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Windows RT still haunted by the ghost of Microsoft's 2001 tablet fiasco
Make laptops or fondleslabs: the fondletop can't work
Comment Microsoft's Windows is coming to tablets again, showing that a fondleslab can do anything a laptop can. Yet not all Windows tablets are equal, and Microsoft is relying on our ongoing obsession with physical keyboards to ensure that Windows RT remains secondary to the flagship full-fat Windows 8 operating system.
It's not the first time Microsoft has tried to push keyboard-free computing - Bill Gates was convinced Windows on tablet PCs was a sure-fire bet in 2001. However, repeating what happened last time, the hardware manufacturers will again churn out hybrid devices that do it all, mostly by bolting keyboards onto touchscreen gadgets and turning them into slightly inferior laptops.
Microsoft hopes its own Surface laptop-cum-tablets will ease punters onto touch-only computing by providing something recognisably keyboard-like that can be quickly discarded once the user is comfortable with the finger-driven desktop interface.
But when a device has a keyboard attached to it punters will use it as a laptop no matter how clever or innovative the hinge-click-swivel-spin mechanism is between the screen and the keys. We saw this with the original Windows for tablets where hybrid PCs adorned many executives' desks, promising the best of both worlds but ultimately delivering a slightly inferior version of one of them.
Hybrid users quickly stopped switching between modes and tablets became overpriced laptops and then disappeared entirely. It's hard to see why the new generation of hybrids should fare any different: once the novelty has worn off it's just a laptop with a bigger hinge.
Even the most twisty of hybrids, the Vadem Clio, didn't make it
But Microsoft can't afford for Surface, or any Windows RT device, to go the same way - not least because its Office suite will be bundled and sold with the machines. Microsoft wants RT to glide into the market slot created by Apple for the iPad: an addition to a Windows 8 laptop, not a replacement for one.
When the Asus Transformer was launched, an Android tablet with detachable keyboard, people labelled it a laptop replacement, but in fact most Transformer keyboards are collecting dust in drawers these days, their touchscreens smudged by fingertips and their owners using laptops for professional work.
Microsoft actually hopes the same will happen to Surface and the rest of the Windows RT bunch. By providing a facsimile of a keyboard, Microsoft reckons buyers will snap up RT-powered Surface slabs to replace laptops - and later miss the depth of a real keyboard and the familiar clamshell form factor of a laptop. At least then punters will be able to console themselves that they now have a pleasant enough tablet to go with the new Windows 8 laptop they'll have to buy.
It would be nice to think that tablet users will realise a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse can make a laptop superfluous, or that the Bluetooth version of Handykey will finally arrive and release us all from the tyranny of qwerty. That would be a real revolution in computing, but not one that would be welcomed by Microsoft. ®