Microsoft (MSFT) will soon be taking on Apple's (AAPL) iPad with the first tablet computers equipped with Windows 7. In a speech Tuesday at the London School of Economics, CEO Steve Ballmer said the so-called "slate" computing devices -- launched in partnership with hardware companies such as Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) -- will hit shelves in time for this year's holiday season.

The world's largest software maker will be challenging Apple for market share in the rapidly-expanding tablet-computer market. Research firm In-Stat last month predicted that tablet-computer sales will more than double in each of the next four years.

Analysts are closely watching Microsoft's entrance into the tablet market for clues about the company's future. Goldman Sachs analyst Sarah Friar downgraded Microsoft shares earlier this week, citing Microsoft's lack of a tablet product as a key reason. In her research note, Friar said the company needs to start selling its own tablet to fend off threats to its profitable Windows operating system.

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