a pen and paper notepad.

It was touted to run Autodesk's CAD software, versions of Microsoft Office, and Groove, collaboration software which Microsoft bought from Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes. The press release also noted that in his presentation, Gates:

emphasized that because it runs Windows XP, the Tablet PC is a fully-fledged, secure Microsoft .NET client machine that natively supports the .NET Framework.

All that tells you all you need to know about why the Tablet PC died. Rather than envision what people would really want to do with a tablet and then design the hardware for that, Microsoft instead force-fit Windows XP onto it. Windows XP was a great desktop operating system, but it was bloated overkill for a tablet.

Microsoft also decided that people would want to do the exact same things with a Tablet PC as they would with a desktop or a laptop. Here's what Gates said at the announcement:

"The Tablet takes cutting-edge PC technology and makes it available wherever you want it, which is why I'm already using a Tablet as my everyday computer. It's a PC that is virtually without limits -- and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."

Because Microsoft envisioned it as a full-fledged PC and equipped it accordingly, it was expensive --- typically $2,000 or more. Despite that price tag, it couldn't really replace a desktop or laptop. It only found use in niche markets.

There were other problems as well. As TabTimes notes, the heavy use of a stylus was also a mistake.

Steve Jobs recognized that the tablet should be a consumer device and not a replacement for a desktop or laptop PC. He saw that it would require a different operating system, one designed for tablets, not traditional computers.

Will Microsoft learn from its mistakes when it releases tablets based on Windows 8? It's not quite clear yet. The Windows 8 metro interface is well-suited for tablets, although the Windows 8 Desktop isn't. If Windows 8 tablets are essentially hybrid tablet-PCs, it's unlikely they'll succeed.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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