Should software giant Microsoft fail to announce a major move on the tablet front tomorrow, you can expect a thousand technology bloggers to collectively commit harakiri and the company’s stock to hit the bottom of the Mariana trench.
By all accounts, Microsoft will unveil a Windows Tablet in Los Angeles tomorrow.
The tablet is expected to be a Microsoft branded device running Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 operating system, on top of a chip from ARM.
Media tablets have been one of the remarkable success stories of the Internet era.
Market researcher IDC has estimated worldwide shipments of media tablets in 2011 at 69.6 million units, up from 19.4 million in the previous year.
Prior to 2010, there was no consumer tablet market to speak of.
In one of the most successful product launches in computing history, it took Apple less than three years to create a market for tablets and then lucratively capture most of that market for itself.
Ever since Steve Jobs walked up to the stage in San Francisco on January 27, 2010 and launched Apple’s first generation iPad to oohs and aahs, the world has never been the same again for digital media aficionados who thrive on hot new gadgets.
To be sure, neither Jobs nor Apple invented the tablet.
As a product category, tablets preceded the iPad but failed miserably with consumers.
Old fogies will recollect that Microsoft showed off a Tablet PC as early as the 2000 Comdex Fall 2000. But the digital-pen based Windows XP Tablet PC devices that followed a couple of years later were not even a niche product. They turned out to be a dud.
In the pre-Pad era, the most popular small form factor computing devices were not tablets but the Palm Pilot, netbooks and the iPhone.
Today, the Palm Pilot is history and the netbook is pretty far along the road to becoming history.
Apple’s First Generation iPad
Riding on the success of its iPod and the iPhone, a rejuvenated Apple under the inspiring leadership of its co-founder Steve Jobs polished and refined the concept of tablets to launch a touchscreen device that worked incredibly well.
Not only did it put the company’s core ‘Apple fanboys’ on a new high but it also brought a new group of delighted consumers into the Apple fold.
Apple’s 9.7-inch touchscreen iPad tablet created history, rivaled in consumers’ ardor for the device only by the iPhone.
With a tablet in their hand, people could browse the web, check e-mail, read e-books, watch videos and listen to their vast trove of music without squinting their eyes as they did while using the phone as an e-book reader or watching video.
It was not long before Netflix launched an app and consumers including yours truly were streaming Hollywood and Bollywood movies on the iPad.
The biggest advantage the iPad had at launch was that most of the 140,000 applications built for the iPhone could run on the iPad too.
Stunned by the success of the iPad, developers quickly started building native iPad apps boosting their number to 225,000 by June 2012.
Apple’s extraordinary success with the iPad prompted several technology companies including Samsung, Motorola, Acer, Asus and Sony to jump into the tablet fray using the Android software from Google.
Alas, none of the vendors could make headway in the tablet arena.
Android tablets lacked the finesse and the applications that were to be the iPad’s trump card.
Only when the prices were slashed to sub-$100 levels did iPad rivals gain any traction.
HP TouchPad (running not Android but WebOS) sold out when the company slashed the price to $99 to get rid of unsold inventory.
Android tablet vendors had few takers even when they cut prices to below iPad levels.
American Consumers whose unceasing clamor for cheap had driven most manufacturing out of the country to China were now happily paying Apple ridiculous prices.
The global economic downturn has had little impact on the growth of the tablet market.
On Thursday, market researcher IDC raised its media tablet shipment forecast for 2012 to 107.4 million units (from its earlier projection of 106.1 million) and predicted that the share of iPad tablets would grow in 2012 to 62.5%, up from 58.2% in 2011.
Windows Tablet – Low Odds of Success
Given the phenomenal success of the iPad, it’s hardly surprising that Microsoft would fling its hat in the tablet ring for a share of the tablet pie.
But a Windows tablet would suffer from several challenges, some of which laid waste to Android tablets.
First, the issue of applications will crop up on day one itself. Unless the Windows tablet debuts with hundreds of quality apps in diverse categories, it’s hard to see consumer enthusiasm building up for the device.
Unless Microsoft has found a way to get existing Windows apps for the desktop/laptop to run on the tablet, and that’s a big If, it’s going to take an herculean effort and billions of dollars to get developer commitment for the Windows tablet.
Second, like all the Android tablet vendors Microsoft’s Windows tablet too suffers from the handicap of being perceived as a me-too player looking to belatedly cash in the consumers’ robust appetite for tablets (albeit of the iPad kind).
Third, iPad rivals with the exception of Amazon.com have come in at a price-point higher than or equal to the iPad in an unmistakable death wish.
It’d be hard for Microsoft to make headway with consumers with a price tag of more than $299 for a 16GB 10-inch model. Even if the device is made in china, as it will be, hitting the $299 price point will prove a hard slog.
Finally, Microsoft has to grapple with a big question of whether it’ll be the sole peddler of Windows Tablets or will the company license its software to other manufacturers, effectively putting itself in competition with its partners/ customers like Samsung or Dell.
Traditionally, Microsoft has licensed its software to multiple hardware vendors letting them duke it out in the market place for wafer thin margins (like it did in the PC business). Its record as a seller of Microsoft-branded consumer devices has not been one of unalloyed success. Microsoft’s Zune music player turned out to be a disaster but the Xbox game console appears to be doing well lately.
Bottom line, in Microsoft’s belated re-entry into the tablet market the road ahead is daunting with the odds of success on the lower side.