Now that the new iPad has been revealed, everyone’s chiming in on whether it’s a disappointing incremental upgrade or a fantastic breakthrough. None of that matters to its success, of course. If every single previous iPhone and iPad product launch is any indication, Apple is going to sell truckloads of these things no matter what any expert, hater or fanboy says.
However, there’s one thing that makes this iPad release different from ealier ones: The new iPad will be the Apple device that goes head-to-head with Windows 8 tablets when they arrive later this year. Microsoft‘s new OS will spawn an entirely different species of tablet than the Android devices that have so far been Apple’s main competition. And if Microsoft plays its cards right, it could be the one that finally gives the iPad a serious challenge in the market.
So far, no product has been able to do that. The first “real” Android tablets, like the Motorola Xoom, were largely ignored by consumers. The newer tablets and latest Android upgrades are certainly better, but they’re still hampered by an amorphous ecosystem. Those examples of up-scaled phone apps on Android that Tim Cook cued up in his keynote were pretty damning, and he also said there were 200,000 iPad apps in the App Store. Google doesn’t give an official count of tablet-specific Android apps in Google Play, but estimates are in the thousands.
Non-Android tablets look even worse. RIM fumbled the launch of the BlackBerry PlayBook so badly that the tablet — and possibly RIM’s whole credibility in the space — will never recover. HP killed its consumer tablet offering, the TouchPad, mere weeks after launch upon realizing the iPad was an opponent it couldn’t hope to defeat.
Certainly, the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook are success stories, but they kind of cheated. Both have only managed to carve out a niche market among tablets by selling their devices at a rock-bottom prices (the Kindle Fire’s is so low that Amazon may be selling it at a loss). They can only do this by using the device itself as an outlet to sell specialized content. These products aren’t going toe-to-toe with the iPad — they’re fighting over the scraps of the market it’s left behind.
So far no device has been able to seriously challenge the iPad experience in its entirety. Basically, the tablet market has yet to see its Motorola Droid, the phone that finally showed, along with Android 2.0 software, that the iPhone wasn’t the end-all-be-all of smartphones. Android’s success skyrocketed after its release.
Windows 8 to the Rescue?
Could the tablet market’s dark horse be a Windows 8 device? It’s possible, but it hinges entirely on how consumers respond to the new user interface, Metro.
The thrust of Windows 8 — and why it’s such a big gamble my Microsoft — is that it brings the same UI to tablets and traditional PCs (desktops and laptops). Metro is ideally suited for touchscreens, but it works with a mouse and keyboard, too. (Here’s a full breakdown of Windows 8.)
There’s a reason Microsoft has done this, and it’s not really the spirit of bringing tablet features to your laptop. Quite the opposite, in fact. In order to have any hope of succeeding in tablets, Microsoft has to convince its army of Windows developers to make software for those tablets. But no one’s going to develop software for an unproven OS where the company has seen little commercial success (no current Windows tablet has significant market share).
However, if your entire OS, including traditional PCs, is running the same software, then developers almost have no choice but to design apps for tablets. Windows 8 essentially turns all Windows developers into tablet developers, potentially giving the Windows 8 tablet platform the fuel it needs to expand rapidly and finally give the iPad a real opponent.
The Catch: Metro
Again, almost. There’s one thing that could hold it back: consumers rejecting Metro. You see, Windows 8 lets any user turn off Metro and just use the traditional desktop. If enough of them do, many developers may simply choose not to create Metro apps. After all, if most of your customers are just switching to the old Windows environment anyway, why bother?
That would let the air out of the expanding Windows 8 tablet balloon pretty quickly, and that’s even before we consider the wild cards of potential device fragmentation, how Windows will work on ARM devices and whether or not consumers will even accept a tablet as their main computing device.
Microsoft needs to get Metro 100% right if Windows 8 tablets are going to have any hope. If users like Metro, then the developers will follow, and a real ecosystem will emerge. If not, the iPad will probably be the only tablet worth talking about for a long, long time.
BONUS: A Tour of Windows 8 and Metro
Here's what greets you every time you log into your Windows 8 machine. Yes, the tiles are customizable, though it's a little unwieldy in practice.