Samsung executive Hankii Yoon said at Mobile World Congress, "The best thing to survive in the market is to kill your products."
He was referring to new Samsung Android tablets cannibalizing older ones, but let's take that comment even further. The first tablet demonstrating Windows 8 at Mobile World Congress was a Samsung one. Sure, Samsung is playing the field, and it's made Windows tablets before. However, it only goes to show that if you're not the one vertically integrating software and hardware, it's a free-for-all as far as where tablet hardware might evolve next.
The iPad isn't going anywhere: it has huge popularity, a massive app catalog, and dominating market share going for it. However, that spot at No. 2 seems wide open. Android tablets have been far from compelling thus far, leaving the doorway open for Windows 8 tablets to stake a claim that no other Windows tablets have previously been able to capture. However, for Windows 8 to succeed as a true iPad competitor and bury Android tablets, the battle will have to be fought on several fronts:
Apps. Android has a boatload of apps, but a less-than-ideal centralized storefront and way of monetizing them. Microsoft's currently middling collection of Windows 8 apps can't compete yet, but in time, with enough development effort, Microsoft could showcase those apps and sell them in a more polished way than Android does.
Enterprise and corporate. iPads are candy to the corporate landscape for two reasons: they're sexy, and they're secure and stable. They're not perfectly geared to productivity, but they're close enough. Android tablets have come in so many varieties and so many operating system variants that it numbs any corporate adoption. If Microsoft can settle on a few tablet designs from OEMs and a unified, stable OS (promising security features to boot), it could be seriously attractive to business.
Backward compatibility. The ability to run older Windows applications (for x86 tablets, not ARM) is huge. I remember sitting through tons of meetings with vendors who explained why their ugly Windows tablet of old was used by businesses that ran older software and enjoyed the cross-compatibility. Running Microsoft Office, in its real-deal form, is bigger than most people realize. OnLive Desktop is a cloud-based service on the iPad and Android that runs Windows 7 remotely...chiefly for its Microsoft Office applications, and its retention of features like red-line edits. A Windows 8 tablet could do that.
True keyboard/mouse compatibility. The iPad can't use a mouse. Android tablets can, but to a limited degree. Stand up a Windows 8 tablet and pair a keyboard and mouse, and a true mobile computer could be set up. We've seen that before on Windows 7 tablets, so what's the big deal now? Well, back then, those Windows 7 tablets excelled at keyboard/mouse connectivity but were lousy with UI, battery life, and touch-based apps. Windows 8 aims to address those problems this time around, though it remains to be seen how Intel's tablet processors will perform.
For all these reasons--especially the business market--I can't help but imagine Windows tablets rising up to finally overtake Android, and creating a Microsoft-Apple battleground for the next decade. On the consumer side, I expect Android tablets to get squeezed by cheaper and more brand-friendly "super e-readers" like the Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble Nook Tablet. Google's Andy Rubin may plan to double down on tablets, but Microsoft seems ready to do the same. Android phones may own half of the smartphone landscape, but there have been only 12 million Android tablets sold, compared with more than 48 million iPads in 2011 alone. Opportunity is there for the taking to be No. 2. And, if Microsoft swoops in and takes that market away from Android, Google will have no one but itself to blame.
Remember Netbooks? Those used to all run Linux.