One More Tablet Gone; Can Microsoft Avoid the Same Fate?

image courtesy of BerryReporter 

Clinton recently wrote an opinion piece entitled, “As RIM Writes Off The Playbook, The Pressure is on Microsoft to Make a Complete Windows 8 Tablet“, in which he says:

This morning the Wall Street Journal reported that RIM is taking a $485 million charge for their lackluster tablet, the Playbook.  The charge comes by way of a markdown in the value of the massive inventor that RIM still has of the devices.  It is a brutal and costly reminder that if you kinda-sorta-maybe-woulda-shoulda your tablet strategy, the price can be steep.  Very steep.


The challenge facing Microsoft is that they are behind when it comes to a tablet strategy.  Regardless of what Steve Ballmer said in the Microsoft shareholders meeting last week, Microsoft to this point has a limited at best and horrible at worst answer to the tablet market.  The challenge also comes from the unbelievable pressure that the iPad has put on this entire segment of the industry.  As I said in my opinion piece about Office for iPad, there is no tablet market today.  There is just an iPad market.  The risk, as RIM did with the Playbook to a large extent, is to try to go head-to-head with the iPad.  It has been proven a couple of times – WebOS and the Playbook – that such a strategy ends in tears.  No, what Microsoft must do is differentiate their Windows 8 and tablet strategy from that of Apple.  This, I believe, is one of the reasons that Amazon has had such quick success with the Fire.  Sure it runs Android but you would never know it and Amazon has positioned it as a consumption device not necessarily a “tablet”. Regardless of what you think of the Fire itself (which I think is really good by-the-way), Amazon likely will see success simply because they are going to market with a different message.  Microsoft will need to have their own message that is different as well.  They need to market and capitalize on the power of the Metro UI but also bring the message that they have with Windows Phone which is making the experience more personal.

Clinton is absolutely right that Amazon made the correct move of coming to the market with a different message than the one the iPad offers, but there is also one way in which the Amazon Kindle (specifically the Fire) and the iPad have always been very similar: both companies offer – and for the most part control – the content with which they hope to fill your device.

Amazon’s Kindle line began with a focus on books, and for their Fire they have expanded it to movies, music and apps; Apple’s iPad was released with a huge library of  music and movies ready to go. They had a smaller library of apps than might have been optimal, but (and this is a huge but), they had the foresight to set up a backwards compatibility so that the iPhone’s massive library of apps would work – even if awkwardly displayed at 2X – on the iPad; then Apple took their app store a step further and expanded it to include books.

Controlling the user experience through the available content has been a winning strategy for both Apple and Amazon, and it is something that we have managed to discuss nearly to death here on Gear Diary. But the gist is that both Amazon and Apple sell you a device that is perfectly set up to accept their content, and they are personalized by each individual user to the extent that they can add content to their device through either Amazon’s or Apple’s app stores. [Without getting into jailbreaking on either device; I am talking about straight out of the box – what is available to the average user.]

So to drive home the point, how do the BlackBerry Playbook, the HP Touchpad (WebOS) and every Android tablet that’s ever been released differ from what Amazon and Apple had from the beginning?

BlackBerry made the boneheaded move of releasing a highly capable piece of hardware that didn’t bother to support BlackBerry’s core user group. Think about it — what put BB on the map if not their beautiful push mail delivery system. When the Playbook was released … it didn’t even have a mail app. That had to have been a major turnoff for core BB users, and the folks who might not have cared — those who rely upon Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail for their email, they apparently didn’t see anything compelling enough about the (originally) $499 (for the 16GB model) device that would compel them to purchase it over an iPad or Android tablet. Blackberry certainly didn’t have the apps to make an argument that theirs was the better buy, so the one thing they had going for them that might have compelled their few loyal users to buy the Playbook … they didn’t even bother to include it.

But wait, there was more. As Dan mentioned in his piece “The “Other” Reason the BlackBerry PlayBook Got No Play“:

For the longest time I thought the lack of apps was the reason the PlayBook was pretty much a complete fail. An experience yesterday, however, pointed to another, perhaps more compelling, reason why the PlayBook didn’t have a prayer even when it was released. …

Simple, the company released a tablet that was a “companion device” to its smartphone even as people were fleeing their smartphone while Apple released a tablet that stood on its own.

The PlayBook is a nice device but to get the most from it you need to have a BlackBerry smartphone. Sure you can use the tablet on its own but if you do this you won’t be able to tap into all of the features of the tablet. And that isn’t because of the lack of apps, no, it was DESIGNED that way. As a result, not having a BlackBerry smartphone means your PlayBook is crippled from day one.

So not only did you not get the mail feature that put BlackBerry on the map or a good solid catalog of apps, the device was not made to stand on its own.


