Amazon's upcoming Kindle Fire may well be the first tablet to contend with Apple's dominant iPad.
The market position battle in the early days of the tablet business isn't merely an exercise in chest-thumping. Tablet makers need to establish viability to convince developers to create much-needed applications to lure customers. That's why securing the spot as No. 2 is so key. Developers simply aren't going to waste time creating applications for devices that won't catch on with consumers.
Microsoft made its bid to developers earlier this month when it previewed its Windows 8 at the company's Build conference in Anaheim, Calif.
"We're launching a new opportunity for developers," Steven Sinofsky, president of the Windows and Windows Live division, told the 5,000 programmers there.
Windows 8, which will power PCs as well as tablets, will run every program Windows 7 can run. But the vast majority of those programs will run in the traditional mouse-and-keyboard interface that will also be available on Windows 8. For its tablet strategy to work, Microsoft needs to persuade developers to create applications that take advantage of its touch-friendly Metro interface.
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So even though as many as 400 million computers will likely run Windows 8 in the year after it ships, its unclear how many of them will take advantage of touch computing. Developers of touch-based applications will only support Windows tablets if they believe Microsoft's hardware makers can come up with compelling designs. They need to know that a meaningful chunk of those 400 million computers will be tablets and not just traditional mouse-and-keyboard-focused PCs.
And the Kindle Fire, which ships November 15, may well win over plenty of customers with its sleek design.
What's more, by using Windows to power tablets, Microsoft can only move as quickly as the PC operating system gets updated. Historically, that's been every three years, though it's stretched out as long as five years. In the tablet world, where Apple seems likely to offer up new iPads annually, that's an eternity.
What about Amazon? The Kindle Fire promises to disrupt tablet pricing with its $199 price tag. Amazon, too, releases versions far more quickly than Microsoft can spit out Windows. It's updated the original Kindle, which made its debut in November 2007, every 15 months or so.
In fact, timing is already an issue. Microsoft won praise and plenty of momentum with its Windows 8 preview. And yet, the first tablets running Windows 8 aren't likely to be available for consumers until late next year. By then, the Kindle Fire will have had a year to establish itself. And the iPad 3 will likely have made its debut and garnered plenty of new users.
It's a big head start for Microsoft to overcome.