This Week in Tablets: Half-year report cards for Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Samsung

July 20, 2013
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Major League Baseball’s All Star week is a mid-term, of sorts, offering a moment of rest and reflection.

The players all get a nice four-day vacation from the daily grind of the game. Writers and fans around the country use the down time to reflect back on the first half of the season, and to look ahead to the second half.

This Week in Tablets is going to do the same sort of analysis this week for the tablet ecosystem. Who had a great first half, and how do the major players in the space stack up against each other, their expectations, and our own. 

It's worth noting that we're still in the “rising tide lifts all ships” mode. With the exceptions of laptops and desktops, consumers are adopting mobile tech at a record pace right now, so there are bound to be lots of winners.

Enough set-up. Let’s start at the top.

Apple: The new second-half player

First half grade: B
Second half outlook: Solid

In years past, Apple was able to effectively dominate mindshare by releasing major updates to its product line twice a year. New tablets would arrive in late spring, with iOS updates and new iPhones in the Fall.

It is beginning to appear, however, that Apple is beginning to weight its big releases towards the second half of the year. Last year we saw the iPad Mini in November. This year, we'll see a major iOS update in the second half of the year. 

What's striking about Apple's first half of 2013 is how disappointed the company's fans were with its product plans. At WWDC, the laptop crowd failed to get the Retina Display on the MacBook Air, and there were no iPad announcements–Mini, revised 10-inch iPad, or otherwise. No Apple TV, and no iWatch.

Now we're all waiting for big, important announcements towards the end of 2013. The iOS7 refresh is a lock, and Apple has a lot riding on its success. As opposed to previous Apple releases, there's no guarantee that everyone will love it. Humans are creatures of habit, and while the big interface update will in essence make for a brand new device in some ways, I guarantee some people will not like having to start from scratch on their iPhones.

I can already imagine media reviews of iOS7 expressing disappointment, or at the very least making the observation that Apple is following in Android's wake by abandoning the skeuemorohic design it's used for the last 6 years to chase Google’s Android OS, even if the two remain fairly different.

The truth is that days of every Apple release being awe-inducing wonder products are over. We should all probably be more appreciative of one of the greatest 5-year bursts of consumer product development in modern history than we are.

But maybe Apple is gearing up for anther burst mode? Based on reports this week in the FT, it does seem clear that Apple is working on some kind of watch or other wearable iOS-based device, as well as something fairly significant in the TV space.

Based on the rumors, it doesn’t appear that we’ll see these kinds of products until 2014, but you never know.

For now, it looks like iOS 7 will be Apple’s big bet for year’s end, likely tied to a new iPad as well as a new iPhone. And if the most recent wave of rumors are accurate, it looks like the new iPad Mini may actually make it to shelves this year after all.


First half grade: A
Second half outlook: Strong

In some ways, Samsung is becoming the Apple of Android devices. The company has created complete ownership and identity within one product category it single-handedly created–the Galaxy Note phablet line. It is absolutely dominating market share of Android devices at the high- and low-end of the tablet and smartphone spectrum. (Research firm Chitika reported this week that Samsung devices account for 47.2% of all Android web traffic in North America.)

The Galaxy line of tablets is a strong brand, but the company also has a bead (maybe hedge is a better word) on Windows 8 devices, thanks to its new Ativ line of devices.

The company has a successful formula that it will continue to milk for the rest of 2013: Keep cranking out new form-factors and models in the Galaxy line, and continue to saturate the mid- and low-end of the spectrum with Android devices. It’s hard to imagine things going wrong for Samsung any time soon.


First half grade: C
Second half outlook: Solid (things can only get better)

2013 hasn’t been a great year for Microsoft. Thus far, Windows 8 has disappointed many from a consumer-use perspective—particularly in terms of touch/tablet use, but also as a pure desktop operating systems. As such, Microsoft has been forced to spend a lot of energy defending it, and ultimately, revising the OS.

And while Microsotft was able to get Office for the iPhone out for Office 365 users, its insistence on forcing users to use SkyDrive or Sharepoint for storage is the height of corporate selfishness. (By the way, if you’re looking to integrate Dropbox as a default storage options for the new Office suite in Windows, it is possible. Instructions right here.)

Couple all of the above with the disastrous announcement of the new Xbox One gaming system–which really couldn't have gone any worse—and you have one messy, ugly first half of the year.

The good news is that things can't really get much worse in the second half of the year. But more importantly, it appears that Microsoft is aware of its problems, as well as how the company’s corporate culture and structure have affected its product strategy. Last week’s reorganization is a sure sign that change is coming in Redmond. But will it come fast enough?

Google's Android division

First half grade: A
Second half outlook: Strong

The buzz hasn’t been there as much for Google this year, but the results sure have. If Samsung is the new Apple, then Google’s Android division is the new Microsoft. Strong partner relations and support, a progressive OS, and an aggressive pricing scheme that encourages hardware manufacturers to innovate at the hardware level.

In the tablet/mobile space, Google has and continues to experience remarkable success in 2013. The company's first half of the year saw a major leap in market share, to the point where sometime later this year, Android will surpass Apple in tablet market share. 

The company's aggressive run of OS iteration–something that drove experts and analysts crazy in wo11 and 2012–has slowed as Android has become a much more tablet-friendly OS. And OEMs have responded in wonder, releasing a wide variety of tablets and phones thus far. 

In the second half of 2013, we should see a new Nexus 7 device—as soon as this coming Wednesday, July 24, if rumors hold true. And as long as companies like Samsung continue to knock out great Android devices, Google keeps winning.

Also, don't forget: Google was the first to hit the wearable computer space with Google Glass. It’s not perfect, but it represents a substantial head start in the space.

This week’s loser: Microsoft

It’s official: ARM-based Windows RT didn’t sell. This week, Microsoft was forced to swallow almost $1 billion of inventory adjustments as a result. That’s a bad sign for the lighter version of the Windows operating system.

This week’s winner: AT&T users

We’re seeing a new trend in wireless device resales that has some interesting implications for users. Earlier this week, AT&T announced its AT&T Next upgrade plan. Like T-Mobile’s Jump program, Next allows subscribers to buy a new device every year without having to pay activation fees, down payments, or termination fees.

Instead, customers just split the cost of an unsubsidized device into 20 monthly payments, and this comes with a built-in option to upgrade to a new device after a year. It's an interesting strategy – I can't wait to see if/how it works. 


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