Thursday, July 5, 2012

Tablet: Who will challenge Apple - Google or Microsoft?

Microsoft: Enters with a tablet that it manufactures
On June 19th, Microsoft unveiled it's Surface tablet. Microsoft did its best to enshroud the announcement in secrecy creating a buzz in the press (attendees did not even know until the last minute where the location of the event was - they just knew it was in Los Angeles). Microsoft released the following promotional video of the device: 

The big surprise is that the company is following Apple's lead and getting into the hardware manufacturing game. Although Microsoft has experience successfully manufacturing hardware (i.e. the X-Box gaming console), the issue is that it is now competing with the OEMs that have been the key distribution channel for Microsoft's Windows OS. One key advantage of this approach is that they will be able to control the product end-to-end and seamlessly integrate the Windows 8 software and the hardware. The second key advantage is that they will have more control over the pricing, as they can effectively waive the licensing fee and just make profit off of the hardware. 

In a recent interviewBill Gates attempted to quell OEM fears that have emerged as a result of this move. But to put things in perspective, Microsoft has been aware of the issues related to relying on the OEMs to produce a great Windows experience. In early 2011, they started Microsoft Signature program. For $99, Windows 7 user can remove the "bloatware" installed by OEMs and get Microsoft to install a suite of Microsoft software, such as Windows Security Essentials (but this has to be done in a Microsoft Store and there is only rumours of one to open at Yorkdale). Alternatively, users can buy a Signature certified PC from Microsoft directly from its web store. The result is a better performing PC. Consequently, the move to manufacture its own device is a good way to ensure that Microsoft is setting the standard for performance of Windows 8. That way if there are any issues it can be blamed on the OEMs and not the actual OS. 

Google's Regroups and Attacks with the Nexus 7 Tablet
Last week at Google I/O, Google unveiled its much rumoured 7 inch tablet, the Nexus 7:

Google, like Microsoft, is manufacturing the tablet itself and has already made it available for pre-order via the Google Play store (and yes, unlike Amazon's Kindle Fire, it can be bought in Canada!). 

Google's challenge is similar to Microsoft, with an added snag: they depend on the carriers to roll out their OS releases. This, speaking from personal experience, can be a tedious process. As an owner of the Samsung Galaxy Note, I am still waiting on Bell Canada to roll out Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) - even though Google has already moved on to the next relase of their OS:Jelly Bean (Android 4.1). With this wifi only tablet, they can reach the consumer directly and give the consumer access to the latest and greatest OS.  Similar to what Apple does with its iDevices and what Microsoft is attempting to do with the Surface, Google is controlling the hardware, so they can also create a seamlessly integrated product. 

Microsoft vs Google: Who will give Apple a run for its money?
The two offerings compete against Apple in two different domains: Microsoft is relying on consumerization to eat into Apple's domination, while Google is going after portability and price. 

The primary focus of the Surface tablet (as illustrated by the fancy ad, revealing the tablet in LA, etc) and Windows 8 in general is the consumer market. In the short term, Microsoft is hoping that their tablet offering will be appealing to Corporate IT because of its easier fit into the enterprise (i.e. in contrast to the iPad): executives and other employees that want a tablet can get an easier to integrate Microsoft tablet (e.g. Active Directory, etc) instead of the iPad. Furthermore, it has Microsoft Office - which is a key standard in office productivity that iPad users have to had work around. However, this is a minor aspect of the Microsoft strategy which is more about stopping the bleeding of their corporate stronghold to Apple

In the short term, the majority business users will resist the move to Windows 8 because it is so radically different. And according to Paul Thurrott, it appears that Microsoft has given up on the business users with this release of Windows 8. However, this may not be a bad strategy. Microsoft realizes that corporate IT was going to take a few years to switch to Windows 8 - even if it was not radically redesigned. During these years between when corporate IT would have migrated from Windows 7 to Windows 8, Microsoft is expecting users to become  accustomed to the new windows 8 interface in their personal lives. Once this occurs, Microsoft is hoping that trend of consumerization will play in its favour: home users who enjoy the Windows 8 Metro interface will put pressure over time for corporate IT to switch to the new version of Windows - just as the iPhone users put pressure on corporate IT to dump RIM in favour of Apple. 

This is coupled with the fact that users will no longer need to carry a laptop and a tablet: the Microsoft window 8 machines can act as a laptop when you are at work or at home and as a table when you are on the go. There is no need to sync files between the two machines. Of course, this assumes that Window Surface machines have a long battery life and will be as reliable as iPads. But the new Windows 8 is smooth and responsive (I had an opportunity to try it out on a Windows 7 Acer Iconia tablet), so there is a reason to hope that this will work out. 

Google's recent foray into the tablet market is a little different. Google is working off its previous failed attempts, specifically Honeycomb, to get something out there that will compete against the iPad. With the success of the Kindle Fire, Google has zeroed in on price and portability as key features of the tablet. Will the fact that it is WiFi only hurt its appeal? I don't think so. With the majority of smartphone (even BlackBerry!) being able to act as WiFi hotspots, this is not much of an issue. More importantly, users are not locked into 3 year contracts with cell phone providers.  From Google's perspective, it also removes the carriers as an obstacle to getting the latest-and-greatest Android OS to the end-user. Initial reviews of the device are positive. Although I was tempted to buy this, I realized that since I have the Galaxy Note "phablet" (a term that I despise) it doen't make sense to get a 7 inch tablet. Besides, I should save up for the Surface :)

It appears that Apple is aware of Google's strategy: they have lowered the iPad 2 by $100 (i.e. when they released the 3rd generation iPad) and rumour has it that they are preparing to launch a 7 inch tablet themselves.  But is the company underestimating Microsoft? Microsoft's Windows 8 Metro interface appears to be unique enough that Apple can't rely on its armies of lawyers to sue Microsoft (i.e. as it has done to "compete" with Samsung's products). The other problem is that Microsoft still dominates not only corporate IT, but also office productivity - people are addicted to Word, Excel, PowerPoint, etc and it is hard to let go. That being said, Microsoft is rumoured to have a version of MS Office for the iPad. If this is true, then Microsoft would be shooting itself in the foot as it would hand over this key strategic asset to Apple on a silver platter. On the other hand, Microsoft could become a dominant force for tablets when it comes to business users (anyone ranging from a business student, entrepreneur, or cubicle dweller). However, I think that Apple will continue to dominate the pure consumer market because they have been successful a the "toasterfication of IT": using the iPad is almost as easy as operating a toaster. Anyone with kids or older family members, can see how intuitive the device is. Microsoft is attempting to get into the space with the ARM version of the Surface Tablet. However, this is a long shot because they are behind in apps and, more importantly, the device is quite a bit more complex than a toaster. 

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