Windows 8 is on its way. In fact, it’s already here, in a manner of speaking. Microsoft recently released what it called a “consumer preview” version of the OS.
When the final versions arrive, it will finally give Microsoft a leg up in the tablet market. That might take a bite out of the market share Android has managed to scratch out in tablets. It could also offer an attractive alternative to pricier iPads.
But the new line of Windows 8-based tablets might see its biggest impact on the larger use of tablets in the workplace. As more consumers adopt tablets to supplement or replace their notebook computers, they bring them into the work environment. That has put pressure on enterprise IT to find better ways to use tablets at work.
Specialized industries such as inventory control and healthcare have more successfully integrated tablets into their operations. But these dedicated devices do not necessarily display a recognizable Android or iOS face. Mainstream enterprise relies on Microsoft’s Active Directory as a back-end on their corporate networks, noted Peter Lee, engagement manager and desktop deployment lead at SWC Technology Partners.
Integrating non-Windows platform use into enterprise often involves costly third-party solutions. Microsoft’s introduction of Windows 8 on PCs and tablets could be a game-changer.
“We think Windows 8 will let enterprise integrate tablets into Active Directory. This will change the way that businesses use tablets. Now it will become part of the enterprise rather than just a consumer add-on workers are trying to bring in,” Lee told LinuxInsider.
Thwarting Android Sales
Windows 8 on tablets may arrive just in time to deter some buyers from supporting Android and Apple tablet sales. Despite earlier indications that the Android market is sluggish, sales forecasts are changing.
Global tablet shipments so far this year are stronger than last quarter’s projections. Android tablets are showing a surge over the lead Apple’s iPad showed at the end of last year, according to analysis from research firm IDC.
For example, IDC now calls for global tablet shipments to reach 106.1 million units this year. That revised forecast is up from earlier expectations of 87.7 million units.
Crunching the Numbers
Consumer interest in using tablets to host e-reader apps contributed to the increased tablet sales. It is this market segment that contributed to the boost in Android tablet devices, according to the IDC analysis.
For instance, the Android operating system developed by Google is used in Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet as well as Barnes and Nobel’s Nook tablet.
Still, Apple led the tablet sales charts by shipping 15.4 million iPads in the fourth quarter of 2011. But non-Apple tablets surged 56.1 percent in quarter-to-quarter growth worldwide in the final three months of last year, according to IDC’s numbers.
Marketing in a Void
Enterprise needs aside, the fragmented Android market is for some buyers less appealing. Another deal factor is often the more tightly controlled app marketplace that Apple maintains for its iPad users.
Performance is also a key buying factor, noted Miguel de Icaza, the chief technology officer of Xamarin. His company allows developers to build cross-platform mobile apps using C# and .NET.
He does not see the Android tablet performance measuring up to the performance available on the iPad. iPad apps add a definite value that is not equaled in the Android marketplace, he said.
“Microsoft is prepared to fill this void in its marketplace for apps fine-tuned for Windows 8 on the tablet,” he told LinuxInsider.
Firing Up Competition
Windows 8-powered tablets could bring ready-made solutions to enterprises and consumer needs alike. Tablets could be less costly to deploy than laptop computers. And IT departments would have a more seamless integration than Android now offers.
“The only real competition for Microsoft might be the success of the Kindle Fire tablet. If Microsoft can match that price, it will be fine,” he said.
Microsoft can avoid the fragmentation and other performance troubles that Google has had with the Android devices, he contended. With a Windows 8 tablet, businesses will not have to worry about who the provider is.
“That is not exactly what happens with Android devices. Despite that, the Kindle Fire is a very good off-branch of Android,” de Icaza said.
No Wow Factor
In his dealings with Microsoft in discussing the Metro-driven tablet, Artyom Astafurov, senior vice president of DataArt, did not get much insight to how Redmond’s upcoming release would address the Android obstacle. His company is a custom software development firm that builds advanced solutions for select industries.
He asked about how Microsoft was planning on competing against the Android market and claimed he did not get a response.
