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Business Comment

Nikhil Kumar: Tablets look like very bad medicine for Microsoft and the PC market

It’s many miles from being a serious rival to the more serious players in the tablet space

Once upon a time, windows were holes in the wall fitted with panes of glass. Then Bill Gates and his engineers at Microsoft came along and changed everything. Now, under the leadership of Steve Ballmer, we might be on our way back to simpler times.

Okay, so that’s an exaggeration. But things are bad. Earlier this week, as talk in the tech world turned to hints from Tim Cook about what Apple might do to capture a slice of the emerging market for wearable gadgets, two reports from market researchers at IDC pointed to a very grim future for the PC market, which still matters for Microsoft.

In one report, it predicted that, based on prevailing trends, worldwide PC shipments were likely to fall by nearly 8 per cent his year, against an earlier estimate of 1.3 per cent. In the other, it said that, as PC shipments decline, tablet shipments are expected to spiral by nearly 60 per cent in 2013. By 2015, tablet shipments are expected to outpace the entire PC market.

While Apple remains a significant player in the tablet market, IDC noted the expansion of machines powered by Android, Google’s alternative operating system.

All this could spell some serious trouble for Microsoft, which had hoped to deliver a shot to the PC market with its new Windows 8 operating system, which is tailored to work with  devices such as touch-enabled PCs and laptops. In fact, the opposite appears to have happened although, it should be noted, that much still has to do with the shift in computing habits, as users switch to tablets.

In April, IDC published a report on PC shipments over the first quarter. They were down nearly 14 per cent compared to the same quarter of 2012, and well off the forecast fall of 7.7 per cent. At the time, IDC’s analyst Bob O’Donnell noted “the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market”.

What happened? Here’s  Mr O’Donnell again: “The radical changes to the user interface, removal of the familiar start button, and the costs associated with touch have made PCs a less-attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices.”

Microsoft appears to have woken up to the message from users, announcing an update to the software this week that will introduce a button much like the start button in past versions of Windows. The update will also boast an improved search function not too unlike the spotlight feature that’s been a mainstay of Macs for sometime now.

Only time will tell if the ploy works, but there’s no way to hide the fact that the signs don’t look promising. Although the company said earlier in May that it has been selling Windows 8 licences at a similar pace to the one it saw with Windows 7 in the first six months, it should be remembered that “sold” here also means copies of Windows 8 that have been installed on a device, so it doesn’t necessarily give us an accurate reading of how many people are actually using the software.

Meanwhile, the company has been trying to shift its tablet offerings. IDC estimates that Microsoft shipped 900,000 of its Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets during the first quarter, which doesn’t sound too bad. But because the company arrived at the party so late, it’s many miles from being a serious rival to the more serious players in the tablet space. Apple shipped nearly 20 million of its tablets, while Samsung managed almost 9 million over the period, according to the market researcher, which also noted that Microsoft had struggled to gain traction with its Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets.

It’s worth noting here that it didn’t have to be this way. After all, it was Bill Gates, not Steve Jobs, who first mooted the idea of tablets.

Here’s a reminder, from a Microsoft press release dated November 2000, about Mr Gates’s appearance at a computer expo: “Bill Gates, chairman and chief software architect of Microsoft Corp, unveiled a new direction in PC technology during his keynote address when he demonstrated a working prototype of a Tablet PC.”

The machine was very different to the tablets we’re familiar with today, using a pen-based input as opposed to today’s touch-sensitive devices. But the business was clearly heading in the right direction.

Today, Microsoft remains a solid enterprise. But the trends do not bode well. And it makes you wonder why, when Wall Street is spending so much time picking on Mr Cook at Apple, it seems to have forgotten about Mr Ballmer.  Mr Cook’s primary sin seems to have been that in the almost two years since he took over at Apple he hasn’t launched a whizzy new follow-up to the iPhone or the iPad (the mini-version doesn’t count, as it was just a version of an existing device). And for that, he has had to deal with a tanking share price.

In comparison, Microsoft has been fairly resilient, and save for the occasional grumble here and there, little is said about Mr Ballmer. No doubt much of that has to do with the fact that Apple has been front and centre in the technology world over the past few years in a way that Microsoft has not. But shouldn’t Mr Ballmer be held responsible for that?