Is it truly too late for Windows 8 tablets?
The question seems asinine, considering how said tablets won't hit the market for several quarters. Nonetheless, it's also one drawing a fair amount of media attention, in the wake of a Forrester analyst suggesting the devices may indeed arrive on the market too late to carve out their own niche.
"For tablets ... Windows really isn't a fast follower," that analyst, JP Gownder, wrote in a Nov. 29 corporate blog posting. "Rather it's (at best) a fifth-mover after iPad, Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, HP's now-defunct webOS tablet, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablets."
By the time the first Windows 8 tablets make their debut, he added, they will face second- or third-generation versions of these rival devices. In addition, Microsoft will face pressure from Amazon's Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble's Nook Tablet, which "are reshaping consumer expectations in the market, driving down price points (and concomitant price expectations), and redefining what a tablet is."
But does that necessarily mean that Windows 8 tablets will arrive on store shelves too late for consumers?
In the tablet wars, Microsoft has one very powerful tool at its disposal: its wide variety of manufacturing partners. And unlike the situation with Windows Phone, where manufacturers and carriers have a vested interest in promoting Apple or Android devices over those running Microsoft's smartphone software, OEMs in the tablet and PC arena will have little choice but to embrace Windows 8 as the route forward against Apple's iPad.
For the past several quarters, many of those same companies have pushed tablets running Google Android. Many of those efforts were met with anemic sales and customer response. Hewlett-Packard's webOS-equipped TouchPad is officially dead, and even Research In Motion co-CEO Mike Lazaridis admitted in September that PlayBook sales were "below where we'd like it to be." Samsung's Galaxy Tab franchise has seen some success, at the cost of a vicious, resource-sucking patent battle with Apple. Meanwhile, the iPad continues to dominate the tablet market.
That situation leaves manufacturers hungering for a tablet hit. If Windows 8 lives up to its hype, it could prove to be the operating system necessary for such a hit: easy to use, and capable of supporting a variety of consumer and business applications.
But hurdles remain. Those manufacturers will need to produce hardware capable of running Windows 8 in the truly "no compromises" way envisioned by Microsoft. The devices will need to be light enough to compete with others on the market, with enough battery life to get the average user through the day. On its official "Building Windows 8" blog, Microsoft has expended hundreds of words explaining just how it will optimize operating-system battery life to meet those kinds of goals, but it remains to be seen whether the software can truly deliver in real-world scenarios.
And there's also the sticky matter of costs. As mentioned by Gownder, the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet have set a new floor for tablet prices. Radical price reductions in both the TouchPad and PlayBook caused an attendant spike in sales. That downward pressure could affect Microsoft and its manufacturing partners in unpleasant ways, as they try to balance the need to make a profit versus market trends. A high-priced Windows 8 tablet might succeed with corporate procurement specialists, but it could drive cost-conscious consumers to look elsewhere-especially if Apple and other rivals retaliate by dropping the price of their own goods.
In essence, Microsoft does have considerable opportunity to seize a good chunk of the tablet market with Windows 8. But it most likely won't prove an easy win.