The significant hurdles facing Windows 8 tablets

Microsoft is busily working on Windows 8 for tablets, but there are some obstacles that must be considered before they become a success in the market.

Having used, and I mean really used tablets for a decade, I am excited and concerned about the upcoming Windows 8 tablets. Especially the ones running on a real mobile platform, ARM. I know Microsoft is putting a tremendous effort into getting Windows 8 on ARM as good as can be, but my experience with tablets tells me there are some significant obstacles in the way to make them succeed.

Form Factor

I used one tablet or another full-time for years in my consulting business, and that experience drives home what any tablet needs to have a chance at success in the market. Tablets are used for long periods in the hands, and that means only thin and light slates. Bulky tablets are too uncomfortable to hold for extended sessions, especially once the device starts approaching two pounds in weight.

There are several reasons why the most popular tablets to date have been accepted well in the market, and a comfortable form factor is way up there. When a tablet starts approaching or exceeds that two pound limit, it is increasingly uncomfortable to use and hold. This is a killer in the mainstream market, as no one wants to pay good money for something that is not comfortable to use. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Even if a tablet maker produces a slate that is sufficiently thin and light, the overall size of the device will affect the acceptance in the market. This means even though Windows 8 will support screens bigger than 10 inches, I don't believe there is a market for them. The bigger the screen, the harder a tablet is to hold and use, and it gets back to that comfort factor. While some folks are anxious for Windows 8 tablets to appear with screens of 11 inches or larger, I don't think the mainstream will buy them.

See also: CES 2012: Convertible notebooks are back; Lenovo Yoga: Tablet and Ultrabook in one with Windows 8

We are already seeing convertible notebooks demonstrated, and I think those will not be successful. Those are nothing new, they've existed for years and not attracted the attention of most buyers. The exception may be Windows 8 tablets that detach from a keyboard dock, like the ASUS Transformer Prime running Android, but only if the tablet portion meets all the form factor requirements described in this article. They must be mobile tablets first, with (optional) laptop capabilities second.

Differentiation

There are a lot of tablet makers building Android tablets, and they are very familiar with the need to differentiate product in a crowded market. This will affect the Windows 8 tablet field, too, as OEMs will all be using the same OS.

As more Windows 8 tablets come to market, the need for OEMs to make individual products stand out will be significant. They can achieve this through unique design, but history shows us they will likely try to accomplish this through hardware. This will either be by cramming more hardware in the tablet, or by going with something like a bigger screen.

Cramming more hardware inside won't do them any favors, as the tablet market has already demonstrated it doesn't care about technical stuff. Android tablet makers have been dealing with this already, and discovered that consumers don't line up for the tablet with more stuff inside. This is going to be the case with Windows 8 tablets, so differentiation will be harder to accomplish.

Tablets with bigger screens will fail due to the form factor situation already mentioned. Sure there will be specific cases where a bigger screen on a tablet might be better, but we're talking niche markets. Those are not the target for Microsoft nor OEMs, as tablets in vertical markets have already failed to generate significant sales for years. Any company that actively targets such markets are almost guaranteed to fail, if I may be so bold, as they've already been targeted with Tablet PCs and not successfully.

It will make more sense to differentiate Windows 8 tablets through software, and that's where the development effort better be directed. With tablets due to appear this year, that development effort better already be underway by the major tablet makers.

It is critical that OEMs (and Microsoft) not forget that Windows tablets are nothing new. They have been around for a decade, and have not set any sales records. While Windows 8 tablets running mobile hardware will no doubt be better than those Tablet PCs of old, mainstream consumers will have to be shown that clearly.

Those who think that the main competition for Windows 8 tablets will not be the iPad nor Android tablets better wake up. That is exactly the competition that will affect how well Windows tablets do in the market. If companies are depending on the presence of Windows to be the big selling point, I predict a massive (and rapid) failure in the market. The only market for which that really can be a selling point is the enterprise, and iPads and Android tablets are already appearing there in increasing numbers. Plus, those markets are niche markets compared to the massive mainstream consumer market, and not significant enough to guarantee success.

Pricing

Since Windows 8 tablets will be competing directly with Android and the iPad, price will be very important to guarantee success. Products launching at prices similar to the iPad or Android tablets will not find a receptive audience, and those that debut at higher prices will fail miserably. As mentioned earlier, it's not about the hardware nor technical specifications, it's about ease of use and price point.

I am willing to make a bold prediction that any Windows 8 tablet hitting the market for more than $400 will languish on the shelves. They need to be even cheaper than that to get mainstream consumers to buy them instead of existing alternatives. That may seem harsh but I believe it is accurate.

Conclusion

Windows 8 on tablets is looking really exciting so far, but to get sales numbers that matter they have to take on the iPad and Android tablets head-on. That means similar form factors, better pricing, and have compelling differences that attract buyers.

More of the same in the Windows tablets, which have been around for over ten years, will not cut it. These will need to be mobile tablets first, and Windows computers second. The market that will buy these solely because they run Windows is very small, and won't make a splash as desired.

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