The HP Touchpad’s failing s were covered in-depth by Michael when he wrote his “Five Reasons I Didn’t Buy a HP TouchPad Last Weekend” piece. Bear in mind that he was talking about why he didn’t buy it at the massive discount of $299 from its original $xx. “It is a very plasticky machine with a spongy feeling to the buttons.”; “the HP would randomly feel sluggish for no reason at all, would quickly buckle under the pressure of a few apps, and actually became totally unresponsive on more than a couple of occasions.”; “the core PIM apps feel anemic compared to other tablets”; “Similarly, the ‘full browser experience’ – which is code for running Flash – is better in theory than in resource hogging, system choking, app-crashing reality.”; “I had heard that the OS update had fixed the accuracy issues, but I still found myself with way too many mis-types.”; and “I hold out little hope that you will EVER be able to lead an app-centric existence on the TouchPad. To put it in perspective – I have ~2x the amount of apps ON MY IPAD that are iPad-specific than the ENTIRE TouchPad library!”.


And as for Android? As Michael has also succinctly said (and defended) in his article “Lies, Damn Lies, and Android Tablet Numbers“:

There are three basic issues I have with Android tablets:
– The hardware is all about compromises.
– The OS is either (a) oversized smartphone or (b) the worst mobile OS I’ve used since Windows Mobile 6.1.
– The sales figures are all lies. (of course, this doesn’t impact my usage, but as a statistician it drives me nuts and Samsung’s lying impacts my decision-making as much or more than Apple’s Draconian moves)

Read the rest of his article before you get your hackles up, okay? But the basic gist is this:


So to rein it all in and get back to the point of Clinton’s point: Microsoft wants to bring out a Windows 8 Tablet. They are obviously way behind already in the tablet market, so if and when they actually do bring out a new consumer tablet, they are going to have to come out strong if they don’t want to watch their tablet go the way of the Playbook and the Touchpad — in other words, heavily discounted and done before a year has even passed.

Clinton says:

Microsoft cannot do what RIM did which is bring a buggy, half-baked solution to market.  It has to perform and have all the features that users need/expect/want.  It can’t come out of the box needing a boatload of updates (which has to be WAY easier than the upgrade process that Windows has today) nor can it come with a limited function set of apps (think PowerPoint reader instead of PowerPoint).

And he is right. But I submit to you that there is one more thing that Microsoft must do to differentiate themselves from other companies and their failures: Pick a market that they can control — perhaps their XBox gaming platform or their core Office Apps, or some other feature that I can’t even imagine at this point — and offer them on this tablet in a way that makes the other tablets seem deficient.

Because if they don’t, this new Microsoft tablet will be yet another casualty on the tablet landscape, and the Apple (high-end) and Amazon (lower-end) tablet rein will continue.

There are new rules now: It used to be that device specs made all the difference; Apple ended that because their iPad’s specs weren’t as great as many of the Android tablets, and yet it still sold better. Then it looked like pricing might be the key; while Amazon is coming in and benefitting from their lower price, that still isn’t the entre story, because iPads are still selling strongly. Therefore, I believe that it has been proven by both Apple and Amazon that a strong content ecosystem is king, and the tablet is just the delivery system.

What do you think?


Read more of Clinton Fitch’s “As RIM Writes Off The Playbook, The Pressure is on Microsoft to Make a Complete Windows 8 Tablet

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14 replies

  1. Actually with the release of Google Music plus the addition of movies to the Android Marketplace, Android tablets are in a different place now.  Google has Apps, Books, Music and Movies all on any Android tablet available.  They have an ecosystem now and once ICS hits tablets, I think Apple AND Amazon has a challenger.  PLUS there’s the new Tegra 3 based Transformer Prime coming in at the same price point as a 16 GB iPad 2 with more storage,  Next year is going to be an exciting year for the Android tablet.  Should have been this year but oh well!  :-)

    I think Microsoft has some good ideas, but where is their Ecosystem?

    • Honestly Joel this sounds a whole lot like what I heard when I was a Windows Mobile person. “Next update, next year, next point bump” etc etc etc. The promise was always there but the reality never delivered. Android tablets are all over the place with little consistency and, if we are being honest here, more confusion about devices than just about anything I can remember in recent memory. What Apple and Amazon have that Android doesn’t (not by a long short) is consistent simplicity. People just want their device to work. Both A and A control the hardware and the software which translates into a good user-experience. You like to tinker so Android tablets are GREAT for you. I, and most others, like my stuff to work!

      • I had the same experience with Windows Mobile, to the point where I am simply not going to give MS the benefit of the doubt in that area ever, ever again.  Once burned, twice shy, as the saying goes.

