Microsoft have done what they do best: they’re the Borg – and they assimilate others. Yesterday they announced their new Surface tablet, and speaking as someone who all-but-hates Microsoft, it just changed the game.
Like many I left the world of Windows behind years ago for brighter, shinier pastures. I saw Microsoft as a company on an inexorable decline, losing to the new and nimbler kids in town: Google and Apple. It’s a done deal for mobile, and surely tablets would seal their fate.
Yesterday’s announcement changed my mind. Unless Microsoft blows this entirely, I believe they’ll be in a two horse tablet OS race with Apple within a year.
They’ve made a genuinely desirable product.
In a total reversal of what made them successful – and a damning inditement of their hardware partners – Microsoft are making their own tablet hardware; even more shockingly, it looks pretty good. They even managed to get faux-dubstep into their advert without it looking like a sad joke:
Surface accomplishes something Android tablets have thus far failed to do – it gives enough people a good reason to consider it better than the iPad. It does that with features that Apple don’t or won’t have: a physical keyboard, kickstand, stylus option (Pro only) and of course it runs Windows (Pro only).
Android has struggled to make a strong case for their tablets, other than “we’re cheaper”, and “you-don’t-want-to-be-one-of-those-sheeple-using-Apple, do you?” Microsoft can genuinely make a stab at saying “we’re different, we’re better”.
You hate it, and it’s going to succeed anyway
But everyone knows Windows 8 is an abomination! It’s Windows Vista 2! STUPID M$ LOLZ!
There is no way that Windows 8 doesn’t sell at least 300 million copies (they’ve sold 600 million of Windows 7 to date, even Vista sold 400 million). Every one of those installs will be putting the Metro platform in front of paying customers, where Metro replaces the Start Menu. Every one of those people will grow to recognise and use Metro.
Developers will notice too. Metro is about to become a ripe marketplace – millions of users, and no software – and developers love to sell to ripe markets. Microsoft have great development tools and are smart enough to fund some big names too. Expect an explosion in Metro apps even faster than iOS or Android are now.
In millions of stores across the land, shiny Surface tablets will occupy spaces alongside your regular Windows laptops and tablets. Even if Microsoft fails to sell much of their own hardware, they’ve done the job of leading by example – other manufacturers will take care of the cut-price market, and they have a premium offering to vie for credibility with Apple.
Microsoft can continue selling Windows 7 to businesses until the next release, and that’s fine with them. They’ve found a way to migrate people to a whole new clean OS (Metro) whilst baiting them with Windows – and if it works, it’s frankly kind of brilliant.
Android dropped the ball
Android has been in the tablet game for over 2 years, and boasts of 39% market share – but 40% of that is from the virtually incompatible Kindle Fire. Excluding the Kindle gives Android around 23% of the market.
Unfortunately they’ve done this mostly by competing on price. The only tablet manufacturer not competing on price is Apple.
23% is not to be sniffed at, but Android has no-way near the brand cachet of the iPad or Windows (ask your grandmother which she’s heard of). Pretty soon Android will be competing against a new platform that sells over ½m units a day, and there’s probably not much room for 3rd place.
How Microsoft can truck this up
Well this is Microsoft, so let’s not rule this out.
There are two versions of the tablet: a lighter, less powerful one that only runs Metro (an iPad equivalent, essentially) and a Pro model that runs native Windows apps and supports a stylus. It’s possible that this split will confuse people too much.
It’s possible developers are just too far gone with iOS and Android to care, and Metro is ignored by consumers after a long period with no apps.
Of course it could have a ridiculous price. I expect it’ll match the iPad for the base model – Microsoft would be wise to sell these things at cost if it gets their brand started.
It’s also possible Google announces their own game changer. I virtually guarantee they will try (they did buy Motorola after all). However against Microsoft’s virtually cemented Windows sales, they need to do more than equalise on features if they’re going to win this.
What does this mean for Blackberry?
Ha. Just kidding.
So what next?
How this plays out for mobile – where Windows enjoys a meagre 5% market share – remains to be seen. I suspect Android is pretty safe there, but maybe tablet sales could bleed into mobile.
Microsoft’s volte-face marks the conclusive end of segregated operating systems and hardware, a trend Apple and Amazon have long exploited. I expect Google won’t be far behind with their own tablet.
As for the moral of the story? Never discount the Borg. Just ask Sony and Netscape.