Ballmer’s tablet bumble

Associated Press image of Steve Ballmer demonstrating a tablet at CES

For a look at why Apple’s tablet, due to be demonstrated in a few hours (watch my Twitter feed for curation details starting at 9 a.m.), is getting so much hype even when Microsoft has had a set of great tablets for years we need to go back to the Consumer Electronics Show a couple of weeks ago where Steve Ballmer failed to impress, according to UK’s Telegraph.

I was sitting in one of the front rows and held my breath when Ballmer barely could get a tablet to do what he wanted. Now, admittedly, he was trying to use the tablet while holding it away from his body (akin to using it while it is upside down), which is a skill that I probably couldn’t master either, but that bumble was the metaphorical one that Steve Jobs needed.

But even if the demo had gone well, Ballmer had bumbled the Tablet PC years earlier. How? By not forcing every employee at Microsoft to use the tablet. Or, if he couldn’t do that, by not investing in a new OS that’s constrained and totally touch/stylus focused. Dig deep on a Windows tablet PC and you’ll see lots of areas that just aren’t designed for touch or a stylus. That won’t happen tomorrow with Apple’s tablet.

See, back in 2003-2006 when I walked around Microsoft’s halls (I interviewed more than 500 employees when I worked there and visited their development labs around the world) I saw very few developers who took to the Tablet PC.

Why? Most engineers sit at desks at Microsoft, or, when they have to go to meetings, have a desk in front of them where it’s culturally OK to bring a laptop and bang out emails during meetings.

Visit a developer’s desk and you’ll probably see two large screens, probably made by Dell, hooked up to a couple of big desktop machines that can compile as quickly as possible. Or, if they do choose a laptop, they probably will pick the Dell model with as much screen real estate and resolution as possible. Why? Because on their screens they will want to have a few code windows open, along with their email, er, Outlook screens (Microsoft lives and dies via Outlook’s calendar and email).

Why does this all matter? Well, because Microsoft’s best engineers don’t really buy into the Tablet PC and because the various teams around campus doing things from Microsoft Office to Windows 8 to Xbox to Microsoft Dynamics really don’t think ink features are all that important they seem to cut those features out of their priority lists year after year.

Yeah, it’s gotten better, Windows 7 actually has quite nice touch capabilities but they just aren’t inspiring.

Steve Ballmer didn’t show anything inspiring at CES running on the Tablet PCs he paraded around stage. He needed to if he wanted to keep Steve Jobs from grabbing the inspiration reigns again. It was a bumbled moment.

Contrast that with what Steve Jobs is planning to do on stage tomorrow.

Watch Steve focus on several use cases and each one will inspire in a way that Ballmer didn’t even attempt to do. Already Techmeme is flowing with leaks about them from publishers, media folks, and others.

The use cases I’ll be watching for are:

1. Classroom. Steve will tomorrow show off a textbook of the future. One where there isn’t just text and photos like in the textbooks that I grew up in, but ones where there’s augmented reality. Where 3D objects, maps, and videos pop off the page ready to be interacted with by the user. A company named Metaio has already shipped a book that does this, but Steve Jobs will bring these capabilities to the masses.

2. The Couch. TV is about to radically change. Imagine sitting on a couch, looking at a new virtual TV guide like the very cool Clicker, seeing a cool video on YouTube, then flinging that video up to your big screen. Or, let’s say you are watching what your few hundred Facebook and Twitter friends are sharing tomorrow morning from the Apple keynote in real time and you point at one of the videos to play it. Using a service like Redux you can already do that tonight! No need to wait for Apple to show it off, but Steve Jobs will make this integrated media experience cooler and easy for non-geeks to do. Tonight look at Boxee, it has been shipping for months what Apple will bring to the masses with the new tablet.

3. The car. Yeah, you can’t text in the front seat of the car in California, but come on, if you had an always connected slate wouldn’t you find a way to mount that to read Tweets to you like Buzzvoice does, or show you a Google Map, or use Waze to report traffic conditions to others. But put the tablet in the back seat, and it becomes an entertainment device for the kids. I already see how valuable that is. This is where Jobs will bring out a few new games that will let tablet owners play against each other, so my kids in my car could play against friends in their cars on a long road trip, or on the way to school, etc.

4. The coffee shop. OK, most humans still love visiting their local coffee shop, checking in on Foursquare, and then sitting down with a magazine or a newspaper. But watch as Jobs makes those things come alive and do stuff that a Kindle just can’t do. Videos, augmented reality again, games, graphics that move and flow, charts that show up-to-the-minute info from Skygrid, which already is way better than any financial newspaper printed on dead trees.

5. The airport/airplane. I flew in a rich guy’s private plane a few weeks back. What did he have in the cockpit? An Amazon Kindle. No, not to read newspapers or Tweet or anything stupid like that. He had all the airport charts loaded on his Kindle. But, he showed me how weather maps use color and he wasn’t able to display those on the Kindle. OK, OK, there aren’t enough rich guys in the world for that use case to matter, but what about those of us who sit back in coach? Well, how about showing off how Tripit will help you find a better seat when you buy your ticket, or how it’ll warn you if your plane is running late, etc? Yeah, not to mention that watching a movie on a Tablet will be a lot more comfortable than watching it on a laptop, and there’s lots of game scenarios, etc, that would be fun to see him demo here.