      • Well we’ve only had ONE major revision and an admission from Google that it wasn’t very good.  Why else would they not release the code for Honeycomb until the next version was out?  It makes no sense to start making custom 3.2 roms when 4.0 will drop soon on many devices.  It’s not quite like Windows Mobile was….but it COULD be if they don’t improve and the early Android 4 reviews are looking really good.

        Amazon adopted older code in the Kindle from Android and with exception of those buying it only for the Amazon pieces, many say it isn’t very good but it’s selling anyway.  That’s because even the non geeks recognize Amazon.  I’ve had more non geeks ask me about the Fire than even the iPad and that is impressive for the lower end device that the Fire is.

        In my area of town I have heard of some people being happy with their Pan Digital tablets.  To them, they are toys and they work fine for that.  I even ran across someone who was decidedly not a geek, but they talked about how they rooted their Nook Color.  Even the ones who don’t like to tinker buy these things because they can afford them.  They can’t always afford the iPad.

    • Let me put it this way – Google Music has less to offer than iBooks.

      Google has crap for tablet apps – and a dismal state of fragmentation … and an awful payment record to developers.
      Google has a crap book system – it is at best in a very, very, very distant 3rd.
      Google has a crap movie system that falls FAR behind … well, anything.
      Google has a crap music system that has a totally useless system of sharing.

      In other words, their ecosystem is crap.  Which is why Amazon will have sold more Android tablets in 6 weeks than everyone else sold all year … combined.  That is called the consumer market casting a vote of no confidence in Android tablets.

      • Mike, don’t hold back… Tell us what you REALLY think.

        Sent from my iPad

        • We had a discussion back a while about how consumers are so used to Google being all about ‘free beer’ that they actually DON’T TRUST Google in terms of giving them money.  Google is actually at an ecosystem disadvantage … which is interesting, really considering how so many of us trust everything to them (Mail, Reader, Docs, and so on).

          Microsoft is in an interesting position – with WIndows Phone 7 they have tried some amount of leverage of the XBOX gaming platform, but I think it is too low key to be effective.  Perhaps their tablet strategy will better utilize that approach.  But Joel is right – their ecosystem is at best an also-ran.

          Worse still is the news that developers of ad-based apps are only getting US-based revenues!  That is really tough news right when they are trying to take off …

          • I don’t know….there are over 500,000 apps in the app store.  Yes there are some crap apps but there are just as many crap apps on iOS.  I bought many apps.  Many friends have too.  

            Google Music works well.  You can upload music you already have and you can buy new music. Google Music is pretty good.

            I will say I have not bought a Google Book and probably won’t but the ones I DO have are fine.   I just have too much invested in Kindle books.

            The great thing is I don’t HAVE to use Google Books or the Video.  Or even the music.  I can install Spotify, Pandora, Kindle or Nook.  I can use all of them as well as Google Music on any Android tablet or phone.  It works fine for me and a lot of people.  

            As for Windows tablets…..Bill tried it.  Ballmer is now trying it.  Microsoft has a lot of legacy holding them back still.  As for Microsoft bringing out an Arm tablet(as they are rumored), some will expect to run FULL legacy applications and many will be disappointed because their app won’t run.  Plus there are people who were abandoned when Microsoft dropped Windows Mobile support with Windows Phone 7.  Microsoft had the chance but they blew it.  When they finally DO release a tablet, it will be more of an also ran than the Playbook.  

            • My point 

              Apps: there may be 500,000 … but how many are really ‘tablet apps’?  Perhaps 1000.  Developers simply aren’t designing for Honeycomb – and it shows.  This isn’t something you can easily demo – I spend tons of computing time with my tablets, and the difference between ‘Tablet App’ and ‘Upscaled Smartphone App’ are staggering.  So I reiterate – Android Tablet Apps are crap … and I have already written about the fragmentation including guest posts from developers.  And my discussions with other devs (yes, all game developers) reinforces those thoughts.  It is an established truth to the point that there is no real discussion to be had until at least 6 months after ICS hits tablets.
              Music: it ‘works’.  Um, yes it does – but shouldn’t we expect a bit better than to have THE WORST music service and just shrug and say ‘it is ok’.  I have several hundred songs on there as well.  It took as long to get those songs up there as it took to load 10x as many on Amazon or mSpot.  It was reviewed poorly for a reason.  It does nothing very well – and there isn’t a single feature (other than free (slow) storage that I would rate it ‘Top 5’.

              You basically made the case regarding books – it is not a compelling feature.  I am surprised at how many folks use iBooks, but at least there is some compelling reason – the formatting and excellent display features.    Google Books (I have a couple of freebies like you) are mediocre on both platforms – once again ‘worst in class’.

