Can Microsoft Turn Around Its Fortunes With Windows 8 Tablets?

After trailing iPads and Android tablets for enterprise market share in 2013, analysts predict that Windows 8-based tablets will surge from a distant third place to lead the field.

Microsoft, tablets, Windows 8 tablet

The stars are aligning in Redmond, and there's a good chance that Microsoft can lead the tablet race after being smothered by Apple and Android in 2013. Microsoft hasn't been in such a strong position for years.

"The tablet in the enterprise is theirs to lose," says Aberdeen Group analyst Andrew Borg.

Everything from PC refresh cycles to the booming tablet market to trends that put the device-purchasing decision back into IT's hands are turning in favor of Microsoft.

Windows 8 Tablets Poised to Strike

Let's start with the most dramatic, highly anticipated turnaround in technology today, as shown in a Forrester survey conducted late last year: iPads held the vast majority of BYOD tablet deployments, with Android coming on strong and Windows 8-based tablets practically nonexistent. But plans in the next 12 months show Windows 8-based tablets surging from far behind to lead the pack.

In the big picture, tablets are replacing laptops, much like laptops replaced desktops at the turn of the millennium. In 2014, the worldwide tablet market is forecast to grow 47 percent, while the worldwide PC market is estimated to remain flat after declining 9.9 percent in 2013, according to new research from Gartner. Interestingly, the PC market's slide has been halted by an uptake in Windows ultramobiles, which are smaller than tablets.

Essentially, Windows 8-based tablets are benefiting from a mass migration to a small form factor.

Then there's the PC refresh cycle that can lead to more Microsoft tablet sales, which, ironically, was prompted by Microsoft's Windows 8, whose adoption has cratered. With Windows 8, new computers won't be running Windows 7.

This means IT has limited options for the PC refresh: stick with Windows 7 PCs although they're being phased out or go to Windows 8. If it's the latter, says Borg, why not go with cheaper tablets? (Sure, IT could choose to switch platforms, but it would lose all its Windows management and control tools.)

IT Back in the Buying Saddle Again?

Of course, all of this presumes that IT makes the purchasing decision for the PC or tablet, which, in the age of BYOD, isn't a sure thing. But the pendulum might be shifting away from BYOD and back toward IT. Emerging models such as COPE (Company Owned, Personally Enabled) are putting CIOs in charge again over what devices employees use. Truth is, BYOD PCs and tablets are too big a security risk.

Employees don't mind, either. They'd rather have the company shell out hundreds of dollars for a PC or tablet rather than having to dig into their own pockets. Employees just want a tablet for both work and personal activities. Virtual work space technology, or perhaps app wrapping, also promises to keep those activities separate, maintaining security for work-related data and privacy for personal stuff.

All Microsoft has to do is deliver a tablet that doesn't have to beat the iPad but must be in the same ballpark, in terms of an easy-to-use touch interface, quick access to media, cool apps -- in essence, a tablet with a delightful user experience. Right now, though, Microsoft's Surface tablet has a split personality, says Borg. It doesn't know if it's a PC or tablet, and business people throw up their hands after a while moving between these two modes.

If Microsoft can fix these problems, the company stands to gain huge momentum and market share in the tablet enterprise race.

"Microsoft is about 75 percent of the way there, and in 2014, I expect them to get to 90 percent," says Aberdeen's Borg. "If Microsoft plays its cards right, they're the logical inheritors of the laptop refresh cycle."

Tom Kaneshige covers Apple, BYOD and Consumerization of IT for CIO.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @kaneshige. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn. Email Tom at tkaneshige@cio.com

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