Initial reactions to the iPad earlier this year may have been mixed, but Apple's elegant tablet PC has since caught fire, racking up a devoted following and monster sales.
Meanwhile, all the major computer vendors are working on a tablet. Some are running Google's Android mobile OS; some are running a proprietary OS such as RIM's rumored BlackPad and Hewlett-Packard's planned consumer tablet running WebOS.
And then there's Windows 7. Microsoft's successful client OS is currently running on a few tablet PCs, and according to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer will be on a variety of tablets "over the next several months." Two of the most anticipated Windows 7 tablets scheduled for 2011 are the MSI WindPad and the HP Slate.
But can a Windows 7 tablet really break ground against the mighty iPad? In a recent report titled "The Windows 7 Tablet Imperative", Forrester research analysts J.P. Gownder and Sarah Rotman Epps write that Microsoft can compete with the iPad, but it must make an impact quickly and work with hardware partners to match the iPad on design and price.
Slideshow: 9 Real iPad Alternatives
Slideshow: Tablets, Real and Rumored
In fact, the report states, a successful Windows tablet has become crucial for Microsoft given that "tablets represent the next wave of mass-market consumer computing devices ... demonstrated by the iPad's proficiency in eReading, music and video consumption, and a variety of entertainment-oriented apps."
The main way to a successful Windows 7 tablet, according to Forrester, is through the use of "curated computing", which the research firm defines as "a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences." In other words, have a simple and streamlined user interface that is easy to navigate.
Curated computing is something the iPad does very well, writes authors Gownder and Epps, and must be embraced by Microsoft if it wants to compete in the tablet space.
Here are Forrester's four keys to a successful Windows 7 tablet.
Enable Curated Computing via a "User Experience Shell"
The worst thing Microsoft can do is to give a Windows 7 tablet the same user interface as a laptop, which is too complex for a tablet, according to the Forrester report. Microsoft and its partners must develop a user experience (UX) shell that simplifies Windows 7 for tablet and touch-screen functionality.
"Windows 7 tablets can only compete if Microsoft embraces Curated Computing by providing a guided experience for users and drawing on the design strengths of other Microsoft products like the Zune HD and the Kin," writes Gownder and Epps, adding that a Microsoft tablet that synchs with the Xbox 360 and enables back-and-forth streaming of videos and games could one-up the iPad.
Microsoft should also take elements from the Surface product to bolster the language of touch screens, according to the Forrester report.
Get Ready to Spend a Lot on Marketing
Microsoft and its partners will need to invest big money in advertising to succeed in the tablet space, according to the Forrester report. Apple is hard to compete with in this category. It has a reputation for being innovative, has an extremely loyal fan base and an easy time getting rabid press coverage. Apple spent $501 million on advertising campaigns in 2009.
Microsoft will need to "pull out the wallet" for tablets, according to Forrester, using social media as a marketing tool as well as traditional advertising and branding campaigns.
Balance Price with Product Quality
The price of a Windows 7 tablet should be lower than the iPad, but if it doesn't meet or exceed iPad's range of features, then price won't matter.
"If a sub-$499 tablet offers a bad consumer experience, it will fail," writes Gownder and Epps. "Yet prices above $750 would almost certainly be too high for a complementary device that acts as a second, third, or fourth PC in the home."
Slideshow: Seven Tools to Ease Your Windows 7 Rollout
Making a Windows 7 tablet a "curated, elegant product" is the first order of business, according to Forrester. The pricing must balance the iPad's established stake in the ground with a satisfying Windows user experience.
Reach Consumers Directly
Apple Stores certainly give Apple an advantage to promote a new product and interact directly with customers. The stores are "effective educational channels as well as sales channels," writes Gownder and Epps. Microsoft doesn't have this and Best Buy is not always the easiest place to build a new product category.
Microsoft and its partners must look outside Best Buy here," writes Gownder and Epps. "Instead, promotion in the Microsoft Store pilots, creative new partnerships with retailers, and the use of mall kiosks will take the product to the people quickest."
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.