The Windows Tablet Dilemma

We are at an inflection point in the tablet market. Something that grew as fast and as large as the tablet/iPad did is clearly not a fluke. There are many theories about replacement cycles, household saturation, device sharing, tablet over-serving, and the smartphones growing role in computing to name a few. However, I still believe this market is in its early stages. Consumers are still feeling out the tablet form factor and discovering how it fits into their lives. I remain confident the tablet market is a growing opportunity and consumers, along with software developers, will have an “a ha” moment and the rest will be history. While we wait for the consumer market to shake out, there is still a growth story in the enterprise. It is one Apple is winning but Microsoft must remain competitive in. However, Microsoft’s approach is actually a detriment to their success in the enterprise.

The more time I spend with IT managers and CIOs discussing their tablet deployments, the more clarity I get in how they are being deployed. There is a clear trend. Almost universally, tablets are being deployed to those workers who did not have a computer before. This is because their job was out in the field. They work for large construction companies and spend most the day in the trenches and on their feet. They are techs working for utilities companies who may have had access to a PC in their car but never out in the job site. They are public safety workers. They are delivery drivers. They roam around oil rigs or energy facilities doing routine safety checks and procedure documentation. They are people who used to go into the field with clip boards full of forms, blueprints, and other necessary documentation. These are the people getting computers in tablet form and it is empowering them in their job in ways not before possible with a clamshell PC.

Now enter Microsoft’s approach. Regardless of where you stand in the debate of why Microsoft did what they did with Windows 8, the bottom line is they misunderstood the job to be done by the tablet in the enterprise. Microsoft saw the iPad and assumed commercial workers wanted something more than a slate and no keyboard. When in actuality, the clamshell PC form factor works great for those stationary desk workers, and touch is not as much of a value proposition while stationary than it is while on your feet in operating a computer. I don’t hear from CIOs their field workers need something that is both a PC and a tablet in the same device. Their field workers need a supremely portable and easy to hold for long periods of time “pure slate”. This is Microsoft’s tablet dilemma. Their current approach with Windows 8 is not conducive to a 10 inch screen size pure slate form factor. For one reason, the entire OS is optimized for the 16:9 aspect ratio, so the hardware is quite a bit longer than it is wide. This makes the device larger, heavier, etc. While the Surface form factor, and a few from Dell, is the closest Microsoft gets to the pure slate industrial design, they are still quite heavy and, more importantly, hard to hold and use in portrait mode. Portrait mode is an easily overlooked feature for many field workers. Oftentimes when they are looking at blueprints, using a clipboard for forms, and other typical paper based parts of their job, the orientation matters. Filling out a form is better in portrait mode, for example, due to the orientation being similar to paper’s 8.5″ x 11″ dimensions. My key point is, for field workers, the ideal tablet is orientation agnostic. This point favors the iPad and is one of the reasons the iPad is being deployed more for field workers than any other tablet.

Steven Sinofsky (the original creator of Surface and Surface RT) observed a similar point about field workers in a post yesterday. His point is spot on — there is a transition happening for field workers where the tablet is becoming their central computing device for their job. The software transition of internal apps from PC to tablet is happening and it’s happening fast. Microsoft’s dilemma is they run the risk of being left out of these field worker deployments entirely. If this happens, enterprises will become more dependent on the iPad as they create custom software for iOS rather than Windows. Could the iPad become a trojan horse to the enterprise, which then creates the opening for more iPhones and Macs in the enterprise?

Keep in mind the original reason Windows PCs took off the way they did in consumer markets was because consumers used them at work. They were familiar with them and because of that, they bought Windows PCs. Could the reverse now happen to Microsoft as the iPad, iPhone, and other future iOS devices become the norm in enterprise environments? Windows in the enterprise was its trojan horse to the consumer market in the early PC stages. I wonder if the same may be true for the iPad.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

3 thoughts on “The Windows Tablet Dilemma”

  1. hmmm…. i think the post pc era ends up with more devices and diversification than the pc era. It’s no longer about what apple did right , which is sort of what you’re getting at, but about how Microsoft positions itself to extend desktop/compute and create solutions for unmet segments of the market.

    I think the fundamental question is will there be a need for not just ubiquitous compute but more compute and will that additional compute be served locally or in the cloud?

    The arch of computer history that there is need and capability for more compute and we can argue about this definition as i think the tablet has brought the importance of effeciency/per watt/per dollar to the forefront as well as created the app as the gatekeeper to productivity.

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