What are the implications if Microsoft fails or falls behind in the tablet PC race, which at its current pace, is a decent possibility?
The worst-case scenario is that the tablet frenzy will eat into Microsoft's core business: the enterprise. This could happen if Microsoft can't pull together a legitimate Windows-based tablet PC, and do it soon, according to industry analysts.
IT departments are starting to embrace and support iPads and the few existing Android-based tablets. If Microsoft is too slow on tablets, by either shrinking desktop OS Windows 7 to fit or waiting two years for touch-friendly Windows 8 (or whatever it will be called), it will give the iPad and other non-Windows tablet players time to win over corporate America. Each tablet purchased by an organization may leave a Windows 7 laptop sitting on the shelf. That's bad news for Microsoft.
In a recent blog post, former Directions on Microsoft analyst and current Silicon Alley Insider editor Matt Rosoff predicts Microsoft will be in grave danger if its tablet strategy resembles its slower than molasses smartphone strategy.
Rosoff cites a poll of over 2,000 Americans showing that 20 percent of respondents plan to buy a tablet PC in the next three years, and 40 percent of those people plan to use their tablets for work purposes. While this is music to the ears of the established Apple and companies like RIM and HP that have at least announced tablets, it only puts more pressure on Microsoft to get the ball rolling.
[ For complete coverage on Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system -- including hands-on reviews, video tutorials and advice on enterprise rollouts -- see CIO.com's Windows 7 Bible. ]
"It has dire implications for Microsoft's core enterprise business — each tablet potentially replaces corporate purchases of laptops running Windows, and requires IT departments to support non-Windows clients to connect to corporate applications," writes Rosoff.
"Once that happens — as it has with the iPhone — IT departments might begin to question why they're running so much Microsoft back-end software like Exchange for email, giving competitors like Google a wedge into Microsoft's most important business."
What's still up in the air — and will likely be revealed this week at CES in Las Vegas — is how Microsoft will take Windows 7 and make it tablet-ready with either Intel or ARM-based chips, and get some devices out into the market. Today's confirmation that Windows 8 will work with ARM chips for tablets doesn't really solve the current problem because Windows 8 won't be available until 2012, which gives Apple, RIM and others basically an eternity to make consumers and businesses forget about Windows-based tablets.
Do tablets have a strong chance to infiltrate the enterprise? Yes, as long as they are called iPad, according to a recent blog post by Ted Schadler, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, which recently forecast that the US tablet market will reach 82 million tablet owners by 2015.
Despite having enticing features like Flash media support and enhanced security, non-iPad tablets — what Schadler calls ABi (Anything But iPads) — will struggle with enterprise adoption because:
iPad and its thousands of apps have a one-year head start; iPads are sold directly to businesses and are being brought in by consumers/corporate users, giving IT more flexibility; and iPads are entertainment devices that can moonlight as work devices and users have come to expect tablets to support business and pleasure.
ABi's like RIM's Playbook, Cisco's Cius and whatever Windows tablets Microsoft has in store will need to be dual devices to win the hearts and minds of workers and IT managers, and all seem to be business-minded devices only.
One ray of light for Microsoft, according to Schadler, is the advantage of full Microsoft Office support that a Windows tablet could offer. It's the one feature that could help the tablet graduate from a third device and replace the laptop in full.
That is if Microsoft can join the tablet race, which is becoming a race against time.
Shane O'Neill covers Microsoft, Windows, Operating Systems, Productivity Apps and Online Services for CIO.com. Follow Shane on Twitter @smoneill. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline. Email Shane at firstname.lastname@example.org.