October has been a busy month for product launches in the mobile world, as the big vendors compete to secure their latest devices at the top of everyone’s Christmas list.
Microsoft’s new Surface tablet went on sale yesterday as part of the official launch of Windows 8. The high-profile launch event, the pop-up stores and the focus on new hardware is unusual for the software company, and is widely seen as taking a leaf from Apple’s playbook.
The new tablet and operating system go on sale in an environment that has become increasingly gloomy for Microsoft. PC sales peaked at the end of 2010 at 93m units for the quarter, and appear to have settled into a slow decline since; meanwhile, the Apple-dominated tablet market is almost doubling year on year. PC sales still outnumber tablet sales by a factor of four, but on current trends Tim Cook’s forecast that tablets will soon outsell PCs is not hard to believe.
Microsoft is entering the tablet market more than two years late. For it to successfully compete against Apple and Google, it needs to offer not just a compelling operating system and device, but also to persuade developers to create content for it in large enough numbers. A mobile platform without content is doomed to a slow death, and this has been a major factor working against Blackberry’s Playbook and other potential competitors.
This is where Windows 8 could turn out to be Microsoft’s saving grace. The new version of the operating system is designed for use on desktops, laptops and also tablets. Smartphones use Windows Phone 8 instead, which is a separate operating system.
The number of Windows users remains vast – measured by operating system detected for users visiting web sites, the share is somewhere around 80% of web-capable computer devices. Although PC sales are declining, and although Apple’s share of desktop and laptop sales is eating into Microsoft’s dominance, it is more or less inevitable that Windows 8 will be the most common desktop operating system in the not too distant future. And that means there will be a vast selection of software produced for it.
If users can buy a Windows tablet and use exactly the same software and files that they have on their desktop, synchronised via SkyDrive, the new operating system has a huge advantage entering the tablet market, one which with a little time could put them on an even footing with Apple and Google.
Add to that support for Office and a lightweight keyboard that doubles as a cover, and the Surface could lead to a bright new tablet-focused future for Microsoft.
However, there are some very important stumbling blocks here. Most importantly, there are two versions of the Surface. The tablet released on Friday is the lightweight version using an ARM chip and running the RT flavour of Windows 8, previously known as Metro. This version has a cut-down version of Office which excludes Outlook, and it can only run apps specifically written for Windows RT, not for the larger Windows 8 ecosystem. This puts Microsoft back at square one for attracting developers to write content for their platform. The Windows Store has about 5,000 apps compatible with the device, including a Kindle app and the New York Times, but any number of familiar names are unavailable.
The more powerful Surface Pro will be released in January, running an Intel chip and the full version of Windows 8, supporting all the software available for desktop and laptop. There are already Windows tablets with the full operating system available, from familiar PC manufacturers such as Dell, Asus and Toshiba.
A further concern over the new tablet is to what extent the built-in Office app has been successfully converted to work well in a tablet environment, with touch input and less screen space. If it’s too hard to work with, tablets will remain primarily consumption-only devices, and users will switch back to laptop or desktop for productivity tasks, neutralising one of the Surface’s big selling points.
So Microsoft has positioned itself well but has a challenging path to take advantage of that; and the future success of Windows as an operating system for tablets may depend more on the forthcoming Surface Pro and other high-end Windows tablets than on the RT version of the Surface now on sale.