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Otto Berkes with an UltraMobile PC in 2006. (Microsoft photo)

Long before Apple introduced the iPad, Otto Berkes and his team at Microsoft were working on devices called UltraMobile PCs that combined touch screens with a portable slate design. Introduced five years ago, they were too expensive and the technology wasn’t ready for mass adoption.

But it’s tough not to imagine what they could have become — and how Microsoft would be positioned against the iPad — if the company had stuck with it.

Berkes, an 18-year veteran of Microsoft and the last Xbox founder who remained at the company, confirmed this afternoon that he is leaving the company, as first reported by the Seattle Times earlier today. He worked most recently as a partner hardware architect for Microsoft Bing, focused on the evolution of the data center and the hardware infrastructure that powers web searches.

When we caught up today, Berkes was upbeat when I asked for his thoughts on Microsoft and his own future.

“I feel good about both,” he said. “I have a huge amount of admiration and respect for Microsoft and for its accomplishments and its capabilities.  I am very proud of the work that I did at Microsoft and the fact that I was able to make contributions in different areas.  It’s been a pleasure working with so many smart, dedicated, and driven people. I’m also really excited to take on some new challenges.”

But how does he feel watching what Apple has done with the iPad?

“It’s been bittersweet,” he said. “It certainly validated the notion of having a truly touch-centric, connected computing device, but I obviously wish that Microsoft had gotten there first. … The concepts were certainly all there, but the investment level required and the clarity of focus on that class of product was not what it needed to be to achieve the kind of commercial success that Apple has achieved with the iPad.”

Berkes plans to work for another company, based in California, but he isn’t saying yet which one.

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