Microsoft's fast-follower strategy has allowed it to conquer other markets in the past. But it might not work for tablets, particularly when facing the iPad and Android.
Microsoft do to carve out its own little niche in the tablet market?
At the moment,
Apple's iPad dominates that market, with a growing number of Google Android
tablets either fresh on store shelves or due to appear within the next few
quarters. Both Research In Motion, with its 7-inch PlayBook tablet, and
Hewlett-Packard, which is porting webOS onto a variety of devices, plan to
release their own offerings by summer.
context, Microsoft's absence is noticeable. During his keynote at this year's
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer seemed to
focus on virtually every market, except tablets. Meanwhile, the company's booth
at the show had seemingly every single possible permutation of Windows-powered
laptop, smartphone and gaming systems on display-and only a small number of
touch-screens, primarily for the Asian market, locked in glass boxes.
a reputation as the archetypical "fast follower," or a company whose skill
rests on recognizing emerging trends in the marketplace and putting a strategy
in place to capitalize on them. That might have helped it dominate several market
segments throughout the '90s, with products such as Internet Explorer.
But over the
past five years, another narrative has emerged. It starts with another company
creating a blockbuster product, whether Google with its search engine or Apple
with the iPhone. Microsoft waits for a lengthy period of time, and then
introduces a competitor-Bing in the former case, Windows Phone 7 in the
latter-backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing and development
muscle. Thanks at least in part to that enormous tide of cash, Microsoft
manages to keep the product alive in the marketplace until a certain subset of
users discover its features, and begin to use it more and more. But those
products fail to dominate their respective markets in the same way as Windows,
Office or Internet Explorer.
jury is still very much out whether Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 can gain
sufficient traction-even with the recently signed deal with Nokia-to survive
amid the massive competitive pressures exerted by the Apple iPhone, Google
Android and RIM's BlackBerry franchise.
All that being
said, it seems as if Microsoft is determined to follow a similar strategy with
tablets. Despite Ballmer's repeated assertions throughout much of 2010 that
Windows-powered tablets will begin entering the consumer market in greater
numbers this year, the rumor-mill remains dark and silent concerning such
devices. When it comes to businesses, Hewlett-Packard has already released a
Windows-powered tablet for the enterprise; however, with the company's
attentions increasingly focused on webOS, it remains to be seen whether it will
bother trying to repeat that feat, on a broader scale, for consumers. And while
Dell also reportedly has plans for an enterprise Windows tablet, it seems much
more intent on selling its Android-powered touch-screens.
previously announced that the next version of Windows will support
system-on-a-chip architecture, in particular ARM-based systems from partners
such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. Given ARM's presence on mobile
devices, that heavily suggests Microsoft has tablet plans associated with
Yet the current
scuttlebutt suggests Windows 8 won't even hit the market until 2012, which
leaves a substantial time gap. In the meantime, more and more Android-based
tablets are due, and Apple-whose iPad franchise remains the segment leader, at
least for the moment-will almost certainly continue to make its own tablet more
advanced and feature-rich.
sticks to this timeframe, in other words, and its full-on consumer tablet push
only begins in the context of Windows 8, it could become the surest test of its
fast-follower strategy. By then, analysts predict the tablet market to be truly
burgeoning, with tens of millions of units shipped; Microsoft's task will be to
not only carve away market share from well-established competitors, but
convince its own manufacturing partners to back a Windows tablet over Android
and other proprietary operating systems.
By then, of
course, the Dells, Samsungs and HPs of the world will have made untold millions
in revenue and profits from their tablets and operating systems. Convincing
them to devote resources to a competing Windows tablet will be no easy
alternative is for Microsoft to develop a tablet-centric operating system,
perhaps modified from Windows Phone 7. This could provide a shorter-term
solution, and allow the company to elbow its way into the tablet market sooner
than 2012. It would also lessen the time burden on the fast-follower strategy.
But there seem
precious few rumblings that Microsoft will pursue such a strategy. Instead, the
company seems content to wait on the sidelines, plotting its own
consumer-tablet push behind closed doors. Something similar has worked in the
past, with other products-but it's an open question whether it will work this