When I was a child I used to play connect-the-dots on the weekend, linking the points on a diagram to form an image of what was essentially a bunch of numbers and clues. The vast majority of this weekend has been spent forming a similar puzzle in my head: Microsoft's major announcement on Monday. Speculation on Microsoft's super secret press conference has reached fever pitch. Some believe it's an iPad competitor, others feel it's a Hulu deal, there are ideas around Nokia's involvement, and then there's an additional theory that it's a tablet without Windows. Time for some guesses of our own — what does the company really have up its sleeve?
In December 2011, Microsoft replaced its head of Windows Phone, Andy Lees, with Terry Myerson. The move essentially benched Lees and was described as a demotion by some. However, CEO Steve Ballmer asked Lees to focus on a "time-critical opportunity" in his internal memo to employees, designed to drive "maximum impact in 2012 with Windows Phone and Windows 8." Ordinarily, you'd assume this was some type of marketing project, or a way to ensure both Windows 8 and Windows Phone shared a similar interface and applications — but Microsoft has been preparing that particular move for a long time.
Barnes & Noble and Windows
On April 30th, Microsoft announced a strategic partnership with Barnes & Noble to spin off its digital Nook business with an investment of $300 million. Referred to as "Newco," the co-owned subsidiary is designed to "accelerate e-reading innovation across a broad range of Windows devices," according to Microsoft's Andy Lees (yes, Andy Lees). After four months of working on a "time-critical" project, Lees was put in charge of discussing a major partnership for the company. The press release for Microsoft's Barnes & Noble deal was vague on software and hardware details, but an SEC filing, discovered by Mary Jo Foley, contains references to a "Microsoft Reader" and lots of mentions of Windows Phone.
Although a lot of confidential information has been omitted in the SEC filing with asterisks, the deal means that Microsoft will pick up access to Barnes & Noble's content through a newly designed app for Windows 8 and Windows Phone. An app that must use the Metro style user interface on the Windows 8 version. Andy Lee's involvement is no coincidence here. Lees oversaw Microsoft's failed Kin launch and the company's rebooted Windows Phone effort. At Microsoft's Worldwide Partner Conference in 2011, Lees famously revealed that Microsoft's separate ecosystems for phones and tablets will "come together" into one single ecosystem spanning different form factors.
A history of tablet concepts
Suggestions that Microsoft may be preparing its own tablet hardware come as no surprise. The company has investigated building its own tablet before. A Codex prototype served as the research project behind Courier — a dual-screen concept that leaked before Apple's iPad debut. The Courier concept generated excitement and interest in Microsoft's efforts, but the company ultimately killed off the idea — opting for Windows 8 as its flagship tablet operating system. While there's mixed opinion on the idea of Windows powering tablets, the death of Courier was widely seen as a mistake given the innovative work Microsoft had been attempting to pursue.
Lees' involvement in the secret KIN hardware makes him a prime candidate for a fresh skunkworks project at Microsoft, and the links to the Barnes & Noble deal referencing Windows Phone cannot be ignored. A number of Windows Phone enthusiast sites discovered visits from devices with unusual resolutions running Windows Phone 8 back in April. While this doesn't confirm Windows Phone's involvement in a potential Microsoft Reader tablet, it does suggest the company is preparing to support different form factors with its mobile operating system. The timing of Microsoft's event on Monday is also significant, scheduled just two days before a Windows Phone 8 summit.
A Microsoft Reader tablet?
The signs all point to Lees' involvement in a project that may mark the introduction of Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, and future Windows Phone devices. Ballmer likely described it as time-critical because of the growth of tablets and entertainment devices that are not running Microsoft's operating systems. If Microsoft has been working on its own tablet, then it's entirely possible the firm could go from conceiving it to having it on store shelves within months. Vizio, a small Southern California company that sells the most HDTVs in America, can execute new products (like its range of Windows PCs) within six months— a small project inside of Microsoft may well be able to do the same.
If I were a betting man then I'd lay money on a tablet reader for Monday's announcement, designed to compete with Amazon's Kindle Fire and a rumored 7-inch Google Nexus tablet. Whether it runs Windows RT, Windows 8, or Windows Phone 8 could be irrelevant. Microsoft opted for a variant of Windows CE (that was close to Windows Phone) on its KIN devices, and the same could happen here — explaining the timing before a Windows Phone 8 unveil. Extra announcements around entertainment services could also be a possible given the press conference is in LA, home to Hulu and a number of movie production studios. Whatever Microsoft has planned, stay tuned to The Verge on Monday at 3:30PM PT — we'll be live blogging Microsoft's major announcement right here.