Despite a couple of years of competition, Android tablets haven't made the kind of impact into iPad sales and adoption that their manufacturers would have hoped. This year will see the re-emergence of Windows tablets. Can they topple Apple at the tablet game?
This isn't a screed against Android tablets, although I'm sure I'll get plenty of nasty feedback to that effect. I'm not saying Android tablets aren't worth considering per se -- although if I was pushed to name a tablet that I'd recommend for a general user, it wouldn't be an Android tablet at the time of writing. The fragmentation of that space has led to a bevy of applications that work inconsistently across differing tablets, so you can never really be sure of what you're getting. Comparatively, there's been a regular flood of iPad-specific apps that, on the whole, work quite well.
But having a single monolithic model of tablet on the market ultimately isn't that great for consumers. Apple's markedly reluctant to modify its tablet designs, so you can't get (for example) a tablet with truly expandable memory, or differing form factors (as yet). Consumers have flocked to iPad, but it would be better overall (at least in my not so humble view) if the market had plenty of competition -- as it does, for example, in the smartphone space. Again, things could be more vibrant; once you take out Apple and Samsung's profit shares, there's precious little left besides.
But Android hasn't made that essential dent in the tablet market, and without some kind of killer push that engages the wider market, it probably won't. Android tablets aren't going anywhere fast -- and that includes vanishing altogether -- but they're not grabbing the attention of the average tablet buyer.
That's where Microsoft hopes to come in with Windows 8 on tablets. It's certainly got plenty of pedigree, having tried to engage consumers with tablets for more than a decade. The early tablets weren't exactly compelling creatures, and while Windows Vista and Windows 7 are touch capable, there's a big gulf between capable and actually pleasant to use.
Microsoft's secret sauce in this respect is Metro, Windows 8's have-it-your-way interface that I've got to applaud, at least on the ground of ambition. But can Microsoft pull it off? That'll come down to the vendors in one aspect, and developers in the other. I'll address both cases separately.
You can't have Windows 8 tablets without vendors willing to sell Windows 8 hardware, and to date, the details of what we'll see here are a little sketchy -- plenty of prototypes, but not a whole lot of detail on final models beyond Microsoft's list of hardware requirements. Everyone from HP to Dell to Lenovo has shown interest, and rumours continue to circulate that Nokia may jump into the tablet market via Windows 8 as well, but nobody's put a stake in the ground as yet, although they may be heavily constrained by what Microsoft will allow them to announce anyway.
But which Windows 8 platform do you pick? Do you go for the mass appeal x86 platform -- which at this stage looks to be a "Clover Trail" Atom CPU -- ensuring lots of application compatibility? That's got its problems; firstly, the fact that there's been plenty of x86 tablets to date, and outside of specific business applications, they've not really been stunning creatures. Again, it's that matter of applications which operate with touch, but haven't been built for it. The other obvious strike against x86 tablets is the battery life issue; it's always a tradeoff between performance (because you don't want a tablet that's really laggy when the market is used to silky smooth) and battery life, because a tablet that can't last the distance isn't worth buying at all. Intel's claim here is that you could get "up to" nine hours from a Clover Trail CPU-based tablet, but the proof there will be in the battery testing. I'd love to be pleasantly surprised, in other words.
The other alternative is an ARM-based tablet, and that should solve the battery issue nicely, and possibly the performance one as well. Because Windows 8 RT, as it'll be known, will require all new applications, much of the bloat and system hogging that goes on with x86 applications could be sidestepped, at least in theory.
It's on the ARM platform that Microsoft's got its biggest challenge, though, and it's one that will really spell out whether Windows 8 as a genuine consumer tablet product will fail or succeed -- and that's Steve Ballmer's old and well-worn catch cry regarding developers.
A Windows 8 tablet on x86 may be able to run legacy applications, but historically speaking, few of those have run all that well on a touch basis. A Windows 8 tablet on ARM won't have those legacy apps at all, and it'll be imperative for Microsoft to really hit the ground running in terms of having plenty of apps for ARM tablet users and potential buyers.
Microsoft has certainly ploughed a lot of money into the problem over the years; Metro is clearly informed by what Microsoft's learned through many years of mobile development. Pre-Windows Phone 7 operating environments tried way too hard to ape the existing Windows look to little real effect; while it was one that was familiar to users, the transition from type to touch left most unsatisfied with the user experience. Windows Phone 7 isn't like that; it's a genuinely enjoyable phone operating environment, and one that's had plenty of work polishing behind the scenes and wooing developers. Still, a couple of years after launch, it's still running a distant third in app terms behind iOS and Android.
Numbers aren't everything, which is the polite way of saying that there's an incredible quantity of truly woeful apps on iOS and Android, but without a solid base to work from, there's less reason for new tablet adopters to pick Windows 8, or existing tablet owners to switch. Microsoft can leverage its existing Windows users in the same way that Apple does its Mac users for adoption, because a tablet that you can easily transfer information to is useful, but it's still primarily a content consumption kind of space.
Both ARM and x86/Atom based Windows 8 tablets also face an interesting challenge on the grounds of pricing, something that's clearly affected the Android tablet space as well. When Apple was first set to announce the original iPad, there was a lot of conjecture that it would launch at around $1500, because, well, Apple doesn't sell cheap. Except it did, with the original entry level model well below $1000. To date, plenty of Android tablets have gone in against Apple at the same kinds of price points, and most haven't done all that well. The most successful Android tablet to date has been the Kindle Fire, and that's an absolute bargain basement product any way you look at it. It seems unlikely that Microsoft and its hardware partners would go down that route, if only because it would significantly undercut the existing notebook and desktop markets, and margins there are razor-thin as it is. Go too far in the other direction, and users may well just opt to buy cheap notebooks or ultrabooks anyway. It's a tough balancing act.
All of this necessarily conjecture, because it's not as though I've got a consumer-facing Windows 8 tablet in front of me right now; the best you could do is get an existing Windows 7 tablet and put the consumer preview of Windows 8 on it. That'd give you a taste of the x86 environment, but whether that'll be the primary Windows 8 environment is still up in the air.
Microsoft's got a lot more to lose here than Google does with Android, by the way. If Android simply died right now for some reason -- a devastating patent war, say -- it could just go back to reaping search dollars from everybody's devices anyway. Whereas for Microsoft, while it's got its fingers in countless markets, when it comes to the software that actually brings in the dollars, it's operating systems and office software, and those need platforms to run on. While it has been rumoured, I can't see Microsoft happily deciding to pack up shop and start making Office for iOS.
What do you reckon? Will Windows 8 tablets take the market by storm, or will they sit in the same kind of "nice but third place" space behind iOS and Android that Windows Phone 7 is currently in?