Microsoft needs to follow several steps if it wants to compete against Apple's iPad for share of the growing tablet PC market, according to a new Forrester research report. Among those steps: engaging with the right manufacturing partners, settling on appropriate price point and sales channels, and integrating the tablet with other Microsoft products such as the Xbox. Any Microsoft-produced tablet will also need a version of Windows 7 optimized for the form factor, the analysts added. A number of IT giants, ranging from Hewlett-Packard to Google, are in their own ways attempting to gain in the tablet market.
Microsoft could claim substantial market share from Apple in the growing
tablet PC arena, but will need to both engage its manufacturing partners and
create software that allows a tablet to interact with products such as the
Xbox, according to a research report produced by analyst firm Forrester.
Apple currently dominates the consumer tablet PC market with its iPad, which
sold more than 1 million units in the month following its April 3 release.
Even before the iPad reached store shelves, however, Microsoft and other IT
giants were planning their own entries into the arena; during January's
Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas,
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer used his keynote
address to display several tablets that he said would run Windows 7.
One of those devices, produced by Hewlett-Packard, was touted by Ballmer as
a key example of the upcoming synergy between Windows 7 and the tablet form
factor. In the interim, though, HP acquired Palm and will likely produce a
tablet that runs on the Palm WebOS. Despite that setback, former Microsoft CEO
Bill Gates suggested in early May that the company has other tablet projects in
"Tablets are the next important computing form factor," J.P. Gownder and
Sarah Rotman Epps, analysts with Forrester, wrote in that May 27 report. "To
keep its products front and center, Microsoft needs a partner to produce a
successful Windows tablet that competes with the Apple iPad. At stake is
nothing less than the future of the operating system (OS): For Microsoft to
remain relevant to consumers, it needs to adapt its operating system to new
form factors beyond the traditional PC."
The competition doesn't stop at the Apple iPad, however; Google is
collaborating on tablets that integrate a modified version of its Android
operating system, which has proved increasingly popular on smartphones, while
Hewlett-Packard will likely push its own multitouch devices utilizing its newly
acquired Palm WebOS. As the devices gain acceptance among consumers and
possibly businesses, the number of developers creating must-have applications
for these platforms will likely increase, in turn creating a positive feedback
loop that increases tablets' ubiquity and popularity.
Tablets running Windows 7, the analysts added, have a chance at marketplace
success if Microsoft follows a few key steps. First and foremost, the tablets
must provide "a simple, streamlined, guided experience" along the lines of
Microsoft's Zune HD and Kin phones' user interface: "Microsoft and its partners
must develop UX shell(s) appropriate to the tablet format to compete with
Apple's excellent iPad experience."
The second part is promotion, which will mean heavy spending by
Microsoft and its partners to capture market share. That will work in
conjunction with an appropriate price point: "If a sub-$499 tablet offers a bad
consumer experience, it will fail. Prices above $750 would almost certainly be
too high for a complementary device that acts as a second, third or fourth PC
in the home."
Lastly, placement in a variety of channels-"Microsoft and its partners must
look outside Best Buy here"-is also vital, in the analysts' estimation.
Additionally, Microsoft needs to think ecosystem: A tablet that "synchs with
the Xbox 360-with all the implied benefits, including the Natal interface-would
be a killer hub for the digital home, enabling back-and-forth streaming of
videos and games that one-ups the capabilities of the iPad."
That last step alone, they feel, could potentially render Microsoft viable
for the next decade in the consumer space. But to make any of that happen, the
company needs an OEM partner that can create "killer" hardware to pair with a
streamlined OS and ecosystem-facing functionality.
"Microsoft must keep HP-the largest player in the U.S.
consumer market-in the game and tap into HP's TouchSmart lessons and assets,"
the report states. "Dell, too, is a critical player for the consumer market.
Dell will need more hand-holding than HP, as it lacks the TouchSmart
experience." Lenovo, Sony, Toshiba and other manufacturers can also enter the
fray through different strategies.
The risk of failure, the report suggests, comes with Apple cornering the
tablet market in the same manner as it did the portable media player market with
the iPod: "If Microsoft and its partners-or Google-don't get the tablet
product, promotion, price and placement spot on, -tablet' will be synonymous
with -iPad' for years to come."
One possible Microsoft tablet product, Courier, was eliminated before it
could leave the development lab. Based on early concept designs that leaked to
the media, Courier involved two multitouch screens connected by a central,
booklike hinge; in theory, the device would have allowed users to not only
perform traditional functions such as Web surfing, but also take notes or draw
Despite that, Microsoft has other tablet initiatives in the works-at least
according to Gates.
"Microsoft has a lot of different tablet projects that we're pursuing,"
Gates said during a television interview May 3, according
to a Fox Business Network transcript quoted by TechFlash. "We think that
work with the pen that Microsoft pioneered will become a mainstream for
students. It can give you a device that you can not only read, but also [use
to] create documents at the same time."
Nicholas Kolakowski is a staff editor at eWEEK, covering Microsoft and other companies in the enterprise space, as well as evolving technology such as tablet PCs. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Playboy, WebMD, AARP the Magazine, AutoWeek, Washington City Paper, Trader Monthly, and Private Air. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.