One outstanding question from my piece a couple of weeks ago is a question of Microsoft and the partner ecosystem finally have the pieces together to succeed in the tablet space. There has been some movement these past couple of weeks, so this is both an update and additional thoughts.
The retail scene has been changing quickly and I expect that to continue through Black Friday. When I wrote the original article there was positive news in terms of traffic I was seeing while visiting stores, and negative news about retail availability of all the newly announced tablets. My observations about positive traffic continue. I’ve been in 3 different Best Buy stores since then and in every case there were a lot of people looking at PCs, and the Surface family. This is a completely different experience from last year where the PC departments in stores were empty. But what about the problem of retail availability of all those announced products?
A few days ago I was coming to the conclusion that Microsoft was going to miss the holiday shopping season because new product still wasn’t in stores. Then reports of Dell Venue 8 Pro sightings started pouring in. Last night I had to run in to the local Microsoft Store to pick something up and they’d made the latest inventory transition. I didn’t have time to survey everything, but the table featuring 3rd-party tablets sure caught my attention. On it were 3 Dell Venue 8 Pros (DV8P), 2 Dell Venue 11 Pros, and 1 HP Omni 10.
This was my first chance to see Dell’s 11″ (nee, 10.8″) and HP’s entries. My few seconds with each don’t justify much commentary other than a sigh of relief that a substantial number of Windows tablet options will actually in the retail channel as the holiday shopping season (already under way) ramps up. But I do need to comment on price. The HP Omni 10 was being offered for $399. That’s a great price for a device with the specs it has. Both devices felt good in my hands (again, just a few seconds worth). Interestingly the Dell Venue 11 Pro felt lighter and smaller than the Microsoft Surface even though it has a slightly larger screen. Hopefully I can pop into a Best Buy this weekend and see if they too have refreshed their Windows tablet offerings. And spend a little more time playing with them.
I’ve written a bunch already on the DV8P, and if anything the more I use it the more I like it. The reviews on it are generally very good, which should help drive interest. One small detail I wanted to comment further on was something every reviewer comments on, the odd placement of the Start button. Since the introduction of Windows 8 the standard placement has been on the front bottom, in the chrome around the display, when held in landscape mode. On the DV8P it is on the top right edge when held in portrait mode and the upper left edge when held in landscape mode. Like everyone else I thought this odd until last night. I was using the device in landscape mode and realized my thumb was resting on the Start button. All I had to do was press when I wanted to go to Start, and as I used it that way I realized the DV8P has the fastest arrangement of any device for getting to the Start screen. By the end of the evening I was in love with what Dell had done.
Dell also seems to have been clever in their rollout of the DV8P. Initially it was only available on their website and on Amazon. And for the first few days Amazon offered a screaming deal with the $299 (list price) 32GB device available for $255. Today they are offering it for $279. Then it appeared at MicroCenter, where they also ran a special at $259 advertised in their flyers as “in-store only”. They probably did this with other smaller channel partners that I’m unaware of. And now it is being blasted into broad retail distribution. This rolling introduction probably helped boost the excitement level around the device without straining Dell’s ability to ramp up manufacturing.
Of course today’s big news is the availability of the Nokia Lumia 2520 on Verizon, with availability on AT&T set for tomorrow. The reviews are starting to come out and are generally very positive. Unfortunately reviewers weren’t provided with the keyboard case so the reviews are incomplete, particularly as they relate to comparing the Surface and 2520. But the really important news is that a nicely spec’d Windows RT tablet, that is going to get a strong marketing push, is available with LTE for the holiday shopping season.
Of course there are some negatives too. The other three announced 8″ tablet offerings still haven’t made their way into retail as far as I can tell. There is no 8″ tablet with LTE in the carrier channel. Also missing in the carrier channel is a 10.1″ x86 (aka, full Windows 8.1) device with LTE. And there is no absolutely blowout product offering. No shockingly light offering. No bleeding edge display offering. No surprising hardware functionality offering. And certainly no offering that combines all of those characteristics. In a competitive comparison with the iPads and Android devices that moves much more of the sell into a software comparison.