              So while Google *HAS* this stuff, NONE of it is even competitive, let alone ‘best in class’.  Want Music?  iTunes or Amazon.  Movies?  iTunes or Amazon.  Books?  Kindle or Nook.  Tablet-centric Apps?  iTunes App Store.Don’t mistake that with the inability to get a satisfying tablet experience from Android – what I am saying is that there is a REASON Amazon has already sold more tablets than all other Android makers combined, and has destroyed Android share while just trimming iPad share.

      • I think the developer issue could bear some discussion.  If you’re an app developer, for whom are you going to develop?  A brand-new, just out of the gate MS tablet?  Or for iOS, which has millions of installed users and a well-developed development and sales path?  Honestly, you’d be *nuts* to develop for anyone else, from a business perspective.

  2. A few thoughts:

    First, I hope the MS *does* release a successful tablet, if only because I want *some one* to push Apple and compete with them.  Monopolies are bad, even if their monopolies by companies that I like.  I doubt if I will buy an MS tablet–I am an old UNIX guy and have made a full commitment to my Apple ecosystem–but I want them to exist.

    And that is a point to mention, too:  if MicroSoft doesn’t get off the dime, they’re going to be so far behind that folks with a heavy investment in the Apple or Amazon ecosystem are not going to have any incentive to switch over.  After all, that’s the very thing that gave MS its massive monopolistic power in the 80s and 90s–millions of existing installed users.  They are starting from zero with the iPad/tablet market–how are they going to pry customers away from the Apple ecosystem?  Especially when most people that I know at best tolerate and at worst hate the MS ecosystem.  In that situation, “It’s a lot like your laptop or desktop experience!” is *not* a winning model.  In my opinion.

    Finally, MS suffers from a serious “vision” gap.  I am not one of those who thought Gates was a visionary–quite the contrary, in fact.  But he did have vision and drive, and could provide focus for the company.  Ballmer has shown repeatedly to have no vision, and in fact to be on the wrong end of the market at key times–view his response to the initial iPhone release, for example.  If MS wants to get into the tablet market and be innovative enough to pull customers from Apple and Amazon, they need a visionary, and Ballmer will only hold them back.  Again, in my opinion.  (Ballmer is to MS as John Scully was to Apple, I believe.)

  3. Microsoft needs to go after the tablet game with their tablet as the “IS” not the  “LIKE”.  On Ios and android devices I have apps that are LIKE MS-Office, with a MS-Tablet the office package IS MS-Office.  On IOS and Android we keep striving for a web experience that is LIKE desktop features with a MS-Table it IS a full PC web feature set.  There are commercials touting remote access software (i.e. gotomypc) that are based on that fact that people want access to a full PC feature set on their phone/tablet.  Microsoft needs to show how with cloud storage their tablet is the full PC.

    What is sad is that Microsoft botches that very concept time and time again.  I have been using the “LIKE” on Microsoft devices (WinCE 1-6) that were provided by Microsoft.  I can not be alone when I want my PC, Laptphone, tablet and phone to be a seemless connection without a lot of “LIKES”.

  4. Agree on the Playbook issue.  When word of a standalone calendar, email, handling android apps and such came to naught a few weeks back, that sealed the Playbook’s fate. Rubbing salt in the wound was the announcement that the OS2 upgrade wouldn’t come about until February at the earliest.  Utterly ridiculous!  The Playbook was presented or envisioned by RIM all wrong from the get go…it shouldn’t have been a companion to the phone, but rather the reverse.

    As I think I’ve mentioned on GD before, the company I work for is dabbling in creating mobile apps for some big hardware players in the market…and guess who’s the gold standard for mobile compliance?  Apple of course.  Look around on various websites sporting mobile versions or apps for their site, what’s the usual icon layout?  One of our local TV stations’ graphic for their mobile app sports an iPhone, and another TV station offers a weather app for the iPad.  So, Microsoft IMHO has an uphill battle.  Android, while I love my Android phone, there are so many hardware variants out there that it gets downright confusing.  Plus, there has been only one major OS update for it.  Consequently I’ve put Cyanogenmod 7 on it and am very happy, but how many users can or would do that as it effectively nullifies the warranty and most folks wouldn’t be comfortable with flashing a new ROM on a device?  They want something that works and is reasonably stable, and I think such logic translates into tablet usage.

    How long will various Android tablets be supported and how frequently? Which GUI will be on them?  Which applications/widgets?  Choices are great if you’re a technophile like me, but I don’t think most users are.  They want something that works with a minimum of fuss.  Apple has effectively sewn that up.  They are pricey; hence like dougom above I hope MS can learn from history and produce an effective competition to Apple to prevent market pricing monopolization (yes, I’m selfish like that 😉 ).  Competition tends to foster innovation as well, which benefits end users.