Microsoft hopes to turn the momentum against the Apple iPad by offering a version of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system that will run on tablets. The software giant from Redmond will be waging an uphill battle, though, as many consumers have already settled on the iPad as their tablet of choice. Will Windows 8 really manage to make much of a dent against the iPad?
Microsoft does come to the table with almost a decade of experience in the tablet market, stretching back to the highlytouted introduction of Windows XP Tablet PC Edition back in November, 2002. Earlier Windows tablet PCs did catch on with a few market segments such as field sales and service workers, but they never got anywhere close to the sweeping impact that the Apple iPad has enjoyed since its debut in 2010.
Still, Microsoft has gamely kept up development of Windows tablet software. Tablet hardware partners over the years have included the likes of Acer, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba, HP, Asus and Samsung.
Many Windows tablets so far have been convertible latptops that can also function like notebook PCs, with screens that can be twisted around to sit on top of the keyboard when the user wants a tablet experience. On these models, an active stylus, typically from Wacom or N-trig, is generally required for precise screen input, though the units also support touch.
Yet, as a recent report from Forrester points out, Microsoft is effectively a “fifth mover” in the tablet market despite its early entrance. At this point, Windows tablets trail behind not just the iPad, but also Android tablets and the HP TouchPad following the recent webOS firesale.
Microsoft Rethinks Tablets
Yet with Windows 8, of course, Microsoft is re-envisioning its concept of tablets. Microsoft hopes to expand its presence in the tablet market by offering a version of Windows 8 that will run on ARM-based processors like the kind that power other types of mobile devices.
These ARM-enabled Windows 8 tablets will provide conveniences like instant power-on and off and an extended battery life. Microsoft is also expected to offer a version of Windows 8 for tablets containing x86 chips from its traditional PC processor partners, Intel and AMD.
Over its Windows 7 OS, Microsoft will layer a “touch-first” graphical user interface (GUI) known as Metro, which will be quite similar to the GUI already offered in Microsoft critically-praised Windows Phone 7 OS, which has yet to catch on with consumers against Android and iOS.
Speaking from a variety of perspectives, though, some analysts suggest that Windows 8 could give Microsoft a big boost in attracting tablet sales.
Analyst: ‘Windows 8 tablets will break down the divide’
“It seems that Microsoft is looking at the tablet literally as a PC. It’s not [just] that the tablet will some day be a PC, as Apple [thinks], but that the tablet really IS a PC,” said Horace Dediu, an independent analyst who follows Apple closely on his blog Asymco.com.
“That’s a very different point of view which will affect everything about the product. This includes its design, licensing, pricing, marketing, update cycle, positioning, and ultimately its success,” the analyst added, in an email to TabletPCReview.
“Windows 8 tablets will break down the divide between the mobile and PC spaces,” chimed in Daniel Ashdown, a research analyst at Juniper Research. “Windows 8 will open up not just tablets, but also notebook PCs to the sort of technology we’ve seen in mobile phones, with instant-on and the extended battery life that you get with a smartphone.”
The huge numbers of existing Windows users — in both the office and consumer arenas — certainly won’t hurt the cause of Windows 8 tablets, either.
Furthermore, Microsoft seems to have made a very smart move in terms of engaging end users by taking the heretofore unprecedented step of opening up the early developers version of Windows 8 to one and all.
Win8 Tablets from Acer and Lenovo?
Yet, if Windows 8 is really going to lure users away from the iPad, much will depend on support from Microsoft’s large armies of hardware and software developer partners.
Hardware makers are already primed for Windows 8. Chipmakers like NVIDIA, with its Tegra 3 quad-core processor, and Qualcomm, with its Snapdragon S4, are expected to provide some of the first ARM-based chipsets for Windows 8 tablets.
On the device side, Samsung released prototype Windows 8 tablets to app software developers at Microsoft’s BUILD conference in September. Other hardware makers are also excited about Windows 8, according to Juniper’s Ashdown.
“I’ve been speaking with the notebook makers. They’re really pumped up, because Windows 8 will create a massive user base for people to write applications for various sorts of machines,” he noted.
According to a report this week from perpetual rumor monger DigiTimes, Acer and Lenovo both plan to roll out Win8 tablets in the fall of this year.
With Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer slated to deliver a keynote at CES 2012, maybe we’ll hear more about anticipated Win8 tablets as early as next week.
Apps Ahead for Windows 8
Much like Apple’s iOS devices, Windows 8 tablets and PCs will have their own app store. Microsoft needs to make sure that the Windows 8 store is chock full of apps for both ARM and x86 devices early on, analysts say.
“It’s a good thing that Windows 8 will run on ARM,” according to Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.
“Software developers should see the urgency of optimizing their products for ARM as well. ARM powers mobile devices and tablets that [both] consumers and workers want to use. It’s time for software developers to follow Microsoft into the post-PC era.”
Many software developers do seem to welcome the opportunity. Take, for example, xThink, a company that’s been selling mathematical software products like xThink Calculator and MathJournal for tablets ever since back in 2003.
“We are beta testing versions of our software on Android and iOS,” acknowledged Teresa Shu, a company spokesperson.
“We do not anticipate any obstacles for pursuing the same development parth with Windows 8,” according to Shu.
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