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Microsoft didn’t lead the way to the iPad

John Gruber ended a recent Linked List post with this comment:

Microsoft led the way to the iPad, they just happen to have nothing on the market or even on the horizon that competes with it.

(The first part was probably sarcasm, but let’s go along with it, because Paul Thurrott seems to truly believe it.)

He was responding to Paul Thurrott’s iPad article, which included:

And of course most Apple people don’t even know that Microsoft and its partners had been innovating in this market for a decade already anyway.

By this, he’s referring to Microsoft’s Tablet PC hardware and software, UMPCs, and Windows netbooks.

In this case, Thurrott is giving Microsoft far too much credit.

Microsoft’s efforts have always wedged their PC operating system and PC-class hardware into tablet-sized products.

The iPad is the result of expanding a smartphone OS and smartphone hardware into a tablet-sized product.

The PC-to-tablet approach creates devices that are feature-packed but bulky and clunky. PC hardware needs to be downsized, sacrificing battery life, performance, thinness, lightness, simplicity, and quality. PC software needs to be downsized, sacrificing usability and practicality, in an effort to fit itself into the relatively constrained screen space. The resulting products are versatile enough to do more computing tasks than smartphones, but tend not to excel at much, if anything.

The smartphone-to-tablet approach creates devices that are feature-light but relatively ultra-portable and highly usable. Smartphone hardware can be upsized, achieving massive battery life with small, low-power, inexpensive hardware. Smartphone software needs to be upsized, which might make inefficient use of the relatively large screen space at worst, but never feels cramped. The resulting products are less versatile, but tend to excel at more of the smaller number of tasks that they perform.

The two approaches share very little hardware innovation and almost no software innovation.

Everything Microsoft has ever released in these device classes has used the PC-to-tablet approach. They launch new tablet or ultraportable products every five years with different expectations, yet the market responds the same lukewarm way each time, because each product is the same set of tradeoffs with a different sticker on the front.

Microsoft didn’t lead the way to the smartphone-to-tablet approach, and they didn’t lead the way to the iPad: they led the way down their own path that got them somewhere completely different, irrelevant, and unsuccessful.