This Week in Tablets: 5 Ways Microsoft can still win with Windows 8 tablets

December 22, 2012
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I have a friend who loves his Surface RT tablet, more for what it represents—a familiar alternative to Apple and Google—than for what it is today.

This guy reviews computer hardware for a living, so he’s not blind to the alternatives.

Legitimate or not, his is a common rationale. Some people would rather wait for Microsoft to figure things out than switch to another platform and a new ecosystem.

For this crowd, Apple is still paying for alienating gamers and for the anti-populist position it established in the late 1990s.

People like my friend are the key to Microsoft’s success. If Microsoft can reward their patience, the company will win—or at least not lose—over the long term.

There’s precedent here: At the turn of the century, Microsoft entered the highly competitive gaming market with the Xbox. No one gave them a fighting chance of surviving. Sony and Nintendo were considered too big and too strong.

But Microsoft surprised everyone by making it work—not initially, but over the long haul—by crafting an elegant online environment, by creating a few strong partnerships that brought exclusive high-profile games to the platform, and by establishing the system as a welcome alternative to the PlayStation.

This got me wondering: What, if any, are the key categories Microsoft can capitalize on with Windows 8 tablets? I see five big opportunities, and there are certainly a handful of smaller ones.

1. Gaming

On the surface, this seems like an unlikely category/opportunity, but games are rapidly evolving on tablet platforms. The platform is quickly adding fairly traditional, core gaming mechanics and genres to the mix.

Keenly aware of the strengths of the platform—up close and personal, with headphones, game developers are rapidly experimenting with entirely new styles of play. Have you played Walking Dead yet on the iPad? It’s a remarkable blend of story and gameplay, and it feels like an entirely new model of gaming, even if it borrows from existing styles. 

Walking Dead, which is exclusive to iOS right now, is a big enough hit that it’s winning Game of The Year awards from many hard-core gaming sites—including Spike TVs Video Game Awards earlier this month. That’s a massive upset, considering the other console-based games that released this year. We’re talking Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Halon4, Assassin’s Creed III, and more.

If Microsoft can find and lock up exclusive rights for four to five of 2013’s biggest tablet hits, they’ll have an easier path to success. Gamers are playing on the iPad now, but if Microsoft were able to deliver, in rapid succession, several AAA titles on Windows 8 tablets based on existing franchises, gamers will consider switching.

If I were Microsoft, I’d start forming close allegiances to console developers/publishers of Xbox hits—including multi-platform developers like Ubisoft and Activision, and go from there.

In the meantime…where is the Halo franchise on Windows 8?

2. Family management

Whether it’s Dad or 16-year old Jimmy, every family has an FTO—the Family Technology Officer responsible for managing the router, home network, laptops, and all the errors in between.

Typically, someone else—usually Mom—manages household task management (for lack of a better word) within each family. These tasks are not usually managed via an application, but by good old-fashioned voice command.

The increasing odds that each family member has a tablet, and that each tablet is connected to the same network for many hours each day is a massive opportunity for increased family productivity and harmony.

In coming years, reminders, dates, appointments, and the sharing of all of the above can and will be more capably managed at the family level. Thus far, they are not. Whoever figures this out first will win big—even if the solution is cross-platform.

3. Pen-based computing

Given Apple’s anti-pen stance, and Samsung’s success with the Galaxy Note tablet/phone hybrids, it’s clear that many people want styli for their mobile computing needs.

Microsoft failed at this before, but Windows has supported pen-based input long before Apple and Google embraced touch.

The Surface tablet doesn’t necessarily have to integrate a stylus. Microsoft just needs to make a bigger deal out of the fact that Windows 8 already supports such an input device.

4. Security

Even if it’s a bigger target for viruses and malware than MacOS or iOS, Windows 8 is a fairly secure environment.

The more immediate opportunity for Microsoft, however, is helping consumers (and businesses) keep track of their increasingly complex passwords for apps, files, and websites in a secure fashion.

I’ve tried a number of solutions for this—web sites, apps, and more—and have yet to find a truly elegant, intuitive solution. I’d welcome an integrated password packing utility that allowed me to call up the increasingly complex passwords I know I should be using, and I bet millions of consumers would also.

Finally, as we stumble into the post-password era, there will be tremendous opportunities for Microsoft to separate itself from the pack. Windows 8’s touch-oriented password entry is an interesting approach that makes it appear Microsoft understands. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.

5. Search

This seems like a too-little, too-late opportunity thanks to Google, until you consider how unintuitive searching on an iPad feels. Most people launch their browser and then enter text in the search field, which feels like one step too many.

It will be a long, uphill slog for Microsoft, but the company is onto something with Bing. It’s nicely integrated into the Windows 8 environment, and the results are solid and improving.

Google will dominate search for the foreseeable future, but if Microsoft can continue to make Bing an attractive alternative for mobile users, they’ll create some distinction between Windows 8 and iOS, and loyalty on its behalf.

This week’s loser: Nokia 

Given the lack of obvious momentum around Windows 8 devices, rumors that the Finnish handset maker may unveil a Windows RT tablet in February at Mobile World Congress aren’t particularly inspiring. If Microsoft couldn’t drum up enthusiasm with the Surface RT, how will Nokia fare?

Runner-up here: Apple. It’s becoming apparent that the iPad Mini is in fact cannibalizing iPad sales. Even worse, it appears that Wall Street is seeing the writing on the wall that Apple’s dominance may be slowly winding down. AAPL stock is hovering just above $500, after peaking at  just over $700 in late September.

This week’s winner: Quickoffice

This week, Google announced that it would be pushing a free version of Quickoffice’s iPad app to its Google Apps for Business customers, allowing them to view, edit, and create MS Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files—and save them to Google Cloud Drive. The goal is pretty clear: Disrupt the pending launch and adoption of Microsoft Office on the iPad.

Whatever the case, it’s more good news for Quickoffice, which was purchased by Google this summer. 

Close runner-up: North Carolina students. A $30 million federal grant is allowing the Guilford County Schools district to purchase 17,000 tablets for sixth- to eighth-graders. That’s a good thing, and a great way to make sure kids aren’t getting left behind on the technology curve.


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