2013: The Year of the Tablet

As we ponder the future of computing, we ought to first take a review of the past.  In the late 1940s and 1950s, the concept of the mainframe computer was pioneered.  In the 1960s, the mainframe became prevalent.  In the 1970s, the mainframe matured, but the advent of the integrated circuit hinted at something new to come, and by the middle of that decade, the personal computer was available to a few early adopters.  The 1980s were heady days indeed, with computers getting more powerful, and even portable.  There were a plethora of operating systems and models (I owned an Osborne 64 and an Apple IIe, dabbling with a TRS-80).  The 1990s saw the falling-away of most of these, with Microsoft Windows-based machines coming to dominate.

That decade also saw the hint of something new: truly mobile shirt-pocket devices combining telephony and (rudimentary at first) data processing.  Apple made a first foray into mobile computing, failing to conquer that territory (though they came back with a vengeance a decade and some change later, this time to stay).  In the 2000s, mobile devices swarmed across the digital landscape, much as PCs did in the 1980s.  Clearly, computing is in the midst of another sea change, like decades ago when the mainframe came to be largely replaced by the PC.  Now the PC is being supplanted by tablets and mobile phones.

As with any technological change, there will be winners and losers as the PC fades away and retreats to niche use over the next 3 to 5 years.  I think the clear loser will be Microsoft: the company the profited the most handsomely from the ascent of the PC stands to hurt the most by its fall.  Microsoft, that 400-pound gorilla that came to dominate an entire industry, but which could not pivot in time to adapt to the new mobile landscape.

Or can it?

Just when some in the tech industry were beginning to write Microsoft’s obituary, along comes Windows 8.  I must admit, even I was surprised to read some of the reviews, which are mixed but leaning toward the positive, of Windows 8.  Slim, efficient, eye-catching.  Not the usual adjectives applied to Microsoft operating systems.  Windows 8 is designed to run on both PCs and tablets, with an interface that puts what matters to users right in front of their noses, on the home screen.  Microsoft clearly “gets it.”  The PC is not the future of computing.  It remains a sizeable market and is not going away tomorrow or next year, but is has peaked and is now in terminal decline.

Of course, coming up with a “concept OS” and coming out with a viable product able to run on the variety of devices extant on the market (and new ones yet to come) are two different things.  However, I think Microsoft will pull it off.  They have the resources, the expertise, and (importantly) the commitment to cause.  Windows 8 is an existential issue to Microsoft.  It is not like WebOS was to HP: a diversion and pet project whose success or failure mattered little to the organization.  OSes are Microsoft’s bread and butter.  If Windows 8 fails to grab a foothold in the mobile market, Microsoft is looking at a long, inglorious retreat to game consoles and other niches.

Microsoft is not going to “go quietly into that good night.”  They have the cash and the credit and the resources to put up an epic fight for the mobile market.  And they will.  Whether they will win or not…I think at this point in time it’s even money.  I could be persuaded either way.   But they will fight.  Which brings me to the point of this post.

Microsoft is coming rather late to the mobile “party.”  They have very little market share, and are up against Apple, which has already carved out an empire formidable in both breadth and depth on the mobile landscape.  They are up against Android as well…an OS whose users adopted it in large part to escape from large, overbearing corporations leveraging their OS dominance to bend the market to their will.  How, then, can Microsoft pry itself into this market as a Johnny-come-lately?

The same way it beat Apple in the PC market back in the 1990s, of course.  Bankroll cheaper hardware running its OS.

I’m not going to predict whether Microsoft will succeed.  But what I will predict, confidently, is that the last quarter of this year and 2013 are going to see a barrage of cheap but capable devices, with telephony and without, with Microsoft Windows 8 installed.  Every indication is that Windows 8 is going to at least be a respectable OS.  It’s going to be a contender, and with Microsoft subsidizing Windows 8 devices, even Apple is going to have to bend on pricing (which it can afford to do) to compete.  We’ll see Microsoft tossing out subsidies (I would not be surprised to see devices ship with a code good for $20 of free apps at the Windows 8 app store) left and right.

The outcome is going to be tablets and mobile devices priced even more accessibly to everyone.  Between another iteration of Moore’s Law and Microsoft subsidies, tablets with the specs of a $499 tablet today will be going for $159 by later in 2013.  Today’s entry-level $299 tablets will be $89 then.  Smartphones that go for $249 now will be $49 or even less with two-year activation.  Even geeks who hate Windows with a passion will buy these cheap Win8 tablets—and root them and load Android.

2013 will be the inflection point that establishes tablets and smartphones as the future of computing.  And this rising tide will lift all boats, including those of software developers, who will have a larger userbase with higher specs to write games and other apps for.  We live in interesting times, and they’re only going to get more interesting as the price of mobile hardware able to do basic computing, graphics, Facebooking and Angry Birds falls well into the double-digits.  Personally, I don’t really care whether Microsoft pulls its come-from-behind victory here at the bottom of the ninth.  I’m just going to enjoy the cheap gear.

- Benjamin Stockton | Project Manager | Metaverse Mod Squad, Inc.

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