The tablet space, or, more accurately, the iPad space, is merciless. It chews up and spits out half-baked slates that don’t hold a candle to Apple’s class-leading iPad, and that’s a harsh reality Google’s learned the hard way. Despite the undeniable success the search giant’s had with smartphones, where Android’s carved out a dominant 61 percent market share, Google’s hardly made a dent in the market with the many tablets it powers. Sure, the Kindle Fire’s made some waves, but it runs a forked version of Android and barely resembles its unfortunate cousins, whose disparate form factors and disjointed operating system have made Google’s open-source platform a laughingstock among tablet consumers.
And that’s the unforgiving market Microsoft intends to enter this fall with Windows RT, the company’s tablet-focused offshoot of Windows 8. But unlike Android, which has fallen so flat that Google plans to take back the reins from wayward tablet makers and offer branded slates of its own, Microsoft won’t stumble out of the gate. In fact, it’ll have a much better shot at challenging Apple’s ubiquitous iPad for three reasons: Microsoft won’t let just anyone build around its operating system; it’s actively discouraging half-hearted efforts; and Windows RT, the centerpiece of Windows 8 tablets, will come in a single flavor.
Microsoft has stricter standards
Anyone with the inclination and resources can build an Android tablet, and that means the market’s flooded with dopey devices whose manufacturers are either inept, careless, or, in some cases, both. And Android’s reputation has suffered as a result. Microsoft, though, won’t make the same mistake. Rather than let any manufacturer with a few tools and a conveyor belt cobble together its tablets, Microsoft has been much more selective about the companies it partners with. Just last week, in fact, it was revealed that the software company froze out HTC, the device maker responsible for the first-ever Windows Phone, from the development of Windows RT-based products. Why? Apparently Microsoft isn’t convinced HTC knows enough about tablets to build a decent device. But even if it did, Microsoft isn’t confident that the struggling company could sell such a device.
And while that’s unfortunate for HTC, consumers ought to rejoice, because it’s a clear indication that Microsoft’s out to compete with the iPad, not just to fill shelves with lesser alternatives.
Windows RT is too expensive to half-ass
Android’s free and open-source, and that’s great for innovation, but it also means there’s nothing to stop individual tablet makers from cranking out multiple devices, none of which they’ve thought through. After all, they’re only paying for the hardware, so they can afford to throw a bunch of shit at the wall to see what sticks. Hell, just look at Samsung’s catalog. Instead of building one or two competent tablets, the company offers a handful of derivative nonsense that confuses more consumers than it wins over.
Microsoft, on the other hand, is charging manufacturers at the gate for its operating system. Eighty-five dollars a pop, to be exact. And that’s on top of Nvidia’s bill of materials, which is now over $100 per device. That’s prohibitively expensive, you say? Perhaps, for certain manufacturers. But that’s the point. While the steep cover charges will surely rub some device makers the wrong way, not to mention translate into higher prices for consumers, they’ll also make manufacturers think twice about the tablets they develop, and I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.
Fragmentation, or the presence of multiple versions of the same operating system across hundreds of different devices, is the peskiest scourge of Android. Despite having been developed literally years ago, and regardless of the availability of vastly improved alternatives, older, less-capable versions of Android persist, as do pathetically underpowered devices. And as if that weren’t enough, within those many versions of Android, even more variation exists, because device makers insist on putting their own spins on the software. The result is that users are often confronted with apps that aren’t compatible with their devices. What’s more, there are multiple learning curves within the Android universe. In other words, just because you’ve gotten the hang of one flavor of the OS on one device doesn’t mean the next device you pick up won’t have you scratching your head all over again, even though it’s technically a member of the same ecosystem.
Not that Windows RT won’t be confusing at first. With Windows 8, Microsoft will turn upside down an operating system that caters to more than 600 million people in its current form. And if early feedback is any indication, the transition won’t be easy, and some consumers will undoubtedly turn up their noses. But millions of consumers won’t, and once they’ve gotten a handle on Microsoft’s latest OS, in one form or another, they should have no problem diving into whatever devices it powers, including tablets.
Sure, some Windows tablets will be more powerful than others, but with a uniform OS and Microsoft watching the door, it’ll be the odd app that doesn’t work with every Windows RT-based tablet.
Of course, Windows 8′s success isn’t a sure thing, and the future of its tablets is even less certain. But this much is clear, regardless of how it shakes out: Microsoft has a much better chance at chipping away at the iPad’s dominance than Android has ever had.