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Summary:

Microsoft announced four initial hardware partners for the first Windows RT slates. Of the four, two have some solid tablet experience while another showed promise with early smartbook designs. The last one, however, is a dark horse, as it has limited success with consumer electronics devices.

asus-tablet-600

Updated. In a few short months consumers will have a new choice added to the tablets that run Apple’s iOS and Google Android: Microsoft Windows slates will arrive in time for the holiday season. These devices will be markedly different from prior attempts at Windows tablets, with a more touch-friendly interface and the use of smartphone chips to power the devices. As we have known since April, a special version of Windows 8 called Windows RT will power these slates, and Microsoft has now officially picked which companies will provide the hardware.

Asus, Samsung, Lenovo and Dell are the first four companies that will build and sell Windows RT tablets, although others are sure to follow in 2013. The first two choices make perfect sense, No. 3 less so (but is still understandable), and the Dell news doesn’t inspire me. Of the four partners, Dell has arguably seen the least success is trying to crack the consumer market. Yes, we’re talking about Windows PCs with Windows 8, but in my mind the Windows RT tablets are more consumer electronics devices than traditional computers.

Sorry, Dell, it’s not me, it’s you

Dell had a good run with its Axim line of personal digital assistants starting back in 2002, but it eventually left that market in 2007 and made no headway with its few smartphone efforts, such as the Dell Streak, Venue and Aero. The Dell DJ digital audio player came out around the same time as the Axim, but, of course, the iPod swallowed up market share and competing products faded away. Maybe Dell will prove me wrong with some differentiator or fresh design, but even one of the most expensive tablet PCs from the company prompted terrible reviews and cries for a recall.

Again, maybe Dell can change my mind, even if history has shown little to no hope for later this year. But this uncertainty and a lack of consumer focus will be the biggest challenge to Dell. Microsoft has to know that, leading me to think Dell pushed hard to be chosen as one of the first four Windows RT partners. I’d say Dell has the longest of odds of being successful in the Windows RT market.

Lenovo has shown promise but hasn’t delivered yet

Lenovo hasn’t had much more success, but what it has had are some entries into the Android tablet market that provided it with some useful experience here. And as far back as 2010 when smartbooks were still a possibility — a category I suggested Apple’s iPad quickly killed off — Lenovo had some impressive designs that were precursors to the Windows RT tablets arriving soon.

Back in late 2009 I saw some of those first designs: Lenovo partnered with Qualcomm to show off its smartbook device, but it never came to market. A few months later Apple announced the iPad, and it was back to the drawing board for Lenovo. The company dropped a custom Linux build for the next iteration, called the U1 Hybrid (shown), and went with Android instead. The laptop-like device had a removable display that became an Android tablet, but it was a Windows 7 notebook when docked.

Again, even though this device never went on sale, the point is that Lenovo has created interesting designs it can learn from when building its Windows RT products. You can see that in the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, likely to be the company’s debut product when Windows 8 launches in late October. That laptop has a patented hinge to allow the device to stand up and be used as a convertible tablet.

Asus and Samsung are the leaders, with the former having a slight edge

Why would I suggest Asus and Samsung have a shot to lead the Windows RT market? First, there’s relatively little competition, and second, both have proved they can design, build and sell consumer slates. We know that neither is competing well with Apple’s iPad, but of the tablets that are worth a look, they’re all built by Asus and Samsung.

I give Asus the slight edge here though. While Samsung has focused on various-sized slates for different markets, Asus has kept its product line a little more manageable with 7-inch and 10-inch slates. It was also chosen to build the Nexus 7 tablet for Google.

A standard size allowed for what I think is the most innovative product feature in this market: a dock that doubles as both a keyboard and a second battery. I’m talking about the Asus Transformer that I reviewed earlier this year; the form factor and features were excellent. And Asus is wisely reusing the concept for Windows RT with its Tablet 600.

Samsung could take a similar approach with a keyboard dock, or it might simply focus on the slate device itself. Regardless, the company knows how to make a good tablet, plus it has a rich history of making Windows notebooks as well. The first Samsung iteration for Windows RT should be serviceable, but I still think Asus will be seen as the bigger innovator.

