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A window of opportunity for Microsoft with tablets

March 29, 2012|By Michelle Maltais
  • A screenshot of Windows 8 consumer preview.
A screenshot of Windows 8 consumer preview. (Microsoft Corp. )

Some may wonder whether there's room for Microsoft to carve a niche for itself with a behemoth like Apple's iPad dominating the tablet market. 

According to a Bloomberg report, Microsoft is said to be preparing Windows 8, a touch-friendly operating system, for a fall launch. Although the iPad is a dominant critical and commercial success by most accounts, there's a sizable gap between it and the nearest comparable Android tablet, presenting Microsoft with a window of opportunity.

To say that Microsoft has a lot riding on Windows 8 for its foray into the tablet market is simply stating the obvious. The company has all but conceded a whole popular segment by its absence in the tablet market.

Analyst Michael Cherry of Directions on Microsoft has doubts that Microsoft will be able to deliver on the aggressive schedule detailed by Bloomberg. He said that of the three important facets of a new product -- quality, features and time -- to be long on two means you'll be short on one. "Picking all three is really hard."

However, Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg says it's too early to count Microsoft out, despite its late arrival to the tablet market.

"The question is, can Microsoft make a dent in the Android market," he said. "The marketplace is moving with such a rate of change, unexpected things can happen.... Microsoft is hoping that the [first-place] runner does stumble," so that the company might gain some ground.

The only official words coming out of Microsoft these days about the advent and execution of Windows 8 seem to be no comment, but there's lots of discussion about expectations and what's at stake.

Here are a few things Microsoft has to do to avoid being relegated forever to the distinction of an also-ran or, really, a never-had-a-chance.

Build it: First and foremost, Microsoft cannot let Apple have one more holiday season without a Windows tablet on the market. It needs to bring something to market -- and that something has to be ready for prime time in terms of hardware, software and ecosystem.

"The longer it happens, the more difficult it is for a developer to break into that market," Gartenberg said. "You get into a cycle that becomes very, very difficult to break."

It's not just the Windows 8 software that has to be on point.  Although Microsoft is building the operating system, it might be wise to be intimately involved in development of some hardware -- to help ensure positive user experience.

On the tablet hardware side, Microsoft will need to meet or beat what's already on the market. To that end, the company has said that Windows 8 will support multiple display resolutions, possibly even beyond that of Retina display.

With iPad in its third iteration and Android-based tablets past their infancy, consumers have an expectation of a mature, seamless and reliable computing experience, not one that is glitchy or experimental. Windows-based tablets will be compared to what's already on the market.

"Everybody seems to want to measure the numbers, but it's more about the experience," Cherry said.

One potential advantage is that Windows 8 is nothing like Apple's iOS or Android 4.0, or Ice Cream Sandwich. The Metro-style updating tiles will be a fresh approach to mobile computing, if executed properly.

Populate it: Now that much of the buying public is familiar with at least the concept of tablet computing, Microsoft will have to deliver more than just a tablet and a stellar OS. 

“Ecosystems are driving purchases these days.” Gartenberg said.

In other words, it's all about the apps. 

Windows Phone, essentially a precursor to a possible upcoming Windows-based tablet, now has 70,000 apps, or less than 5% of the market. That compares with half a million each for iOS and Android.

They aren't ignoring app development. Microsoft just released the developer's kit for Windows Phone 7.1.1, which can also run on the Windows 8 Consumer Preview release. In addition, this week Microsoft and Nokia announced an investment of about $12 million in AppCampus, a mobile app development program at Aalto University in Finland, to develop new apps for the Windows Phone platform.

"Given time, there will be great Metro apps," Cherry said.

Sell it: Price is an area where Microsoft could have a check in the win column. "In just the normal desktop world, Windows devices were always less expensive than Apple machines," Cherry said. If Apple is the BMW of the computing market -- the ultimate hand-held machine? -- Windows-based machines have been considered sturdy and affordable Toyotas, if you will. Keep the price down and sales may take off. (That said, the premium price of iPads hasn't really hurt Apple's sales any.)

Another potential sales pitch could be aimed at the business market, long comfortable with Microsoft products. The goal, however, is to not take a page from Research in Motion's BlackBerry Playbook.

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