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Five Theories Why Microsoft Won’t Support Windows Phone 7 for Tablets

As much as I like Windows 7 on my PC, I think that on a tablet, it will fit like a  square peg in a round hole – at least for several  years.

Yet, that’s probably how long we’ll have to wait before Microsoft’s highly-praised Windows Phone 7 becomes available on tablets.

Here’s how Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to dodge’s question, when asked about it: “I think probably the things of tomorrow are best left for tomorrow and the things of today are best discussed today. So today I will focus on Windows Phone….I think when there is something to say [re: tablets] we’ll say it.”

Microsoft is promising new touch innovations to make Windows 7 run even better on tablets. It’s also promising to slim the OS down to make it run fast and efficiently on tablets.

Still, I’m pessimistic. Here’s why: Windows 7 was a massive project: 500 million lines of code written by an army of 2,000 developers. It’s the Great Pyramids of programming, a wonder to behold partly because of the man-years of labor involved.

Android, meanwhile, uses just over 12 million lines of code. To get Windows 7 down to the same size as Android, you’d have to hack off approximately 9876% of its code.

Even if a lot of that is device drivers unnecessary for tablets, can Microsoft make such drastic cuts and keep Windows 7 useful? The mind boggles how.

Second, Windows 7 runs only on x86 processors like Intel’s Atom CPU. Atom is faster than the ARM processors in phones. That will help compensate for the fact that Microsoft is unlikely to be able to shrink Windows 7 to 1/4th of its original size.

However, Atom also uses more electricity and generates more heat – two things that drain a battery fast. That means Windows 7 tablets will have to be larger, in order to accommodate their commensurately-larger batteries. That means no 7-inch slates ala the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Instead, you’re only going to get bulky tablets 10-inches and larger, with battery life likely still to be worse than the all-day iPad.

Granted, Microsoft also plans to offer Windows Compact Embedded 7 to tablet makers starting sometime this quarter. The OS formerly known as Windows Embedded CE (or going further back, Windows CE) is actually both very similar and more advanced than Windows Phone 7 (as the latter is based on the older Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R3).

The problem is that Windows Compact Embedded is virtually unknown to the public. Whatever its technical merits, many tablet makers will shun it because of its lack of buzz among consumers (this is different with gadgets such as digital cameras and GPS systems where the OS is wholly in the background and thus not key to marketing).

For instance, Asus originally planned to release one of its Eee Pads on Windows Compact Embedded 7 but switched to Android after seeing the buzz and app growth for the Google OS.

So why is Microsoft holding off on Windows Phone 7 on tablets? I have 5 theories.

1) Microsoft was genuinely surprised by the enthusiastic reception for Windows Phone 7. It’s telling when even a Linux/Apple fanboy like British actor/geek Stephen Fry likes Windows Phone 7.

2) In its corporate DNA, Microsoft is neither an innovator, like Google, nor even a fast follower, like Apple. Rather, it likes to bide its time until a market is well-established and mainstream before unleashing Hell. The global tablet market this year will be about 13 million, according to IDC. Not bad, but nothing compared to the global PC market of 357 million PCs,;contentaccording to IDC. The PC market is almost 30x bigger than the tablet one. Microsoft probably figures it can wait.

3) Microsoft is sending a valentine to its old ally, Intel. As the mobile market explodes, Intel is desperately trying re-engineer Atom to be as efficient as ARM. It hasn’t gotten there yet, but it may do so in several years. That’s when the tablet market will be substantial. And when Windows 7 will start to be competitive with Android/iOS on ARM chips from a power-efficiency standpoint, if ARM hasn’t jumped ahead again.

4) The political juice of Steven Sinofsky, a Microsoft senior vice-president and Windows chief. Brought in to clean up the mess left by Vista, Sinofsky brought discipline to the Windows development team that was crucial to its successful delivery. He’s got the political capital that Microsoft’s mobile group, which has been floundering ever since the iPhone’s introduction and has been beset by recent executive changes, lacks. Sinofsky may have convinced Ballmer that his team had earned the right to take first crack at delivering a mobile version of Windows 7.

5) Burnt badly by sloppy engineering in Vista and Xbox, Microsoft is genuinely embracing a philosophy of underpromising and over-delivering. Witness the robots it plans to employ to ensure that its phone manufacturing partners deliver a good experience on their Windows Phone 7 devices.

That’s the middle way between the vertical integration of the iPhone and BlackBerry and the Wild Wild West of Android on the far end.

Ironically, it’s Android which increasingly looks like it will get dogged with the user experience problems that have traditionally plagued Windows on the desktop (missing device drivers, motherboard conflicts, weird error messages, etc.)

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