Dear Microsoft: You’re doing it right

Late last summer, I wrote an article titled Dear tablet makers: You’re doing it wrong in which I shared my view on what I believe to be one of the biggest problems currently facing tablet vendors. In this article, I postulated that most Android tablets failed to make a splash because, in a nutshell, they bring nothing new to the table. Of course Android offers a vastly different user interface and user experience as compared to Apple’s market-leading iPad, but in terms of true differentiation — unique and desirable features offered to tablet buyers that cannot be found on the iPad — Android tablets have historically been lacking.

This problem, I believe, stems from the early days of Android tablets. Everything has been rushed. The first round of Android tablets ran Gingerbread and, as far as user experience is concerned, it was a disaster. Hindsight is 20/20 and I have spoken off the record with executives at several consumer electronics companies who expressed remorse after having rushed these slates out the door. What’s done is done, however.

Unfortunately, the trend continued with early Honeycomb tablets. Android 3.0 offered the first Android experience that was created specifically for tablets. The UI was designed for larger displays and it was vastly improved compared to Gingerbread. But it still felt rushed.

BGR stated as much on a number of occasions, such as in our review of LG’s T-Mobile G-Slate. “Android 3.0, or ‘Honeycomb’ as Google affectionately calls it, is a stopgap build of the Android operating system,” I wrote at the time. “I am not implying that this version of the Android OS is a poor effort on Google’s part, I’m simply stating that it seems like a rushed effort intended to tide us over while Google prepares to put its best foot forward.”

Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is still not the answer. While the UI has been further refined and new features have been added, ICS still fails to offer a truly differentiated experience. Of course Android affords a number of features iOS does not, and of course it provides flexibility that Apple’s closed platform never will, but true differentiation that appeals to the mass market is still not a part of the picture.

As it turns out, the few Android tablets that do offer some differentiation, such as Asus’s Transformer, have been well received. Unlike many of its rivals, Asus took it upon itself to create unique features where there were none. Rather than simply build a shell for Google’s tablet OS, Asus built a convertible slate that docks with a keyboard to create a netbook of sorts. Asus may have jumped the shark with its new Padfone tablet/smartphone hybrid, but the company clearly recognizes that acting as nothing but a vessel for Google’s platform and slapping on a thin UI layer is, for the most part, and exercise in futility.

At its core however, the user experience afforded by Android tablets — the look, the features, the apps, the hardware — does not deviate enough in the eyes of the general consumer. And with a few exceptions, namely Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet, Android tablets can’t beat the iPad in terms of pricing, either. Imagine the IWC Big Pilot and the Archimede Pilot XL were available at the same price. Which would you buy?

And so Microsoft is doing what Google and its Android partners have not: Microsoft is building a unique experience.

I spent about a week with Windows 8 on a reference tablet before Microsoft unveiled the Consumer Preview edition of its upcoming operating system at Mobile World Congress, and I was impressed. The Redmond-based software giant has plenty of work left to do, and I expect Windows 8 to still be a work in progress when it launches to the public later this year. Microsoft is doing a lot of things right with its next-generation OS though, and the unique Metro user interface is just one way Microsoft will distinguish its tablet experience from Apple’s.

In my earlier piece, Dear tablet makers: You’re doing it wrong, I noted that there are many ways tablet vendors might separate their slates from the iPad. I gave just one brief example, but it is one I feel could have a big impact on sales if positioned properly and marketed well: sharing.

Tablets are expensive, especially when one considers the fact that in most cases, they are a third wheel for the consumer. Today’s media tablets can’t replace a PC for many users, and they certainly can’t replace a smartphone or feature phone. For those without expendable income — most people fall into this category — a $400, $500 or $600+ tablet that can be shared between every member of a family might be far more appealing than a tablet that that can only be used by one person if privacy is at all a concern.

Personal computers support multiple user accounts. This is not a new concept. Each user can log in to a PC with a unique user name and password in order to be greeted by his or her own desktop configuration and programs. And unless there are some hackers in a household, personal files belonging to one user are not accessible to others.

This concept should have been carried over to tablets from the beginning, but Microsoft’s Windows 8 will be the first mass-market example of multi-user support. In fact, as Microsoft revealed on Monday, the company plans to take things a step further — apps purchased from Microsoft’s app store by one user on a Windows 8 machine can then be downloaded for free by other users.

Windows 8 is not a media tablet killer and it most certainly is not an iPad killer. It’s not supposed to be. Microsoft’s next-generation OS may be the first platform to approach the tablet market the right way, however. Start with a solid foundation, focus on the user experience and a wide range of capabilities, and differentiate. This is how a new platform might find success in the tablet market moving forward, and it is the road Microsoft appears to be taking.

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