Don’t forget about Microsoft’s Surface

The other new factor is that Microsoft is competing against its own licensees with the Surface. My first impressions are fairly positive here: Microsoft has designed a compelling choice for this market, and the product has some of the sexiness equated with the iPad. The cover with integrated keyboard in particular looks not only useful but also to be an extension of the Surface tablet itself.

Although Microsoft’s Zune player fizzled, the Surface looks to sizzle. And outside the Zune debacle, Microsoft does have some consumer-electronics wins, most noticeably with one of the best-selling game consoles of all time: the Xbox 360. Perhaps Microsoft will be the biggest surprise here and end up leading the pack when it comes to the Windows RT market.

Update: The original article incorrectly stated that the Xbox was the best-selling game console of all time. The copy has changed to reflect that it is one of the best-selling.

  1. If it’s true that Microsoft won’t allow the Chrome browser on RT slates, it’s going to hurt!

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    1. Most notably in the EU where Microsoft is looking at STIFF fines for violating the terms of their anti-trust settlement!

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      1. Eh, but does the iPad allow third-party browsers? If it doesn’t, shouldn’t Apple be sued as well?

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      2. Yes, Apple allows 3rd party browsers on the iPad.

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      3. Apple allows 3rd party browsers but the implementation is restricted. If we click on an email link, the same will always open in Safari only. One needs to manually copy the link, start the “other” browser and paste the link there. Cumbersome.

        On Windows as well as Android, it is possible to change the default browser to say Opera or any other browser of choice and that is where all these links open when clicked.

        Strange that EU have neither noticed this, nor do they care!

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  2. Ok, so who is making the Surface table for Microsoft?

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    1. I’m hearing one of the Asian companies that makes laptops and tablets for many of the brand names such as HP, Apple and others: Pegatron is one name I’ve heard, for example.

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  3. Xbox360 has out sold Wii?

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  4. OEMs have squandered their opportunity in the tablet market (see data at http://bit.ly/LKasqp)

    Just over a year ago in a national survey we asked respondents to rate the “top 5 brands” they would consider for a tablet (http://bit.ly/MX29t8)… based on their responses, we categorized OEMs as follows (http://bit.ly/OWrv64 http://bit.ly/MX2sEm):
    – “Admired by all” – Apple was in a class by itself
    – “In the hunt” – the closest competitors were Sony, Dell, Samsung and HP (what a difference a year makes!)
    – “Liked by many” – Blackberry, LG, Motorola and Toshiba
    – “Can’t Rule out” – Acer, HTC, Lenovo and Asus
    – “Long Shot” – Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Vizio

    We also examined several other “challengers,” including Amazon – even pre-Kindle, Amazon was in the middle of the pack.

    At the time, Apple had a big lead, although not insurmountable. While prospects for some (esp Blackberry, HP and Nokia) have no doubt slipped dramatically, other than Samsung none of these OEMs has countered Apple with a compelling alternative.

    In fact, with the possible exception of Samsung, I suspect the distance between Apple and contenders has widened. It will indeed be interesting to see if Microsoft plus any of these OEMs can mount a reasonable challenge.

    Dr. Phil Hendrix, immr and GigaOm Pro
    @phil_hendrix

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  5. Hamranhansenhansen Tuesday, August 14, 2012

    I believe that 2 of the pictures here are Windows 8 Pro machines, not Windows RT. Only the one with the green keyboard is an RT machine. Consumers are going to be bait and switched on these mercilessly, so you may not want to contribute to that.

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  6. I still don’t get the “sizzle” of the Surface. I have a couple of iPads and a keyboard for them but I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used it. It is also an iPad cover. The keyboard is not a bad experience, it works just fine, but if I want to sit down and type I’ll use a real computer with a real keyboard. I use the iPad in bed at night and on the sofa, at the coffeehouse and while traveling. Not in any of those places am I sitting at a desk, ready to use a keyboard. I wouldn’t expect that most people are. I don’t understand the “ooh-ash” of people over a plastic keyboard cover, thinking it’s going to be a game changer. I may be wrong, but, seriously, it’s not like these things didn’t exist. They never caught on very much for a reason. That’s not how people use tablets.

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