Is Microsoft Feeding the Android Machine?

The month of June has not been kind to Microsoft hardware partners.

Last week, Redmond revealed that it’s getting into the Windows tablet game with the introduction of the Surface, meaning it will compete for sales with its own allies.

It followed that up with news about Windows Phone 8. The upcoming mobile OS will not run on current Windows Phone devices, news that could cause consumers to immediately perceive those handsets as obsolete while they’re still sitting on store shelves.

Is Microsoft playing a bizarre game of tag with its hardware vendor partners? Is it trying to motivate tablet makers by example? Is it giving phone makers a vital upgrade, even if the immediate effects are painful?

Or in the face of the iPad’s overwhelming dominance of the tablet market, did Microsoft conclude that it needs to take the reins of its tablet efforts fully into its own hands instead of delegating the hardware manufacture to partners?

Whatever the cause of Microsoft’s actions might be, the effect could be a boon for Android, as unhappy hardware partners look to Google’s OS as an alternative.

Further, Google’s Android market has more apps and developers at this moment than Microsoft’s app market does. That raises the question of whether Microsoft’s move might see software devs flocking to Android more strongly.

“I imagine many hardware vendors are having meetings now with Microsoft to get more details from them as to what their intentions are and what to do about those,” Richard Shim, a senior analyst at NPD DisplaySearch, told LinuxInsider.

Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better

Some hardware makers, though, have already tried making Android tablets, and standout success stories are few and far between. Few Android tablets have made a noticeable impact on the market, and none have come close to matching sales of the market-dominating Apple iPad.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablet had a burst of glory during the holiday sales period last November and December. It drove the company to second place behind Apple’s iPad in the global tablet market. However, demand faded in early 2012. Samsung’s Android tablets then climbed to second place, demoting the Kindle to third, ABI Research reported.

The problem may be partly due to Android’s very openness. Each hardware manufacturer offering an Android device has put its own user interface (UI) on it to spiff things up, meaning that users don’t have a uniform experience across all Android devices.

Google sees Android devices as a way for it to sell ads, Tom Mainelli, a research manager at IDC, told LinuxInsider. The Kindle’s success caused Google more grief than joy, he said. By putting its own UI on the Kindle, Amazon took the device out of the Google ecosystem, thus removing its ability to serve up Google ads.

Between Scylla and Charybdis

With the Surface, it appears Microsoft may be be looking to follow Apple’s model of maintaining tight control over the hardware, the software and the apps. Google itself, in fact, has taken somewhat of an active role on the hardware side of the business too. Even though Nexus devices are made by established hardware partners like Samsung, the Nexus phone line carries heavier Google branding than standard Android phones.

It’s a strategy Google’s reportedly getting ready to extend to tablets by way of the Nexus 7, a slate manufactured by Asus expected to be officially revealed this week.

“It seems Google’s trying to do what Microsoft did last week, which is basically tell their partners they no longer trust them to do things right,” Mainelli remarked.

It remains to be seen whether Microsoft’s behavior in tablets and phones will compel hardware makers to direct more resources to Android products.

“It depends on what the partner’s looking for,” NPD DisplaySearch’s Shim said. “At this point, the Microsoft tablet looks like a higher-end device likely more oriented towards productivity. Android tablets appear to be going after higher shipment volumes at lower price points and to be more oriented towards media consumption.”

Currently, most tablets are media consumption-oriented, but “as tablets become more performance-oriented, they will likely shift towards productivity,” Shim remarked.

Microsoft’s venture into tablet hardware “does add competitive pressure [to Google] to get things on track sooner rather than later,” Shim suggested.

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