6. Healthcare. Tablets make a HUGE amount of sense in healthcare. Remember Epocrates, the iPhone app that Steve Jobs’ own health team helped influence? Now imagine they came out on stage and showed off their new version which has much better integration with your entire health chart.

Anyway, the fact that Ballmer didn’t have anything new to say on any of these scenarios left the door wide open for Steve Jobs to drive a truckload of tablets through in the morning. It’s too bad that Microsoft’s engineers just never got on board with the Tablet PC and started investing the future of the company on touch-based technology.

Will Ballmer stop bungling Microsoft’s strategy in time to save Xbox’s franchise from Apple’s moves? We’ll learn that in 2011. Stay tuned, my bet is he drops the ball there too, although a new Halo will hide the damage until 2012.

Anyway, let’s meet tomorrow on Twitter at (that’s where I’ll spend the most time on in the morning) or FriendFeed at or Facebook at I’ll have a few people from Google over my house to get their take on the morning’s events and we’ll curate the best news from around the Internet.

Oh, and I bet that Steve Jobs won’t bumble the Tablet demo the way Ballmer did at CES a couple of weeks ago.


17 thoughts on “Ballmer’s tablet bumble

  1. What Apple has done in the last few years, with products like the iPod and iPhone, is not invent new markets, but make them dramatically improved through quality integration of software and hardware. You can't win on specs any more. You win with a full user experience.If (when) Apple introduces the tablet, again it will not be first, but it should be the best. Microsoft and its partners approach to the market has not been with full focus or convincing.


  2. I look forward to seeing what Apple pulls of the hat tomorrow. I think that Robert is right on with the use cases. But it would be great if they could go one step forward and make the tablet a macbook replacement otherwise a lot of people will end up having to manage a phone, a laptop and a tablet…which seems one too many.


  3. I'm liking the couch one for sure! – Can't remember the last time I sat on a couch! – I might even have to go out and buy one – of course my pups will be there right with me but what the hey 🙂 it'll be worth it! – Ballmer's always been a bumbler and Steve's always been a bumblebee – after all isn't that his job(s) #charisma


  4. Great use cases Robert. I'm really interested in the video use cases and the awesome program guide that could be built on a device like this. See you on Twitter at 9 AM!


  5. 1. Classroom: It will come down to price. Unless it’s Apple’s reaction to OLPC.

    2.- Couch: A success.

    3, 4, 5.- Roaming: Success.

    6.- Healthcare: Pipe dream. They already have systems in place and not one of those runs on Mac. Spending millions so your caregivers can update your chart in a popular device when tons of Window/cheaper/more easily work with current systems tables are around, let’s see how that ones goes.


  6. These aren”t tablet usecases, they’re just usecases that can be done with any screen. it’s the UI that’s different, not the use case.


  7. Oh the bumbles measure in the thousands, another market Apple will eat up and own. Said this to Rob Lowe, no less, at Tablet PC Launch…thought Apple would have gone with it way sooner however, but timing is perfect enough now, too. And not much has changed from prototypes, just the chipsets, at the time it hit the debate was all, without an active digitizer how will it ever succeed? That question, even Microsoft answered. Bet Rob Lowe is miffed that Final Draft never went full Inky.Microsoft Tablets will remain vertical, educational gimmickry devices…some form-filling Enterprise implementations…Still the Apple slam on netbooks wasn't a fair comparison, some have good displays, and almost all have 160 gig, and with the next gen already here HD and Windows 7 goodness, can buy 2 for price of lowest Apple iPad. Take 2 netbooks for one Apple 'tablet'…


  8. PS – About the only people who will refuse to acknowledge that the game is lost this will be the Heinys. 🙂 MS Surface, Windows Mobile 7/Zuneified whatevers, Project Natalisms…yeah yeah. Game already over.


  9. Sorry for multiple posts….but the uses out of order, per se.1. eReading, Music, Pictures, Videos done by the Mobile/Road Warrior/Traveler/WiFi/Casual Webbing pretentious Coffeshopping types. 90% of use.2. Demo tool. See this here. 2.5% 3. Artist tool. Unworking artists of all countries, unite. 1%4. Everything else. Apps users, “educational” and “office”, car nerd uses, Apple Cult dock users. 1.5%Couch, Car, Plane, Coffeeshop all file under mobility. Redundant. And classroom slash healthcare? Don't bet on it, usually some gimmircky blip that gets tons of press but then total implementation (esp. for healthcare security concerns) are logistical nightmares, and double so that the infrastructure of most Enterprises is largely Microsoft's.Anyone really going to go 3G? A phone yes, but a casual tablet where Wifi is nearly omnipresent, like 20 some odd unsecured connections just in my neighborhood, of which about 8 are public open. Just don't see that scenario. The no contract makes nice, but I never believe anyone that says you can cancel at anytime, esp. when that someone is AT&T, or if an Act of God actually allows such, hidden fees fine print.


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