Microsoft and its partners will have many strikes against them when they arrive late to the iPad, er I mean tablet, market. Like it or not, the iPad defined the tablet market two years ago when Apple finally made tablets accessible and fun (last Friday was the iPad’s second birthday by the way). Apple sold a whopping 32.4 million iPads in fiscal year 2011. iPads have also been undercutting Microsoft’s bread and butter: PC sales.
If any product can make a dent in the iPad, it will be Android tablets like the Amazon Kindle Fire and the Samsung Galaxy Tab. This leaves Microsoft to duke it out with the RIM BlackBerry Playbook (which is not even really designed for consumers) for third place in the tablet race. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is the same scenario playing out in the smartphone race, where late-to-market Windows Phone has 5 percent market share in the U.S., according to market tracker comScore, and is miles behind Google, Apple and even RIM.
For a Windows 8 tablet to make any progress, it must be significantly better than the iPad. Ok, that’s probably not going to happen. But it needs to be at least close, so then it can chip away slowly as users get accustomed to Windows 8’s Metro tile-based interface.
But this will be no small feat. Microsoft will have to hit it out of the park in two areas that it can’t completely control: Apps and hardware.
There is going to be app incompatibility issues between Windows 8 on tablets and Windows 8 on PCs. Apps designed for Intel-based PCs will not run on ARM-based Windows 8 tablets. So most of those trusty apps on your PC won’t work on your Windows 8 tablet.
Microsoft is also trying to lure developers to create apps for the Metro UI, which will be a tough sell given that Metro is an unproven entity. Developers are likely to do a wait-and-see on Metro and Microsoft can’t afford an apps delay. But there are signs of life: Metro-based Windows Phone just reached 50,000 apps in its Marketplace app store. Developer momentum on Windows Phone could spur Windows 8 momentum.
But it’s a long way to the sheer volume of apps in the Apple App Store.
On the hardware side, Microsoft is, as it always has been, reliant upon its hardware partners to make a product complete and great. Traditional Microsoft partners like HP, Dell, Lenovo, Toshiba and Acer will be making Windows 8 tablets and the hardware could be sleek, but it could also be weak, giving customers one more reason to turn to the established, beloved and beautiful iPad.
And because Windows 8 doesn’t look like Windows 7, Microsoft can’t depend on a migration of traditional Windows fans looking for a traditional Windows experience on a tablet.
Ultimately, Microsoft will have to chase an established leader — in this case the iPad – much like it has been forced to do in search against Google and in mobile against Apple and Google. Tablets will be just another foot race to catch the elusive consumer, and Microsoft is dangerously out of breath.