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Five factors that could make or break a Microsoft tablet

Rumours abound that Microsoft will introduce an own-brand tablet next week, but what does the company need to get right if it wants a chance of succeeding?
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By Ben Woods, Senior reporter on
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1 of 5 Shutterstock

Tablets

Rumours are flying that Microsoft will soon announce its own Microsoft-branded tablet at a press event scheduled to take place on 18 June.

The company hasn't been shy of taking a crack at hardware in the past — just look at the success of Xbox and its Kinect motion controller.

However, not all of its previous attempts to move into mobile devices have proved successful: take its youth-orientated Kin phones, which were put out to pasture just two months after launch, and never even made it to Europe.

So what if Microsoft does choose to dip a toe into the tablet market and make its own slates? What does it need to get right to go up against its Apple and Android competitors, and make sure any own-brand tablet is more an Xbox success than a Kin mess?

Hardware
First and foremost, Microsoft must get the hardware right. It's 2012 and the iPad is dominating world of tablets right now, so there's no room and no excuse for bringing a chunky 'this is our first effort so go easy on us' tablet to the market. If Fujitsu can introduce a tablet that is thinner, lighter and cheaper to buy than the iPad, then Microsoft will have to make sure it does the same.

However, if Microsoft wants to appeal to consumers — and it should, given the attention around Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) at the moment and the threat that the trend poses to its dominance of the enterprise — then it needs to go a whole lot further, delivering not only some killer top-line specs, but all the elements that still niggle iPad users by their absence. Super high-res screen, expandable memory, user-replaceable battery, all kinds of USB, HDMI and microSD slots? Yep, I want all of that, at the very least.

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2 of 5 Jorg Hackemann/Shutterstock

Electronics consumers

Simplicity of buying
There is currently a myriad of potential software choices for a Microsoft tablet: Windows on ARM (WOA), now called Windows 8 RT, as well as a full-fat version of Windows 8, and even potentially Windows Phone 8 in future. And that's before you even get to the different hardware options, such as screen size or internal storage, that would go with them.

This tyranny of choice is the last thing Microsoft needs with a new entry to market. It needs to make any tablet own-brand offering easy to understand, and therefore easy to buy.

Take number two in the tablet market, Samsung: with its vast choice of Galaxy Tab sizes and configurations, it's a difficult sell to convince a consumer why they'd buy an 8.9-inch over an 10.1-inch device, or even care about a once-inch difference in screen size. Even master of marketing Apple offers six different iPad options.

Microsoft has a chance to differentiate itself with a leaf out of its Xbox playbook: offer consumers just one choice to start with, make it a compelling one, then market the hell out of it.

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3 of 5 _tar0_/Flickr

Low price

Price
Let's assume a Microsoft tablet has really sparked a buyer's interest. It's slim, light and they know exactly which they want, and now it's just a question of the bottom line. Microsoft has to break down every barrier that stops people buying its devices and so it has to be fiercely competitive on price.

Microsoft doesn't need to compete with the cheapest of the cheap — after all, most budget Android tablets aren't a pleasure to use because keeping costs down that low has a knock-on effect on the quality of the hardware — but it does need to be cheaper than its equivalent rivals like the iPad or Galaxy Tab family.

If Microsoft want to make a splash in the tablet market, it needs to sell millions of devices to build the critical mass that will generate the ecosystem that it needs. Pricing competitively can help it shift those units — and if Microsoft has to subsidise every single tablet it sells to convince consumers to buy, it shouldn't be shy of doing so.

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4 of 5 Ben Woods/ZDNet

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Services
So I've got my new tablet, svelte bargain that it was, but now I'm getting a little bored. So where are all the integrated services — the cloud storage, the music store, the movie rentals and downloads?

Microsoft had better make sure that all this is in place, available in as many countries as possible and running like clockwork for the day of launch if it decides to bring out its own tablet, because the competition will certainly be doing the same. Once again, it needs to go further than its rivals, and find new services, new apps and new ideas that will appeal to buyers.

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5 of 5 Seth Rosenblatt/CNET News

Windows 8

Legacy and enterprise support
Microsoft has got one advantage — or potential disadvantage depending on how you look at it — over Android and iOS in the shape of its massive enterprise legacy footprint. Legacy is a pain for Microsoft: constantly having to make sure your products work with hardware or software released years ago takes time and resources that could go towards The Next Big Thing, but it is, ultimately, worth it in the long run. Nothing will annoy a customer more than realising that the product they bought just two years ago won't work with new features.

iPads are fast becoming the enterprise tablet of choice, but Microsoft has a huge installed user base in this sector that it could play to if it managed to get a tablet right.

Similarly, Microsoft has to make sure that its desktop and mobile OSes play nicely together. Windows is still the most used desktop OS by an eye-watering margin: if Microsoft can get its mobile strategy right to make the two work without any integration headache for the user, Android tablets could really start to look like a bit of a limited option.

Whether or not Microsoft builds a tablet is still up in the air; in many ways it makes little sense for the company to do it itself. But if Microsoft does, it better get these basics right, or it won't stand a chance.

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