New iPad Air, iPad Mini leave plenty of room for Windows 8 tablets to succeed

They're breathing a sigh of relief at Microsoft today, because Apple's new iPad Air and iPad Mini are far from Windows 8 tablet killers. In fact, they leave Microsoft a good-sized opening to make potentially serious inroads into the tablet market.

The new iPad is named the iPad Air because it is 20% thinner than the previous iPad and weighs 1 pound, down from 1.4 pounds. It's powered by the same 64-bit A7X processor that powers the iPhone 5s. And Apple says that its Wi-Fi is twice as fast as that in the existing iPad, although this is much less important than it seems, because it can only get those speeds if it connects to a similar high-speed Wi-Fi router. At the moment, there aren't plenty of those around.

The iPad's starting price stays the same, at $499. The iPad Mini has been revamped as well, notably with a Retina display and the new processor. However, it's also getting a price increase, from a previous starting price of $329, to a new price of $399.

The Apple faithful, no doubt, will line up in droves when the devices go on sale November 1. And there's no disputing that these newest iterations are better than the previous ones. They'll certainly sell well. But there's nothing groundbreaking here. And with these devices, Apple is ignoring what may well become a sizable portion of the tablet market -- tablets that do double-duty as ultrabooks for getting serious work done.

Apple didn't give even the slightest nod to the tablet-as-ultrabook market. There was no top-end keyboard accessory like the excellent Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 for Microsoft's Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2.

If you're looking for innovative new tablet form factors, you'll need to look to Windows 8 tablets, not to Apple. There are plenty of devices that don't even have proper names yet, sometimes called convertibles, hybrids, or two-in-one devices. Microsoft, HP, Nokia, Dell, Lenovo and others have all been experimenting with them. There's one common denominator among them: They all can function not only as tablets, but as ultrabooks as well. They are all not only entertainment and content-consuming devices, but can run Microsoft Office and desktop productivity apps. And they've all got detachable or foldaway keyboards, for allowing them to work as either tablets or as ultrabooks.

Microsoft has refined its tablet pitch to highlight that Surface Pro 2 tablets are nopt just traditional tablets, but are for getting work done as well. And there's some evidence that there will be a place for those type of devices in the tablet market. A recent Gartner report found that overall sales of Windows computers, tablets, and phones will fall by 4.3% between 2012 and 2013, but will get a 9.7% boost from 2013 to 2014 because what Gartner calls "device OS shipments." Those devices will likely be tablets that do double-duty as ultrabooks.

With today's introduction, Apple has left that market wide open for Microsoft. That's not to say that Microsoft will necessarily succeed there. There needs to be far more Windows 8 apps developed for that to happen. Prices of Windows 8 tablets need to come down as well. But at least Microsoft now has a fighting chance.

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