Can Microsoft build a tablet that people will want to buy?

Microsoft and Barnes & Noble have a lot of content available to offer, in the form of music, books, games, apps, movies, magazines and so on. A tablet could be just the convergence device to focus all this into one place. But everything has to be right.

There is increasing speculation that Microsoft will use today's event at Los Angeles to showcase a tablet developed and built in conjunction with Barnes & Noble.

But can Microsoft build a sexy tablet that people will want to buy?


In the invitation sent out to the press, Microsoft called this a "major" announcement and one that "you will not want to miss". This sets the bar quite high in terms of expectation and has led some to speculate that this would be a Windows RT or Windows 8 tablet announcement.

I find this hard to believe given that Windows 8 and Windows RT is still months away, and Microsoft's OEM partners wouldn't be happy if the Redmond giant had entered into some strategic alliance with a third-party at this state to pre-announce a Windows tablet before anyone else.

So this likely isn't about Windows.

The whispers that this is related to Microsoft's strategic partnership with Barnes & Noble makes a lot more sense. Here are my thoughts; partly based on speculation, and partly based on rumors and chatter I'm hearing.

There is likely to be new hardware announced today. More than likely this hardware will be a tablet, given that Barnes & Noble already has a tablet product on market enjoying modest success.

But a tablet can only part of the equation. As companies such as RIM, Motorola, and HP have demonstrated in the past, coming out with a tablet does not guarantee that said tablet would be a success. In fact, if history is anything to go by, unless you're Apple --- or to a lesser extent, Amazon or Samsung --- tablets are an almost sure-fire way to lose money.

In order to succeed in the tablet market, you need much more than a physical tablet.

This is where content comes into play. Hardware is nice, but content is king, and as Apple and Amazon have demonstrated, it can make the difference between success and failure.

Between them, Microsoft and Barnes & Noble have a lot of content available to offer, in the form of music, books, games, apps, movies, magazines and so on. A tablet could be just the convergence device to focus all this into one place.

But everything has to be right.

First, the price has to be right. The $199 price point that the Amazon Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble NOOK tablets have carved for themselves seems to work, but dropping the price to around the $150 mark would certainly sweeten the deal and make people more likely to take a risk. There's significant wriggle room with a device that's designed primarily as a content consumption device to subsidize the price significantly without hitting the bottom line.

Don't expect any tablet announced today to complete with the iPad. The target here is likely to be Amazon and the Kindle Fire.

Also, the content has to be right. There can't be a situation where there are big gaps in the content on offer, and the content available has to be priced right. Also it has to be, to the maximum extent possible, a one-stop-shop for digital media. Consumers aren't going to take a chance on buying into a new ecosystem when then can buy into broader and far more established digital content ecosystems such as those offered by Amazon and Apple.

The way people access the content also has to be right. It has to be quick, easy and streamlined. How this needs to work has already been well established by devices such as the iPad or Kindle Fire. Consumers who are used to a one-click world won't take well to having to click twice.

Pricing also has to be right. And by right, I mean simple. One of the biggest complains I hear leveled against the Xbox Live concept is Microsoft's insistence in pricing based on Xbox 'points' rather than just pricing content in local currency.

People just want to know how much things cost, and not have to currency convert into as weird and arbitrary points system.

Integration also has to strike the right balance. Whatever product or service Microsoft comes out with today needs to integrate with, but at the same time not rely on, Microsoft's existing ecosystem. Here I'm thinking specifically about Windows and Xbox.

While I don't believe that Microsoft is going to announce an Xbox gaming tablet today, I expect there to be some leveraging of the Xbox ecosystem. After all, Xbox is Microsoft's second-largest ecosystem, after Windows, and now that Microsoft has subtly shifted the Xbox platform away from being purely a console and more towards being an entertainment hub, it would make sense that any device announced today would leverage this ecosystem.

That said, it cannot and should not rely too heavily on the Xbox, the hardware, platform or brand. The reason I say this is that when you look at the diverse nature of people buying tablets such as the Kindle Fire, Nook and iPad, the majority of them aren't likely to own an Xbox or ever want to. Launching a tablet that relied on the Xbox would mean certain death of the tablet.

Finally, Microsoft and Barnes & Noble need to get the differentiation factor right. Quite simply, there needs to be a clear and well-defined reasons why people should take a chance on it, and these need to go beyond way beyond the fact that this tablet has anything to do with Microsoft.

If Microsoft can't succinctly answer the "why should I buy this over a Kindle or an iPad?" question, it's doomed from the start.

That's a lot for Microsoft to get right, but if it can be done, then this could be interesting.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons, CC.


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