Microsoft, HP, RIM Could Lose Out in Long-Term Tablet War: Gartner

Microsoft, HP and RIM could all find themselves on the losing end of the long-term tablet war, according to a new research note from Gartner.

The long-term forecast for Research In Motion, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft in the tablet market is dim, according to a new research note from Gartner.

According to the firm's April 11 report, Apple's iOS will continue to dominate the media-tablet market through 2015, with a 47.1 percent share. Hard on its heels will be Android, with 38.6 percent, followed by RIM's QNX operating system (integrated into the company's upcoming PlayBook tablet) with 10 percent. HP's webOS will trail with 3 percent, followed by MeeGo with 1 percent and "other operating systems" with 0.2 percent.

Gartner defines a "media tablet" as any touch-screen device that measures between 5 and 15 inches on the diagonal, and running a lightweight operating system such as iOS or Android.

Should that 2015 prediction come true, it would mark something of a sea change from Gartner's stats for 2010, which placed Apple's share at 83.9 percent, Android at 14.2 percent and other competitors at 1.3 percent or less. Granted, Apple's iPad had free reign of the market for the majority of last year, and competitors such as RIM and HP are weeks or months away from placing their own devices on store shelves. But despite the millions those companies will surely pour into their marketing efforts, Gartner nonetheless sees the sheer number of Android tablets hitting the market in combination with tighter software control by Google and a larger app ecosystem as contributing factors in Android eventually closing in on iOS.

"Volume will be driven by support from many players, the ecosystem of applications for tablets getting more competitive and some platform flexibility allowing lower price points," Roberta Cozza, principal analyst at Gartner, wrote in the research note accompanying the numbers. "The new licensing model Google has introduced with Honeycomb enables Google to drive more control, allowing only optimal tablet implementations that don't compromise quality of experience."

In theory, that will contribute to tablet prices eventually leveling off, rather than mirroring the same downward trend currently affecting smartphones. But Gartner's numbers don't seem particularly positive for Apple's and Google's competitors, including RIM, HP and Microsoft.

"It will take time and significant effort for RIM to attract developers and deliver a compelling ecosystem of applications and services around QNX to position it as a viable alternative to Apple or Android," Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner, wrote in a statement.

The key market for the PlayBook's growth, she added, is "organizations that will be interested in RIM's tablets because they either already have RIM's infrastructure deployed or have stringent security requirements."

HP has high hopes for webOS, which it acquired as part of its 2010 takeover of Palm's assets. Although webOS originally appeared on the Palm Pre and other smartphones, its new owner plans to integrate the operating system not only into tablets, such as the upcoming TouchPad, but also traditional PCs.

"The webOS is an unbelievably attractive piece of technology in that it can interconnect seamlessly a number of various devices," HP CEO Leo Apotheker told reporters during a March 14 press conference. "We see this as a massive, very global platform."

While Microsoft has collaborated on some tablets equipped with Windows 7, Gartner discounted "fully featured" operating systems in working up its media-tablet numbers. In any case, Microsoft's tablet plans remain unclear: There are rumors that the next version of Windows, by virtue of supporting the SoC (system-on-a-chip) architecture that in turn underpins the ARM-based systems popular with mobile devices, will be somehow tablet-optimized. But in the absence of any definitive news from Microsoft on that front, its tablet plans ultimately remain the subject of conjecture.

And as with any predictive analysis that tries to paint a picture of the market four years from now, there is necessarily a high level of uncertainty.