Microsoft (Stock Quote: MSFT) announced Thursday that it plans to release a Windows-based tablet or slate computer. Just when this potential iPad killer can be expected, however, remains to be seen.

"They'll be shipping as soon as they are ready," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at an annual meeting with financial analysts, adding that it “ain’t a long time from now.”

"No one is sleeping at the switch here," Ballmer said. "We have got to make things happen with Windows 7 on slates. We're in the process of doing that as we speak. As focused as we are on this, our partners are also focused on this to deliver systems and chips to make this happen."

Microsoft shelved plans for a tablet, dubbed the Courier, earlier this year and then seemed to abandon the tablet business entirely after additional slates running on the Windows Operating System were unveiled at the 2010 Consumer Electronic Show.

Not surprisingly, Ballmer offered few details on what these resurrected tablets would feature. The tablets would run off of Windows 7, use Intel processors and be available in different shapes and sizes.  He also hinted that the forthcoming devices would likely get an upgrade once chipmaker Intel released its tablet-specific processor "Oak Trail" next year.

Additionally, Ballmer said that Microsoft’s version would likely cost less than Apple’s iPad.

“We're gonna sell like crazy!" he told analysts who had gathered to hear, primarily, how Microsoft intends to compete with Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) and Google (Stock Quote: GOOG). Amidst the tablet talk, Ballmer demonstrated Microsoft’s new smartphone, the Windows Phone 7, which goes on sale this fall behind a major marketing campaign. Ballmer also pointed out that there will be an upgrade opportunity to Windows 7 and Office 2010 in the near future.

In terms of tablets, however, Ballmer may have inadvertently acknowledged that his competitors have a leg up when he said that Apple had sold more of their devices than he would have liked. We suppose he feels the same about the iPhone.

How does Microsoft measure up against its other rival, Google? Check out this MainStreet article “Microsoft Office 2010, Google Target Small Biz”!

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