Microsoft unveiled a new series of products and services last night at the Consumer Electronics Show held in Las Vegas. Notable among them is a new tablet computer that pits the company in an increasingly competitive market that includes e-readers like Amazon's Kindle, and one expected to be joined soon by an entry from Apple.
Tablets are essentially the younger cousin of netbooks: small, flat devices more powerful than smart phones but less powerful than desktops and laptops.
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer announced the company's foray during his keynote kicking of the world's most popular gadget convention.
"This emerging category of PCs should really take advantage of the touch and mobility and capabilities of Windows 7," Ballmer said, referring to tablets that use his company's operating system. "They are perfect, perfect for reading, for surfing the web, and for taking entertainment on the go."
The move was expected by industry analysts with some trepidation. The worry is that tablets running Microsoft software might be squeezed out of the high end by Apple, and unable to compete among a legion of low-cost newcomers who are entering the tablet market using the open source Android operating system.
What the Microsoft tablets — or "slates" as Ballmer calls them — are not is almost as important as what they are. He did not demo the fabled Courier many thought might be unveiled.
Instead, Ballmer showed three devices and focused on one made by HP. With few specs available to the press, we can say that the "great little PC" has a seven or eight inch screen, can download and display ebooks from sources like Amazon using the Kindle PC app, surf the Web and play multimedia.
"I think many, many customers are going to be very, very excited about it," Ballmer said.
While not a show stopper in any sense of the word. It does demonstrate a trend by computer makers toward small but powerful multimedia devices.
Bibliophiles and information junkies have already demonstrated there's a market. Just last month Amazon announced its Kindle was the store's most popular gift product and ebooks outsold traditional books over the holidays.
E-readers by Sony and Barnes & Noble offer competitive products, each with access to thousands of current titles and often free downloads of classics whose copyrights have passed.
New tablets such as the ones Microsoft displayed now give us greater media possibilities. The wait now is for the end of the month to see if Apple really does release what many believe will be a game changer.