The iPad has the best tablet-specific apps library. Android is a distant second on tablet-specific apps but has the breadth of price points, capabilities, and unique ecosystems (e.g., Kindle Fire tablets are projections of the Amazon content ecosystem). They also can run the very large library of Android phone apps. Windows Tablets have Office, and in the case of x86 devices, the ability to run the entire library of Windows Desktop applications. But the library of Windows Store applications, those really designed for a tablet environment, is still in its infancy. And that remains a drag on Microsoft’s progress on tablets.
The other day someone started asking about the Dell Venue 8 Pro I was carrying. It turns out their big problem with non-Windows tablets is that a SaaS offering they use for their business won’t work on those tablets. Or rather, the customer-facing part of the service will but the administrative console requires a classic PC browser. So I let him try accessing the administrative console with IE11 on the DV8P, and of course it worked. And there have been plenty of times where my wife was having problems getting something done on a website with Safari on her iPad and I easily took care of it on my Surface. Throw in all the scenarios with Office and you find many compelling reasons for a Windows Tablet over the iPad or an Android tablet. This is the crutch that Microsoft needs to exploit until the Windows Store app library becomes a non-issue. A year ago they proved inept at getting this message across while this year they are doing a much better job.
Which leads into the next area of interest. Microsoft’s real focus, the area they must succeed in to get the Windows business back to health, is in the area of 2-in-1s. All of the tablets I described above are supposed to be primarily tablets but also have the ability to be used as a notebook computer with the addition of various keyboard/touchpad/mouse options. Some, like the Surface family, Nokia Lumia 2520 and the Dell Venue 11 Pro, will mostly be purchased with keyboard case options that make them more of a 2-in-1. But a lot of the excitement this season may be in the convertibles and detachables that are intended as notebooks first and tablets second.
I haven’t spent as much time looking at “notebook first” 2-in-1s as I have at “tablet first” devices because of personal interest. Although as I’ve mentioned before my wife did get a Lenovo Yoga 11s. But the real action this season may very well be around devices like the ASUS T100, Lenovo’s Yoga family, the HP Split X2, and the numerous other devices in this category being offered by every PC maker. The world’s population of notebooks is aging and last years botched launch of the Windows 8 generation did little to address pent-up demand. I think a lot of the action I’ve been seeing in my retail store visits aren’t people saying “I need a tablet”, they are people saying “I need a new computer”. Many will opt for a 2-in-1 over a traditional (touch or not) notebook.
Does a 2-in-1 sale count as a tablet sale? Does it matter? Last year I talked a lot about usage Minutes-Per-Day (MpD) and how traditional form factor MpD was declining because of tablet use. If a 2-in-1 sale results in increased MpD of Windows usage, because the owner continues to use it in scenarios where today they put down their notebook and pick up their iPad, then Microsoft wins big. What category analysts attribute the sale to is not really that relevant.
Windows 8.1 matures the Windows 8 generation of software to the point it is much more attractive to users than last year’s release. Even those who remain non-believers are far more muted in their criticism. Microsoft is doing a much better job of telling their story. The OEMs have finally stepped up their game. And the retail channel is in much better shape, from the larger number of Microsoft Stores to (most importantly in the U.S.) the vastly improved experience at Best Buy. Plus the wide variety of channels from office supply (e.g., Staples) to discount (e.g., Wal-Mart) are going into this shopping season with a full array of Windows 8 generation products. That’s a complete turnaround from the situation last year. The odds are that this is going to be a decent holiday season for Microsoft and the Windows ecosystem. Maybe with upside potential.
And then there is the elephant in the room. While Microsoft will undoubtedly have a long tough battle against the iPad and Android tablets amongst consumers, its path to success with businesses is much clearer. With Windows 8.1, with far more appropriate hardware offerings from OEMs, and with Microsoft better focused on the business tablet market than they were a year ago, this could be what launches Microsoft into true tablet success. That won’t show up in the holiday sales numbers, but it will show up strongly in sales numbers over the next 12 months.
So is this the year of Windows 8 tablets? Probably. Not enough that they have Apple, Google, Samsung, or other top-tier Android vendors on the run. But enough that its clear their foray into the tablet space is going to succeed.