I’m at TechEd this week, a show that seems to be pointedly warring with Apple's wildly popular WWDC. Obviously, here is a lot trash talk going on between the two events.
However, Apple simply has too much of a tablet lead to be significantly concerned about Microsoft Windows 8. Meanwhile, devices like the iPod, iPhone, and iPad illustrate just how historically difficult it has been for Redmond to compete with Cupertino on tablets.
Now I’ve been using Android tablets for some time. My favorite device? The Kindle Fire - which best showcases both the promise and problem for Android. The promise: Android can be simpler, cheaper, and more focused than an iPad. The downside? Amazon created the Kindle Fire by essentially deconstructing Android and creating a unique user experience.
So let’s look at Windows 8 tablets as the new potential number two tablet.
The Problem with Android Tablets
The core advantage driving the success of Android handsets is that carriers (even AT&T) would rather their customers used them over the iPhone. This is because an iPhone customer remains loyal to Apple who controls the user experience. In sharp contrast, Android is hardware independent and customers aren’t particularly loyal to any one Android hardware vendor. Then again, carriers don’t really care about tablets - so they rarely push customers away from the iPad and to an Android device.
Android tablets, with the exception of the Kindle Fire, are all pretty much iPad clones with a vastly lower user experience but a similar cost. In addition, the platform is massively fragmented and consequently barred from a number of governments and large corporations due to security concerns, as it has become a veritable virus magnet. The most iPad-like tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab, has historically done the best - clearly slipstreaming Apple but unable to outperform Cupertino. In short, Android was created to be a fast and cheap iOS clone.
Windows 8 Tablets
While the iPad and Android clones primarily focus on entertainment, at the core of Windows 8 is the concept of productivity. Or, put another way, while the two earlier platforms are focused more on media consumption, the Windows 8 product remains focused on content creation. It emulates iOS in areas that have been well received, such as experience control and application curation, but remains distinct because its core mission as a product is so very different.
Essentially, Windows 8 tablets should trend larger, especially for those creating content who will gravitate to 12” and larger screens (consumption is fine at 11” and under). Think about it - this is perfectly consistent with how we currently buy laptops, as content creators simply require more screen real estate. As such, successful Windows 8 tablets will eventually be focused on a different user experience. While they might initially look a bit like iPads (because OEMs do like to copy) they should evolve a distinct user experience rather quickly.
An interesting session here was led by 3 IT executives planning to deploying Windows 8 tablets aggressively. Why? Windows 8 is expected to be more secure, useful (productive), compatible (hardware and software), and manageable than either iOS or Android.
It is hardly a secret that neither Google nor Apple have a great relationship with IT. Yes, Tim Cook will likely fix this over time given his background (Google is trying ), but right now Microsoft is preeminent here largely because Steve Jobs collapsed his corporate focused division early on while Google is late (compared to Microsoft) to this particular corporate party. Again, although tablets are largely a user driven product, corporations will likely be more willing to accept Windows 8 over iOS or Android.
Let’s be clear - there is really far too much user demand for the iPad for Apple to be threatened at this juncture, regardless of how good Windows 8 tablets may be. However, there is a growing market for non-Apple tablets, which is currently owned by Google. As we noted above, this market is far more vulnerable because users have proven far less loyal as the products are less compelling. Therefore, Windows 8 could potentially usurp Google’s tablet position relatively easily.
Interestingly enough, the hardware showcased at TechEd is far better than what is currently in the market, although Windows 8 tablets appear to be strengthening sharply as we approach launch. If this trend continues, Google's second place tablet lead will be at risk, and if Microsoft can pass Google, well, even beating Apple eventually becomes possible.
Of course, there is something ironic about the fact that a decade after introducing tablets, Microsoft may have finally figured out how to create a decent mobile device, even if took Apple and cattle prod to make it happy. Then again, I’m just glad we are finally getting there.