Tablets From on High: Microsoft makes its pitch for the mobile age
“IT TRULY is a new era at Microsoft,” gushed Steve Ballmer, the giant software company’s boss, in a letter to shareholders this month. For once, such grandiloquence seems justified. On October 26th Windows 8, the newest version of Microsoft’s operating system for personal computers, is due to be released. It looks very different from past editions; it is designed for touchscreens on both PCs and tablets; and it can run on processors designed by ARM, a British company whose allies dominate mobile devices, as well as chips made by Intel, Microsoft’s long-term partner. Also on sale will be the Surface, a tablet-cum-PC bearing Microsoft’s own brand. A version of Windows 8 for smartphones is due on October 29th.
Whether the new era will be a successful one is an open question. It got off to a stumbling start when the European Commission warned Microsoft not to repeat the sin of steering users away from rivals to its Explorer browser. (The company insisted all would be well before the launch.)
What is not in doubt is how much is at stake for Microsoft. To see that, look at the chart. In its past financial year its Windows division accounted for about a quarter of its revenue of $73.7 billion; three-quarters of that came from sales of Windows to PC-makers for installation on new desk- and laptops. Windows is the dominant system on such devices, with more than 90% of the market despite the growing popularity of Apple’s Macs. But that market has slowed. In the year to the third quarter, shipments of PCs fell by 8.6%, according to IDC, a research firm. However, the drop largely reflected a clear-out of stocks by PC-sellers before Windows 8’s arrival as well as the ropiness of the world economy.
People are doing more and more computing on the go, using tablets and smartphones. Apple rules the tablet market, although devices powered by Google’s Android operating system have been taking a bigger share. On October 23rd Apple unveiled the fourth incarnation of the iPad as well as a smaller version with a screen less than eight inches (20cm) across; Google and Amazon had already launched much cheaper seven-inch tablets. In smartphones, Android devices account for most of the volume; Apple’s iPhone scoops most of the profit. Windows has a tiny share of smartphones; in tablets it is invisible. If you lump these in with PCs, says Frank Gillett of Forrester, another research company, Microsoft’s share of personal-computing devices drops to only 30%.