“I do not see consumers switching from their current devices to a Windows 8 device,” Astafurov told LinuxInsider.
OS Shell Game?
However, he said, the new devices will take market share from Android. From what he saw at the Consumer Electronics Show in January and what he is seeing now, Astafurov views Microsoft as taking its desktop OS and putting a tablet shell over it.
“It will probably increase their market share by attracting users who see the tablet as another form of a laptop PC in their briefcase,” he said.
But more so than just another tablet option, Astafurov sees Microsoft’s integrated tablet OS with its desktop platform as an attention-gaining approach that will change how enterprise adapts to tablets in the workplace.
For example, the tablet is fundamentally a new portable device and should not be considered as a replacement for the notebook in the briefcase, he explained.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve been hearing about how the new Metro UI will force users to adopt a new approach to computing,” said Astafurov.
Computer users have the keyboard and mouse to navigate. The Metro interface will have the full power of multi-touch. That will require users to adjust to using gestures for touch commands, he said.
Game Changer in the Making
Having an integrated operating system for the Windows desktop and new tablet could offer a winning combination. If so, Microsoft could nudge both Apple and Android tablets out of further boardroom considerations.
“Absolutely this has the potential for being a game changer,” said SWC Technology’s Lee. “Now with Windows 8, Microsoft has a complete line operating on one platform. Windows 8 will run on tablets, desktops, mobile devices, etc. It’s a seamless integration.”
This will involve more than a mere software upgrade from Windows 7 for users, however. Adopting Windows 8 will be a big step up from the previous desktop OS, noted Lee.
Windows 7 is not primarily designed as a tablet operating system, and Microsoft is only in its infancy with phone technology compared to the Apple iPhone and the Android phones, Lee explained.
The App’s the Thing
One clear edge on which Microsoft can capitalize to compete against Android is how it deploys apps for its new tablet platform, suggested Lee. Microsoft is already working well with its third-party partners. So Windows 8 will have much less trouble utilizing other technology with the Metro interface.
“It’s interesting that Microsoft is finally doing this tighter cooperation with its partners. But the growing competition has forced them to take this approach,” he said.
The competition — Google and Apple — are way ahead with developing third-party app sources. That is one thing that Microsoft is going to have to catch up on. Over the last few years, Microsoft has opened up access to its platform, Lee added.
This now enables app developers to use different programming languages, for instance. That is going to be a key. Users are not going to adopt the Windows 8 platform if they do not have many applications, he said.
Not There Yet
Just how forthcoming Microsoft is in this regard may still be a point of contention. DataArt’s Astafurov is not sure just how seamless that process will be compared to working with the Android platform.
“As an app developer, I will have to jump through hoops to recompile my existing products to get them to run in both Windows environments. From my understanding, we will have to do much more tweaking in porting our apps from the Windows 7 phone to the Windows 8 tablet. That isn’t the way it is in integrating apps between the iPhone and the iPad or Android phones and tablets,” said Astafurov.
The cost to vendors for doing this for Windows 8 tablets will be higher than what it costs them to work in the Android environment or iPad, for instance. Potentially, this can be a problem for Microsoft, he warned.
“I can see some companies being sluggish in porting their apps to the Windows 8 tablet. This is especially likely given how slow the apps market for Windows Phone 7 is,” Astafurov said.
Time Will Tell
At least at this point, the Windows 8 and Android-driven tablets are really two different markets. For people who want to be comfortable sharing files between their Windows PC and their tablets, Windows 8 tablets will be an obvious choice for consumers, de Icaza suggested.
All things considered, he thinks Microsoft has a much better chance with the tablet than it did with Windows Phone 7.
“It looks like Microsoft finally got its mojo back. I think it is going to be a very worthy tablet competitor,” de Icaza said.
Microsoft is pushing its new Metro UI and Windows 8 against the inroads made by Android tablets. It will take the progress of time, added Lee.
“But eventually users will adopt the new touchscreen computing methods,” he predicted.