Understanding the Windows Tablet Market (Part 2)

(I promise to be much shorter this time)

So where do you begin with Microsoft and tablets. Do you go back to the early tablet PC initiative with pen computing and Windows XP for tablet PCs. Do you start with the Ultra Mobile PC platform and Origami; or do we start with Windows 8 and Jensen Harris’s presentation at UX Week 2012.

For the sake of time (and sanity) we will start with option C.

Jensen Harris is one of the Design leads for Windows 8; he is the one to blame (or praise) for the changes wrought by Windows 8. Last year he gave a talk at UX Week in which he detailed the hows and whys of Microsoft new design language and the bold moves the Windows team made. One of the interesting points he made during his presentation was actually about another presentation in which he and another design lead,Sam Moreau, pointed out all these shift in technology and how Windows had not had a major overhaul since the 1990s. And that the same shifts that had changed these platforms was aimed at Windows and if something wasn’t done they’d drown.

And thus Windows 8, for lack of a better word, was born.

On the OEM side the iPad storm was met with a plethora of tablets, what I call the first Tablet war. It saw Dell, Samsung, and numerous, nameless OEMs push Android tablets before Google was ready. HP bought Palm for its WebOS operating system and released then killed the TouchPad a year later. Google rushed out Honeycomb (Android for tablets) and Best Buy and others redesigned their space for a tablet rush that fizzled. In between OEMs made a few Windows based tablets that saw the light of Amazon, if not store shelves.

And there was the blips that were the CrunchPad also known as the JooJoo, the Adam Ink, and e-Ink tablets. And there was also the Courier, the unicorn (sobs).

To say it was ugly would be an understatement; so would saying that for much of that time the tablet market was really just an iPad market.

But that was then, this is now and the topic is Windows tablets.

Now its important to note that while many will judge and compare Windows tablets with those that run run Android and iOS; and while that is a logical comparison it leaves out the significant differences.

The biggest one is that both iOS and Android are mobile Operating Systems; systems built for ARM chipsets and mobile phones. Windows 8 isn’t a mobile OS in that it wasn’t built originally for mobile phones. Windows 8 is a desktop OS meaning it carries a larger foot print (in terms of space on the device). This is also true for its ARM based counterpart Windows RT. Microsoft has made great strides in reducing the “bloat” of Windows through initiatives such as MinWin. The second thing to know about Windows tablets (Windows 8 specifically) is that they offer a wider range of native peripheral support and backwards compatibility to Windows desktop applications. Windows RT doesn’t run legacy programs, because those were built for Intel based processors, but do run applications built for the new Windows Run Time. Essentially Windows RT is a much more mobile version than Windows 8.    

Now before I give my predictions on where I think the Windows tablet space is going I want to give an overview on the tablet market (at least from my understanding).

Tablets have been in the computer for a few decades now; this is the market Microsoft jumped on in the late 90s and 00s with the Tablet PC and UMPC initiatives. Even before then Microsoft and other companies worked on pen computing, an early form of the tablet PC that relied on pen input. When Apple announced the iPad in 2009(10) they brought tablets mainstream. Before tablet PCs were expensive devices with few tailored applications and consigned to vertical markets. The iPad brought the form factor to a mass audience and added two elements that were missing from earlier efforts; full multi-touch and a touch based user interface.

Because the iPad and the other tablets that followed began life on phones the new tablet market is seen as an offshoot of the larger mobile market. This fact along with Apple’s successful use of iOS has lead many to think that the only way for a company to do a tablet is by using a mobile OS.

Now with current and future Windows tablets the issue going forward is whether the market will support what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8 and Windows RT. Do users want the option to have touch optimized tablet apps sitting alongside traditional programs? Windows 8 brings new use cases along with fans, higher prices, performance, and mobility; its not the simple proposition offered by iOS or Android.

The cynical part of me thinks that the beauty of Windows 8 is that it allows Microsoft to dip it’s toes into tablet waters and hedge against the case tablets end up being a fad or, like MP3s, property of Apple computers. The less cynical part thinks that Windows 8 makes sense; the line between tablets and PC/Macs is an artificial construct. It also works more in the favor of Apple than anyone else. This artificial line also overlooks how tablets have come to be used and positioned.

While there is a debate around whether computing has entered the Post-PC era or PC plus one thing is certain that the tablet effect is real. People are using tablets as both companion devices and as replacement devices. The vertical markets (medicine, manufacturing, and education) which were already tablet markets have quickly adopted newer mobile tablets.

In fact that is where I think the major push for some PC makers will be for Windows devices; particularly for Windows 8 devices. The iPad has becomes a stealth weapon for Apple in enterprise and while PC makers pushed Android tablets; and HP pushed the WebOS based Touchpad toward enterprise nothing took. Another thing that colors the tablet PC market is that many OEMs were burned in the first rush of tablets and are now going to go slow this go round.

(Now there is an elephant in the room called the Surface and what effect it may have but I will write on that another time)

I think that the year ahead will be an interesting one for Windows tablets. I think there will be a short shelf life for some tablets, like the Acer Iconia series and other Core based tablets, because Intel will be producing and shipping chips based on Haswell (next generation Core chips with better battery and performance). And depending on how they far in both performance and price, I expect to see companies like HP and Vizio offering devices running AMD processors.

Right now and in future I expect many OEMs to concentrate on making devices running Intel and AMD chips; mainly for the backwards compatibility. Devices running Windows RT and ARM will remain limited. I see Windows RT future tied to both smaller form factors and OEMs such as Nokia and HTC. Tablets like the Nexus 7 and iPad mini have created a market for smaller tablet sizes and Windows RT would be a natural fit for these devices. I also see RT as a bridge to join Windows Phone fully to Windows.

From a form factor perspective I expect hardware makers will concentrate on a few designs. I expect, and this is based on anecdotal evidence, to see devices like the Lenovo Yoga to be mainstays. I also expect Windows 8 will see a lot of tablet convertibles (tablets with keyboard docks). I think the traditional forms of tablets (pure slates and laptop/tablet combos) will be smaller.

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