Will tablet developers rush to Windows 8?

With Windows 8 in pre-release, focus now shifts to tablet developers

Now that developers have in their hands a pre-release version of Windows 8 running on a special edition of the Samsung Series 7 tablet, analysts are weighing in on how many developers will ultimately build Windows tablet applications.

Microsoft says Windows 8 will work on all the traditional platforms, such as desktops and laptops as well as tablets, which would suggest that a traditional Windows developer would simply port the desktop and laptop versions of Windows 8 to new tablets.

There's no guarantee that will happen, however.

Some analysts aren't sure how well Windows 8 will run in different tablet screen sizes and resolutions, and with the tablet's priority for touchscreen input, or with inputs using a keyboard, mouse or digital pen.

Analysts also question what Windows application developers will do in the coming months if they want to join the tablet trend now, instead of waiting as long as a year for a generally available Windows 8 tablet. Microsoft is already seen as woefully behind in a tablet market dominated by Apple's iPad and Android devices. Most experts believe the applications designed for iPad and Android tablets are a big reason there is a tablet fad at all.

App developers -- many of whom are independent operators from small shops -- are often considered the tail wagging the tablet dog. How developers react in coming weeks to Windows 8 preview technology is a key factor in how well Microsoft performs in its tablet future.

"Certainly the developer folks who already support Windows will be interested in Windows 8, especially if they think they can build an app once and have it play across many platforms. But it is not yet clear that it is possible," noted Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"But the Win 8 tablets are at least a year away, and in the mean time, no app vendor is going to be able to just sit back and wait," Gold added. "So I think you'll see a mixed reaction: Clearly Windows developers will be interested in Win 8, but they will also have to have an answer for the popularity of iPad and Android."

Other analysts said Microsoft might be overreacting to the tablet trend with Windows 8, noting that desktops and laptops will still dominate computing for years to come. In that sense, they hope the Windows 8 OS truly serves the needs of traditional desktop and laptop Windows developers.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at IDC, noted that Microsoft has been selling software used in tablets and slates for 10 years with limited success. IDC said only about 1.4 million Windows-based tablets, slates and convertible laptops were sold in 2010. By comparison, IDC recently revised its forecast for 2011 to say that there will be 63 million media tablets sold in 2011, with nearly 70% of them iPads.

O'Donnell noted that desktops and laptops out-sell media tablets like the iPad at a rate of about 4 to 1. He expects that ratio to be about the same in 2015, when tablets could become 30% of the mix oin the personal computer market.

Colin Gillis, a financial analyst at BGC Partners, noted a similar ratio in favor of desktops and laptops over tablets in an interview on CNBC. He predicted Microsoft will continue to be a good investment because of the strong continued interest in desktops and laptops.

O'Donnell, in an interview added, "I am a little concerned that Microsoft seems so tablet-obsessed with Windows 8 and think they are missing the big picture... Microsoft is so focused on the tablet story that it makes me a little concerned about how Microsoft will make the PC as big as possible."

O'Donnell said he recognizes that tablets are in fashion, but that Microsoft's long-term future is going to be more dependent upon laptops and desktops. "At the end of the day, the question remains what device are you going to use to get your work done, and the answer is almost always the PC desktop or laptop," O'Donnell said. "If Microsoft wants the biggest audience, it will be with devices that have keyboards and mice, with touch second."

O'Donnell predicted that in 2015, Microsoft will still be a small player with tablets, behind Android and iOS. He said it is somewhat ironic that the Samsung Series 7 Slate that was given to 5,000 developers at Microsoft's Build conference this week is almost always depicted with an attachable keyboard in Samsung photographs.

Noting that the version being used by developers has an Intel i5 chip, O'Donnell also questioned how easily Microsoft will adapt coming tablets to ARM-based chips as it indicated it will at the conference.

Microsoft showed a tablet equipped with an ARM-based chip, but didn't run any processes on it during the demonstration. ARM is widely used for chips in many mobile devices and is seen as superior in battery efficiency.

"I'll be honest, I have serious concerns about the ARM side of things long-term for Microsoft," O'Donnell added. "Intel is not going to let ARM run away with its chip business."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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