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Windows 8 Tablets: Too Little, Too Late?

Touch-friendly devices running Microsoft's next OS may be more than a year away, leaving some analysts to conclude that Redmond has already lost the tablet market.
Windows 8 Visual Tour: Microsoft's New Desktop
Windows 8 Visual Tour: Microsoft's New Desktop
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Tablets are currently tech's hottest category, with Amazon's Kindle Fire and Apple’s iPad 2 dominating holiday sales. But a report from Asia suggests Microsoft may not be a significant player in the market for at least another year.

Microsoft is developing a version of Windows 8 to run on ARM-based chips, which, due to their low power requirements and snappy performance, have become the processor of choice for tablet makers. But Windows 8 for ARM may be more than 18 months away, according to DigiTimes, a Taipei publication that closely tracks tablet and PC component manufacturers based in Taiwan.

DigiTimes said Windows 8 on ARM "is expected to make an official appearance at the end of 2012" but won't show up in mainstream products until June 2013.

[ How will Windows 8 work on personal computers? Read Windows 8 PCs May Resemble Big Smartphones. ]

If that's the case, Microsoft may have yielded too much of a head start to rivals like Apple, Amazon, and Google to make a serious push in the tablet market, some analysts believe.

"On tablets, Windows 8 is going to be very late to the party," said Forrester's J.P. Gownder, in a blog post Tuesday. Gownder co-authored a new survey report that shows consumers are getting tired of waiting for Windows tablets.

Forrester noted that, as recently as the first quarter of this year, 46% of U.S. consumers said they would prefer a tablet based on Windows. That number fell to just 25% in the third quarter, which happens to be the same period in which Amazon released the hot-selling Kindle Fire.

Gownder said that if it was Microsoft's plan to be a fast follower in tablets, it may be too late. "Windows really isn't a fast follower. Rather, it's (at best) a fifth-mover after iPad, Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, HP's now defunct webOS tablet, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet."

Gownder further noted that rival platforms like the iPad and Google Android-powered devices may well be into their third generation by the time a true Windows 8 media tablet emerges.

"Meanwhile, newer competitors like Amazon (Kindle Fire) and Barnes & Noble (Nook Tablet) are reshaping consumer expectations in the market, driving down price points (and concomitant price expectations), and redefining what a tablet is," Gownder wrote.

Some computer manufacturers are offering tablets built around Windows 7, but many critics have dismissed such devices as overpriced Windows 7 PCs shoehorned into a portable form factor. HP, for instance, earlier this month unveiled the Slate 2 Tablet PC. At 1.5 pounds and a $699 price tag, it's unlikely to be competitive with the $199 Kindle Fire, or even the iPad 2, which starts at $499.

HP said it is aiming the Slate 2 mostly at business users who need access to the full range of Windows productivity apps. For consumer tablets, Microsoft "needs to take a lesson from Amazon's product strategists" and produce a device that is a gateway to online media and services, said Gownder.

Microsoft has not announced a ship date for Windows 8.

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