For the record, I’m as shocked to be writing that title as you are to be reading it.
But as I read this article at Ars Technica I started to realize something. His point was that Windows “Slates” would be inferior to iPads which I agree with. But then the author (Peter Bright) makes a leap that I don’t think is supported by his conclusion…
Tablets are, like smartphones, another growth market that Microsoft is going to fail to capitalize on, thanks to a failure to understand the company's past failures, and a stubborn refusal to recognize that not everything is a PC. The company has, belatedly, woken up to the realities of the smartphone market and will, at last, produce a phone operating system that works properly with fingertips, and this fall will produce a credible, if imperfect, smartphone platform. When will it do so for tablets?
Tablets are not like smartphones. Smartphones appeal to consumers as much as they do corporations because they replace something that consumers already have. Tablets appeal to high end consumers willing to spend money on yet another device but not to the majority (at least not yet and assuming they ever will is a huge leap of faith).
On the other hand tablets have huge appeal to Corporations who have increasingly mobile workforces and IT budgets to spend. So the question of who will eventually win the tablet market boils down to….
What does a corporation need from a tablet?
1. It needs to be able to customize the environment. If I want to turn a tablet into a specialized computing device I don’t want people to see the underlying OS. I want the system to boot straight into my application. Windows can do that, iOS can’t.
2. It needs to allow for global setting changes. Apple restricts what an application can do to influence the running environment and that’s a great choice in a consumer device. But not in an enterprise one. I want to be able to install Dragon NaturallySpeaking on my tablets and have it work in EVERY application. I want to allow applications to interact with each other. And so on….
3. It needs to be manageable. To a certain extent this is a cheat because it’s largely included in point #2 but the fact is you can’t manage an iPad. A Windows machine can run applications in the background that monitor and change system settings as needed. Things like Internet Filters, Patch Management Software, Backup software, and others require this ability.
4. It needs to support many development types. You can develop for Windows using C++, C#, Visual Basic, Python and many others. This is a big difference between Apple and Microsoft and one that hurts Apple in the end. Even the most Anti-Windows Python Developer can jump into Windows and use their preferred language to develop multi-touch native apps in less than a day. Corporations standardize on one environment so being able to slip seamlessly into that environment is a big plus.
5. It needs to be expandable. I don’t even necessarily mean peripherals here just memory expansion. All the mobile devices at my organization have a memory card in them to backup vital data in case of an accident which is what I’d consider the bare minimum for a mobile device. Ideally a tablet should be able to plug peripherals into it (and given that ability peripheral manufacturers will line up to build devices for them). A Windows device has the potential to build an ecosystem around it and that’s a big deal as well.
Truthfully I’m sure there are more points but those are the ones I could think of off the top of my head. In the end they all boil down to one macro point…
Enterprise needs the OS to get out of the way and give them control and that’s something Apple’s never been willing to do.
I don’t doubt Apple will build better devices and I’ll probably continue to use an iPad at home. But as a person responsible for the IT of an organization I can see myself ordering hundreds of Windows based tablets in the future all going to people who would never buy a tablet for their home.
That is how Microsoft will win the tablet battle with an inferior device.
A Few Follow-ups…
The TabletPC: One of the main points in the Ars Technica article is that Microsoft failed with the TabletPC which used the same “Windows With Touch” strategy. That doesn’t really hold water though because TabletPCs were convertible laptops with all the weight that comes along with that. In addition they used a Pen interface which is much clunkier than touch. Those factors are why they failed.
The Android Factor: Android could obviously change this equation. It doesn’t match all 5 criteria right now but Google is iterating quickly and it is Open Source. If Android targeted the corporate market I suspect they’d make significant in-roads. Bottom line: Microsoft is foolish to dismiss Android at this point.
The iPad Revolution: I think it’s at least possible that the iPad could replace the consumer PC for a lot of people. I personally know a lot of people who prefer a curated environment over the choices offered by PCs and Macs. That could change the equation as well (though in honesty I still think Apple would lose out in sales once all was said and done).