HP may have already killed its Windows 7 tablet in favor of one running Palm’s WebOS. When Apple wanted to build a tablet, they didn’t put a desktop operating system on it, but instead spruced up the iPhone operating system for the iPad. And dozens of Google Android powered tablets are showing up in China — with at least a few expected to hit the West later this year.

While Bill Gates and company pioneered the tablet PC space about 10 years ago, the current crop of tablets don’t look that much like Microsoft’s original vision of a tablet. There’s no stylus, no handwriting recognition, and no keyboard that folds up under the display. Most importantly, many of the tablets that are either available or in the works don’t run Windows and don’t run full blown desktop applications. Instead, they have low power processors, long battery life, and run smartphone-like operating systems and apps.

And that makes a lot of sense, because Windows wasn’t designed for use with a stylus or fingertip. While Microsoft has added tablet functionality to most versions of Windows 7 (but not Windows 7 Starter), what you get are a bunch of add-ons that attempt to make it easier to use software that was never designed to be run on a tablet in the first place.

So there’s a part of me that really thinks Microsoft should be pushing Windows CE, Windows Phone 7, or the Zune HD software for use on tablets — because I can see tablets with this kind of Windows CE-based operating system being a heck of a lot more usable — even if you can’t run desktop versions of Photoshop and Word on them.

But ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley reports that Microsoft may have another approach. The company is apparently working on a top secret project code-named Menlo, which would replace the Windows CE core with Windows NT. That’s the same core Windows 7 (and Vista, and XP, and 2000) are built on. In other words, you might one day be able to pick up a Smartphone that can run some of the same apps that are available on your desktop or laptop computer, and not just stripped down, rewritten versions of those apps.

There aren’t a lot of details about Menlo at the moment, but if this is true, it could mean that Windows, or at least a version of Windows would be able to run on low power ARM-based smartphones and tablets. Or it could be that Microsoft is working with Intel, which is working to get low power x86 processors into smartphones.

But the question I still have is this… even if you’ll be able to run Windows on a smartphone in a few years, will apps be built to incorporate touch input? If every single Windows app of the future features both touch and keyboard-and-mouse input, this could work.

Of course, there may still be a space for an old fashioned tablet or two with an active digitizer, stylus, keyboard, and other amenities. The truth of the matter is that there’s been a market for these devices for the past decade — it’s just a relatively small market.

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3 replies on “Microsoft’s top secret Menlo project could replace Windows CE for phones, tablets”

  1. It’s a big world, and obviously there are people who want to spent their money on tablets. My wife and I own a desktop, four laptops (all Macs), and a netbook (running Jolicloud). I can’t think of a reason to buy anybody’s tablet computer. Maybe a smartbook. More likely, a ballpoint pen.

    1. Ahh, that is today, but what will you replace that mighty arsenal with when the time comes? What happens when tablets have cameras, relatively fast multi-core processors, making them the equal of any smart or netbook, and have a large install base of apps designed specifically for them? And all this at a price point at or around where netbooks are now? That’s what I’d expect in 2-3 years… Are you sure you couldn’t see one making it’s way in then? If for no other reason than to watch movies and read books on the couch or in bed?

      I’d certainly be interested in that.

  2. Umm, this sounds like either FUD, or a ‘leak’ to make the share holders feel a little bit better about their investment… It sounds about as likely to work, and come to market, as let’s say… The Courier.

    If they do manage to succeed, then what? Can you imagine trying to use Adobe Photoshop, or even Word on a 3.7″ 840×480 screen? There is a reason that smart phones use purpose built apps, and it’s not just because their processor’s aren’t as capable as full General Purpose processors we see in laptops and desktops these days… You’d still need purpose built applications for this to make sense…

    And there’s the rub, they already have a programming platform that bring WPF and could even potentially even bring a full .NET experience to non-Window’s NT descended OS’s (if they MS so chose), it’s called Silverlight. If they’d just beef that up, they’d solve the issue from a programmer’s standpoint, you’d be able to write applications that would work on almost any mobile platform and natively in Windows… I just don’t think it will preserve the Window’s OS cash cow, which is probably a larger and more active concern at this point. I can say this with some confidence, because tomorrow’s profit’s may be in the process of being defined today, by what plays out in the mobile space, specifically with tablets. If those end up being even marginally successful (above 20% market share), let’s face it, ten to twenty years from now, the only time you may sit down at what we consider a ‘computer’ today (i.e. a full desktop) will be to do serious work, and that market will be smaller and less ubiqutious than the computing market today, which means less profit. Worse (from MS’s perspective) if Linux based systems like Android, MeeGo, and to some extent the iPhone OS, dominate the more commonly used mobile machines, it may open the way to those now limited OS licenses for the ever shrinking desktops (especially in businesses) to competition that would be almost unimaginable in today’s environment.

    Therefor I would contend, that this is a bigger, and more threatening phase of the computer wars, and Microsoft’s hegemony, than even the internet represented back in the nineties. It has serious fallout which I don’t think many observers fully appreciate, and that MS itself might not fully appreciate… Or maybe it does, hence the FUD, and the ‘leaks’ about possible future products that will probably never see the light of day… It may be more than what it seems, and in fact simply be an attempt to keep the veneer that the persistance of the normal plays in keeping their MS hegemony. If nothing else, it may potentially slow down the pace of change that tends to erupt out of something as innocuous as the iPad… I still know people who are waiting for a mythical courier even though the project has been officially listed as ‘not for a product going to sale’. So, I’m sure that plays some part in all this.

    We’ll see how all this actually plays out, of course. At this point it’s all smoke, mirrors, and a whole bunch of might be and may be… But the market will inevitably vote with it’s dollars. And however that vote goes, Microsoft will certainly have time to actually come up with a real product in the face of all this change… And it may even be a winning one. Although, I do contend that it’s pretty clear that MS is going to have to get a whole lot more Agile than it has been in the last ten to fifteen years, if it wants to stay on top.

    Or that’s my take, on what all this means, and why MS would even bother letting something as tenuous as this project ‘slip’ in front of a reporter.

    And in case I haven’t beaten hard enough on the dead horse; Who care’s? It’s not like the Windows CE having a NT core will really CHANGE the equation much even if they do pull it off in a timely fashion. Say what you will about Windows… The reason most people use it is because the applications they want work on it, and again, desktop apps don’t make sense on a touch device with a smallish screen, so it’s not like NT compatability means much at the end of the day of the day for a Mobile OS… It only matters going the other direction.

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