2011 was supposed to be the year of the tablet, but as it turned out, it was just the year of the iPad. Moving on, now that we don't have to worry about one-offs from HP and RIM anymore, the stampede of Android OEMs invading Vegas for CES assures us that this time, the not-Apple contingent really means it. Google's doing its part with its shiny new Android 4 release, Ice Cream Sandwich. Pair that with Nvidia's take-no-prisoners, quad-core (that's twice as many as Apple, so take that, fanbois) Tegra 3 "super processor," and we should see some killer performance on a wide range of mobile devices, if Google lives up to its end of the bargain.
Still, the big question, to me, is, Where's Microsoft?
While everyone from Acer to Motorola has been eagerly, if not effectively, challenging the iPad, Microsoft has been uncharacteristically indifferent to the whole tablet zeitgeist. Of course, its official stance is "Windows 8 Everywhere"--PCs, tablets, even smartphones. It's a strategy that was on full display at CEO Steve Ballmer's CES keynote Monday night. Microsoft's next major OS release is designed to be a double play, with a tablet-like "Tiles" interface that does double duty on touch screens and laptops (we discuss this paradigm in depth in our IT Pro Impact: Windows Developer Road Map report). Windows 8 won't be available until late this year, but given its PC origins, won't it be too bloated and processor and power hungry for a tablet? It may just be too little, too late.
Given that the rumor mill is kicking into overdrive, Microsoft should (it's hoped) provide some clarity this week, if only in terms of processor choice. One thing that's clear is that the company is hedging its hardware bets. In one corner we have Windows on the ARM processor, the same CPU core used by Apple, Nvidia, and Qualcomm (Snapdragon) and hence the de facto tablet architecture. Indeed, if ARM platforms can handle the Windows overhead, this is a logical scenario.
In the other corner, we have Android OEMs designing tablets around Intel's next-generation, low-power x86 Atom chips: Medfield and its successor, Clover Trail. Unlike previous Atom devices, which relied on a separate I/O and peripheral chipset, these are complete, integrated systems on a chip and represent Intel's "ARM fighter" in the tablet and smartphone market. This second scenario actually makes more sense to me, because porting an OS to a radically different processor architecture is always a long, rough ride, and Microsoft only announced Windows ARM support at last year's CES.
In either case, we're looking at late this year before we get our hands on a Windows tablet, and by that time, Apple may be out with its fourth-generation iPad.
Not only has Microsoft been ignoring tablet platforms, it's also been somnolent on the app front--a void that became borderline embarrassing when little startup CloudOn emerged from stealth mode last week with an iPad app and associated cloud service that's a full-blown iPad Office suite. Unlike half-measures such as QuickOffice, CloudOn mimics not only the Office look and feel, but many of its advanced features, like tracking changes in Word, Pivot Tables in Excel, and animations and transitions in PowerPoint. As if that isn't cool enough, CloudOn uses Dropbox for file storage and convenient cross-platform synchronization. Sure, Microsoft is said to be working on an iPad version of Office, but once again, Redmond's late to the party--way late.
InformationWeek's MDM research shows that tablets are on track to join laptops as a critical platform for mobile employees. Given Microsoft's dominance in enterprise content (Office), communication (Exchange), and collaboration software (SharePoint), its blissful disregard of the iPad-fueled reinvigoration of tablets, a device that Microsoft tried, and failed, to conquer years ago, is exasperating. While Ballmer used his CES performance to reiterate Microsoft's Windows-centric tablet strategy, he didn't provide a clear timeline beyond a commitment to ship the first public beta next month, so don't expect products for quite some time.
While Apple still owns the tablet market, Amazon has proved there's room on the low end to eat away at iPad's lead, while the Android clones, if they can undercut iPad's pricing just enough, can also relentlessly chip away, as they've done in the smartphone market.
It's also important to remember that we're still early in the tablet life cycle. Although it's near impossible for Microsoft or the Android cabal to topple Apple on the high end, a $300 Atom-powered Windows 8 tablet would surely generate a lot of interest, particularly within the many enterprises that have built their application strategies on a Microsoft foundation and are undoubtedly wondering how to best graft a new generation of end-user client onto this Redmond-supplied substructure. Let's hope some hardware vendors can fill in details missing from Ballmer's pitch as the week wears on.