Microsoft faces something of a battle royale in the tablet market. Apple’s iPad currently sells millions of units, and its rivals are making aggressive inroads with increasingly powerful Android offerings. Both Research In Motion and Hewlett-Packard are prepping tablets for launch in the next few quarters that will introduce new operating systems into the market, backed by millions of marketing dollars.
Despite some gung-ho statements from its executives about a big tablet push, Microsoft seems content to sit on the sidelines as these companies battle it out for market share. Hewlett-Packard released a limited-run Windows tablet aimed at the enterprise, and Dell is planning similar measures-but the big Microsoft push into the consumer tablet space remains unrealized.
That’s certain to change, if only because consumer tablets represent a multibillion-dollar industry Microsoft simply cannot afford to miss. Whether it plans to wait for the release of the next version of Windows (rumored for 2012) to make that big push, or is working on something nearer-term, Microsoft can draw from not only the experiences of competitors such as the Motorola Xoom, but also its recent launch of Windows Phone 7.
Lightweight User Interface
Whether Apple’s iOS or Google Android, the substantial majority of tablet operating systems seems to embrace a “post-PC” ethos, with an emphasis on lightweight, streamlined functionality that owes much (if not all) to the conceptual work done with smartphones. Hewlett-Packard and Research In Motion tablets, due on store shelves over the next few quarters, similarly embrace this ethos.
Within this increasingly crowded marketplace, Microsoft is distinct in that its consumer and business tablets continue to port a touch-enabled, but otherwise relatively untouched, version of Windows 7. While that has certainly saved Redmond the trouble of designing a new tablet operating system from the ground up, Windows remains a system designed primarily for desktops and laptops. In contrast with iOS or Android, it feels bulky and somewhat out of place.
During this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows would support system-on-a-chip architecture, in particular, ARM-based systems from partners such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Texas Instruments. That seemed a signal that Microsoft is planning “Windows 8” within the context of mobile devices, given ARM chips’ prevalence on both smartphones and tablets. At the same time, however, it also raises additional questions: Will Microsoft release multiple versions of Windows 8, tailored to specific types of form factors? Or will Windows 8 preserve Windows 7’s monolithic archetype, albeit one ported onto touch-screens in addition to desktops and laptops?
That remains the several-billion-dollar question. However, Microsoft must have noticed every other competitor in the space embracing a lightweight, smartphone-like user interface for its own tablet offerings. It can further be assumed, considering the massive amount of raw brainpower packing Redmond’s corporate hallways, that at least a few working groups must be planning some sort of direct competitor.
Within days of its release, pundits immediately began declaring the Motorola Xoom the first “true” iPad competitor, mostly based on its high-end hardware and use of tablet-optimized Google Android 3.0 (“Honeycomb”). However, those same pundits all seemed to come to roughly the same conclusion regarding the Xoom’s Achilles Heel: the $799 sticker price, which rises to nearly $1,040 if you incorporate in a two-year carrier plan at $20 a month for 1GB of data.
The general consensus seems to be that, in order to break the iPad’s current dominance of the tablet market, Apple’s rivals will need to sell their tablets at radically lower price points. Considering the cost of materials integrated into tablets, along with the inevitable marketing costs, that may prove difficult for manufacturers already obsessed with their margins. However, technology also has a habit of diving in price as certain component markets mature; it stands to reason that, within the next several quarters, tablets could emerge that satisfy this lower price-point requirement, without driving their manufacturers into bankruptcy.
As a relatively late newcomer to the consumer tablet market, Microsoft will need to be extra-careful about its price points: Too high, and users will balk in favor of cheaper Android devices or secondary-market iPads.
Lock It Down
During the ramp-up to the release of Windows Phone 7, Microsoft announced that it would bind its smartphone manufacturers to a strict set of hardware requirements, including a 1GHz processor. In theory, that would inhibit fragmentation within the device ecosystem, while also making it easier for Microsoft to push out software updates. (The company’s subsequent trouble with those updates, of course, throws parts of that theory into question.)
When it comes to tablets, Microsoft might do well to impose similar measures on its manufacturing partners. That would help it avoid the fragmentation issues already starting to affect the various Android slates on the market, which all seem to run different OS versions, with unclear timeframes for updates to Honeycomb.
Locked-down hardware would also allow Microsoft to make firmer assurances about battery life and other features that consumers demand.
Whatever the criticisms leveled at Windows Phone 7, it seems that Microsoft made a smart (and logical) move when it decided to bake mobile versions of many of its pre-existing assets into the platform. Your typical Windows Phone 7 user not only has access to Xbox Live, but also productivity applications via the “Office” Hub.
In its bid to ramp up its tablet strategy, Microsoft could likewise benefit from integrating Office, Xbox and other brands into the user interface. That would create selling points for the device-and in Xbox’s case, maybe even attract hard-core gamers who might otherwise gravitate toward an Apple, Android or HP tablet.
Developers! Developers! Developers!
Months before Microsoft released Windows Phone 7, it began aggressively courting third-party developers to build applications for the platform. Indeed, a robust applications ecosystem is increasingly seen as the cornerstone of a successful mobile strategy-Apple has leveraged its voluminous App Store to greater profits, and application optimization sits at the center of Google’s Honeycomb efforts.
Indeed, Microsoft could very well benefit from pursuing a similar strategy with a Windows tablet, if only to ensure similar functionality (re: Angry Birds support) as its competitors on the market.
Sell to Business
Despite Microsoft’s increased focus on the consumer space in the past few years, businesses remain a prime segment for the company’s products. While its manufacturing partners have concentrated their limited Windows 7 tablet production at the enterprise, a substantial business market remains to be tapped by the next (and larger) wave of Windows tablets.
Capturing that business market will involve not only baking functionality such as SharePoint into the tablet’s user interface-possibly via a Windows Phone 7-style “Office” Hub-but also ensuring the sort of stringent security measures that allow IT administrators to sleep well at night. That includes features such as embedded-security chips and encrypted SSD.
At some point, someone’s going to want to use their tablet to take handwritten notes, and not have to download a third-party application of questionable coding in order to do so. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has previously boasted that the next generation of Windows tablets would include some sort of stylus-based functionality. For a subset of artists, designers, engineers and artists, it might prove beneficial if Microsoft made good on that promise.