Later tonight, Microsoft will—reportedly, hopefully—finally unleash its tablet on the world. But other than that it might possibly exist, not much is known about Redmond's iPad and/or Kindle Fire fighter. Since we don't know what it is, let's talk about what it should be.
Here are the nine pieces to the tablet puzzle that Microsoft needs to fit together if it has any hope of making a tablet that matters.
The case for Microsoft to go it alone on a tablet is laid out in depth here, but there are two reasons that stand out. First, if you're looking for a model of success to follow, the vertically integrated iPad is the clear winner over the custerfrakkery of scrambling Android tablet OEMs. Second, it's not like Microsoft hasn't been down this road before; the Xbox provides a clear blueprint of how to break into an established market.
Maybe the most enticing rumour surrounding the Microsoft Tablet is that it'll be able to stream Xbox Live content. That could imply some sort of content arrangement; your Xbox Music account, for instance, would be accessible via both your console and your MicroTab. Ditto purchased movies, TV shows, etc. Xbox Live also includes apps like Netflix and Hulu Plus in the US, but presumably they'd get their own Windows 8 RT versions.
But Microsoft should—and hopefully will—take Xbox Live integration a step further. Consider that nearly one in five App Store offerings are games, as are 13 of the top 20 grossing apps and nine of the top 10 best-selling paid apps. Apple's managed to build up that market with virtually no track record in gaming, and a social offering—Game Center—that's limp at best and at worst, completely ignorable.
Meanwhile, there's Xbox Live, already 40 million members strong. A built-in user base with decades-old friend lists and achievement point accumulation. What does that mean? Make gaming a huge focus of your tablet, sure, but also make the tablet a huge part of games. A second controller, a split screen. Anything to differentiate yourself from Apple's staid offering and to keep up with Wii U without having to release a new console.
You know what the best thing out of E3 was? Microsoft's SmartGlass, an app that unites your living room's devices in ways Apple AirPlay could only dream about. It'll work for iOS and Android at some point, sure. But if you're Microsoft, why not give yourself a head start?
A SmartGlass tablet instantly gives Microsoft an Xbox liaison, and more importantly, a reason to buy content from Redmond instead of Cupertino or an Amazon server. There's no time like the present to be the future of your living room.
The one hiccup here: If a Microsoft tablet with SmartGlass is ready now, why wouldn't the company have announced it a few weeks ago at E3?
The only tablets that anyone has bothered buying in quantity, in the entire history of tablets, are the wildly successful iPad and the not-a-failure Kindle Fire. The first is a healthy 10.1-inch wunderkind; the second an anaemic 7-inch budget model. Microsoft needs to be in the first category.
The proliferation of 7-inch tablets (and, for that matter, 5-inch mutant phones) isn't because that's the platonic ideal of hand-held computing. It's because the iPad is Jaws, and everyone else is getting the hell out of the water. But Microsoft shouldn't play in the kiddie pool. It's the only company with the resources to go toe-to-toe with the iPad, and the only one with the patience. You want people watching movies, playing games, editing Word docs on this thing? Give them enough real estate to do it.
Unfortunately, all signs point to a smaller build for Microsoft's tablet adventure. Let's hope, if that's the case, that a larger version is somewhere in the pipeline as well.
Microsoft's got a long-running love affair with Intel, and rightly so. But while the processor king's mobile game has improved significantly of late, its famed x86 architecture still hasn't proven that it can get the job done on handheld devices.
ARM, on the other hand? ARM architecture is behind every successful tablet and phone you can think of. It's important for Microsoft to stick with what works out the gate; you don't bring an experimental engine to your first big match.
And you know what? Don't stop there. As much as we love Windows Phone around here, there's no getting around the fact that Microsoft's hardware requirements have so far brought a knife to a grenade fight. It can get away with that on phones because the WP platform isn't particularly resource-intensive.
A tablet, though? Whether it's running Windows RT or Windows 8, a Microsoft tablet is going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting. Games, movies, music, multitasking. Don't skimp on the specs, or the screen, or the RAM, or the graphics. Give us nerds something to drool over.
There was a rumour, albeit shortly lived, that today's announcement was going to be some sort of Microsoft-Barnes & Noble collaboration, some sort of Windows 8 Nook or a flaccid ebook reader. But while Microsoft sunk $300 (£191) million into Nook recently, it wasn't for the hardware. It was for the content delivery, something to compete with iBooks and Kindle and whatever's going on at Google Play.
Fortunately, the bookmonger has confirmed that it won't be a part of this afternoon's presentation. That doesn't mean Microsoft doesn't need Nook; it certainly does, for the reasons mentioned above. But it's much better as a spoke in Microsoft's wheel, not a cog. If people wanted a Nook, they'd just buy a Nook.
Microsoft's hardware partners have spent years tracking down the holy grail of an enterprise tablet, something business users will flock to because it has that certain buttoned up something the that iPad doesn't. This is, and always has been, dumb.
You know what a consumer tablet is? The iPad. You know what an enterprise tablet is? The iPad. You know what a prosumer tablet is? You're a terrible person for even using that word. The only nod Microsoft needs to give to business persons is to include its suite of Office applications. No docking solutions, no bloatware, no stylus. Just Word and Excel and PowerPoint. That's it. You're done.
Here's the thing: There's also the chance that today's announcement will have nothing to do with a tablet. It could be an ebook reader. It could be a deep dive into that Yammer acquisition that you lost so much sleep over this weekend. It could be a laser light show set to a Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime. Microsoft's just not tipping its hand.
So the biggest thing a Microsoft tablet needs, above all else, is to be real. To be a worthy vessel for Windows 8's mobile ambitions. Microsoft might be as well-heeled an adversary as Apple's seen. But it's already already two years behind in the tablet game; the one thing it can't afford is losing more time.