The importance of the success of Microsoft’s new Surface tablet in conjunction with its Windows 8 software can’t be overstated. With the tablet market growing more competitive and crowded every day, now is the time for Microsoft to strike with its tablet device if the company wants to remain relevant. But with other similar devices offering far more apps than the Surface, can quality win out over quantity?
The world’s largest software maker, Microsoft designed Windows 8 for touch-screen technology included in the company’s first tablet, Surface, and other devices coming this year. To gain share in tablets, a market expected by DisplaySearch to reach $66.4 billion in 2012, Microsoft desperately needs enough apps to challenge competitors head on. And with more than 200,000 apps available for Apple’s iPad that’s a tall order. Microsoft Surface currently counts 2,000 apps – just one percent of Apple’s offerings.
“The apps ecosystem is probably the single most important factor in a customer’s experience,” said Al Hilwa, an analyst at market researcher IDC. “It dictates what books you read, what music you listen to, what movies you see, what social activities you take part in. Problem is, you can’t have half a million apps overnight.”
Using student recruits to build apps is one way Microsoft is trying to solve the problem. It’s also a way for the company to attract app developers who are used to building programs for mobile phones and tablets, where the company has little and no share, respectively.
“Microsoft has struggled to get college kids interested in developing for Windows,” said Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft, who is based in Kirkland, Washington.
Microsoft’s version of the Surface tablet that is most comparable to the iPad won’t be able to run older Windows apps, forcing developers to start from scratch.
Windows 8 is the first Microsoft operating system that will work on computers running chips based on ARM Holdings Plc technology. These chips are widely used in mobile devices, including the iPad. The ARM-based products will run only apps designed specifically for the new version of Windows, and none of the programs already available for Microsoft software on machines made for Intel chips.
“Microsoft is definitely playing catch-up with respect to the global app marketplace,” said David Hilal, an analyst at FBR Capital Markets. “Their challenge is a chicken-and-egg problem. They need to get more users for their apps to entice developers, but they need better apps to attract more users.”
“You know, Windows 95 was certainly the biggest thing in the last 20 years until now. I think Windows 8 certainly surpasses it,” Ballmer said in an interview with The Seattle Times. In fact, Ballmer is so confident in Windows 8 that he won’t even entertain the notion that the new operating system and the products built around it end up being anything other than a success.
Ballmer’s confidence isn’t unfounded. Windows is entrenched in enterprises and on home computers to an extent Google and Apple can only dream of. Plus, there are 1.3 billion Windows users worldwide, according to Microsoft. That has to count for something right?
Microsoft’s forthcoming Office 2013, with its heavy emphasis on the cloud, should help fuel fire for the Surface more, too, and the movement toward device-independent computing. So far, tablets and phones haven’t been considered content-creation devices as much as content-consumption devices. Microsoft aims to change that. Touch-enabling Office is half of the equation is half that equation, and cloud access is the other.
CEO Ballmer is still trying to generate interest from app developers. With just a month to go until the Surface’s launch, there’s a few big names being highlighted by Windows 8 app tracker McAkins – eBay, Kindle, Wikipedia, and USA Today, but the Store is off to a slow start.
“There will be customers coming and looking for apps,” said Ballmer, pointing to the opportunity of over 250 million Windows PCs to be sold in the next year. “It’s going to create a heck of a lot of opportunity for folks in this room to make millions,” he said to audience members at RocketSpace.
There’s no doubt that Windows 8 is a huge opportunity for developers. But with apps available exclusively from the Windows Store for the Surface RT, Microsoft will have to pray its app situation improves in quantity, or at the very least finds developers who can create compelling, competitive, and, most importantly, unique apps if it’s counting on the device kick-starting Windows tablet sales.
Ballmer has suggested that Microsoft’s Surface tablet will be priced to compete with Apple’s iPad, starting somewhere around $300 for the basic Windows-RT model, and likely around $800 for the Windows 8 version.