Is Microsoft dead meat without a tablet?

Dead Meat

Or should that be goose is cooked? Perhaps you have a better cliché.

It's a good week to end with the question. On Tuesday, Gartner told CIOs to get off their butts and start adopting tablets right away. Today, a Google AdMob survey revealed that 28 percent of tablet owners have made the device their primacy PC. Gartner's recommendation cuts into Microsoft's core business. The tablet survey foreshadows dramatic consumer, and eventually business, behavioral changes ahead.

Sizing the Apps Stacks

All this is happening when Microsoft's tablet strategy has run aground, or seemingly so, just as the market resurges. The tablet and smartphone represent an applications stack -- mobile device to cloud service -- capable of displacing Microsoft's Office-Windows-Windows Server stack.

The mobile-device-to-cloud service applications stack also is outside of Microsoft monopolies -- no Office or Windows required -- and is more in sync with the kind of content most popularly produced outside of large corporations: Blogs, photos, videos, tweets and social network postings, among others. These content types have little or nothing to do with traditional productivity tools used by businesses.

That said, the enterprise is hugely entrenched in the older applications stack and has little incentive to immediately switch. Even so, tablets are making enterprise inroads, mostly without Office or Windows attached. Several major analyst forms, including Canalys, Gartner and IDC, say that tablets -- iPad, really -- are cannibalizing PC sales. Microsoft's fortunes are mostly tied to the PC sales. Anything that might disrupt computer sales risks both major lines of business, Office and Windows.

Last week, Gartner reported that enterprises are noticeably increasing spending on media tablets. Spending there means IT organizations almost certainly would spend less somewhere else. If tablets displace PCs that potentially hurts Microsoft. Caveat: Much depends on whether the business has in place annuity licensing contracts for Office or Windows; they're already committed to pay Microsoft, if so.

"Sales leaders are clamoring to adopt media tablets with their sales teams, as a more engaging way to share sales collateral and promotional materials -- and it won't stop there: Next will come customer relationship management systems, and order entry and sales configuration applications," David Willis, Gartner research vice president, says in a statement.

"For sales managers, media tablets will be a natural platform for business analytics and performance dashboards," Willis continues. "In other settings, the intimacy of using a media tablet supports more personal interactions. Doctors, nurses and medical technicians find they can sit down with a patient and help that patient understand a diagnosis, walk through a medical procedure and describe a therapy with them. Retail clerks can use tablets to display customized clothing for a customer."

He emphasizes: "The opportunities are huge."

A Question Answered

"I don't know if I agree with Gartner," Betanews reader Robert Johnson expresses in an email. In fact, my writing this post is the response to Johnson, who continues: "I still believe the only company with the resources and ability to seriously challenge the iPad in the enterprise is Microsoft. When you consider how deeply office is rooted within companies, and how well Microsoft understands the enterprise and their needs, it seems to me that we should be careful not to rule them out."

Johnson rightly observes that "the biggest missing piece of the media tablet puzzle right now are desktop applications. Many cannot run on the iPad and similar devices. But Microsoft has already demonstrated the ability of such applications to run on their platform because they are using Windows."

Right, but Microsoft doesn't have a platform that, today, effectively competes with iPad or Android tablets. For many early adopters, Office will be irrelevant and Windows won't even be present. Sales professionals, doctors, store clerks, educators and other likely early enterprise tablet adopters will use specialized apps or others custom-built by in-enterprise developers.

Similarly, many mobile applications usurp the need for productivity applications, by extending their utility to specific needs such as Facebook sharing, entertainment, mobile finance, search or personal communications. These applications are lightweight and many are cloud connected.

Johnson asks the right question: "Do you think Microsoft stands the best chance to challenge the iPad in the enterprise?"

No. At least not in the foreseeable future. But I also don't think it matters. Microsoft can easily capitalize on the tablet craze by developing software for all devices. Microsoft has to focus on what it does best: Applications and platform development, but for any operating system -- not just Windows or Windows Phone. Yesterday, Microsoft released Bing for iPad, and it's one of the prettiest and most useful apps for Apple's tablet. This little app shows what Microsoft developers are capable of producing, particularly since putting more emphasis on user interface design and user experience (starting about five years ago).

Microsoft has huge opportunity to continue milking its legacy applications stack, while leaping onto the new one. But rather than go from the front end with a tablet operating system, Microsoft can come from the back and probably generate more revenue long term. Cloud services don't just come out of thin air. Microsoft already has Azure and major server products repackaged for cloud hosting by the software giant or on premises by enterprises. Simply stated: Microsoft should become the cloud anywhere that it can, while seeking to offer the best front-end cloud-connected mobile applications everywhere.

By this strategy, whether or not Microsoft has a tablet or successful tablet operating system is immaterial. Microsoft should still develop a tablet OS, like it does operating systems for TV set-top boxes, telematics systems and other devices. But all these front-end platforms, like the applications, should connect back to Microsoft cloud software. The company is kind of moving along this path, but keeps straying off -- to the call of Office or Windows to the wild.

There should be Office and Outlook apps for Android and iOS, all supported by Microsoft's cloud (or in-enterprise data centers running Microsoft hosted software). Let consumers or IT organizations buy add-ons and connected cloud services. Bring Xbox game titles to tablets. According to the AdMob survey, 84 percent of tablet owners play games on their devices. Microsoft has the capacity to literally roll over the tablet (and smartphone) markets with the best apps and supporting cloud services.

And you thought I was going to answer the "dead meat" question with a "Yes."

Photo Credit: U.S. National Archives

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