Windows 7 Slates Coming Next Year

A veteran financial analyst predicted Thursday that users will likely have to wait until the middle of next year before Microsoft and its hardware partners can field slate computers running Windows 7.

That's not unexpected news.

At the end of July, CEO Steve Ballmer told a gathering of financial analysts at the company's Redmond, Wash. headquarters that slates are "job 1" for Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT). At that time, he said there would be slate computers running Windows 7 in the marketplace within a year.

However, Ballmer also said that most Microsoft-based slates would be built on a new generation of Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC) Atom processors -- but they are not due until next March.

The question is, by the time Microsoft gets its act together, will it be too far behind the pack to catch up? Certainly, it will be well behind the market surge which has already clearly begun.

"It seems likely that we will not see a Windows-based tablet until mid-2011, a few months after Intel's low-power Oak Trail processor is due," a research note by Jefferies & Company analyst Katherine Egbert, said Thursday. Egbert said her conclusions came from a chat she had recently with Bill Koefoed, general manager of Microsoft Investor Relations.

A Microsoft spokesperson countered that there is at least one slate computer in the market running Windows 7 already -- Toshiba's Libretto W100 double touch-screen tablet, which shipped this summer.

"There are already Windows slates in the market today, such as the Toshiba Libretto, which has already shipped, and the Hanvon that is available in China today. Additionally, Dell (NASDAQ: DELL) also has said their Inspiron Duo is coming later this year," the spokesperson said.

Indeed, the Libretto W100 is out, but it's not really competitive as a slate since it has two touch sensitive screens and starts above $1000. While the Inspiron Duo is due out by the end of the year, it's not exactly a slate or a tablet either -- rather it's a combination device with a fold down touchscreen but still has a physical keyboard.

Meanwhile, despite speculation that HP would back away from producing a slate with Windows 7 following its purchase of Palm, HP (NYSE: HPQ) said in late July that it is still planning on shipping a Microsoft-powered slate for enterprise users. HP hasn't named a delivery date yet, though.

Besides the iPad, the Android-based Dell Streak shipped last summer -- with a list price just under $300. The iPad, meanwhile, starts at $499, and had sold 3.27 million units by the end of Apple's third fiscal quarter on June 26.

In July, Ballmer confirmed that Microsoft is waiting for Intel's Oak Trail processors.

"We'll get a boost sometime after the new year when Intel brings its new Oak Trail processor to market. Oak Trail is designed to be lower power. Lower power is good in a lot of ways. It leads to longer battery life, no fan, lower noise levels, a lot of less weight -- a lot of things that people like," Ballmer told the analysts.

"As focused as we are on this category, our partners are also focused in on delivering the systems and the chips that will enable kind of our architecture to continue and our software product to continue to move on," he added.

So it may be that the best option that Microsoft has right now is to wait.

"Microsoft could introduce Windows-based tablets on the existing Atom chips, but the risks associated with the introduction of a less optimized system seem to outweigh the risks of waiting for the right technology to become available," Egbert said.

That idea resonates with one analyst who has watched Microsoft for well over a decade.

"It's much better for Microsoft to do it late and right than to have it done early and badly," Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group, told InternetNews.com. Enderle said that people he knows who have tried Microsoft's current test version of its slate software recently were not impressed.

"The performance is horrible," Enderle added.

The wait may also provide Microsoft with a little advantage as well, however, the research note suggested.

"Early reports about Windows 8, which has been rumored for release in late 2011, make it appear to be more suited to the tablet market with features such as instant on, GPS support and restoration tools," Egbert said.

While Windows 8 does not appear to be a likely product release for 2011, though, waiting for it to be ready would delay Microsoft-powered slates even longer. Enderle says he's not feeling cynical about Microsoft's chances in the slate market -- late or not.

"Everybody's kind of late to the tablet party, with the exception of Apple. It's probably a market we're going to be watching for the next five or six years," Enderle added.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing writer at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.