Is Windows 8 an existential threat to Android tablets?

Windows 8 devices suddenly make Android tablets look quite unnecessary. But just how bad will the carnage really be?

Nagging questions shadow the impending launch of Windows 8, threatening to scuttle Microsoft's plans to reinvent itself for the age of mobility. Will desktop users graciously accept the redesigned Modern interface? Will the Windows Store have enough apps to entice would-be Surface RT buyers? Can Windows 8 breathe life into sagging PC sales?

Microsoft's future success depends on its ability to make serious, quantifiable, no-nonsense headway in the mobile market, but its not the only company with a massive stake in the ultimate fate of Windows 8. The new operating system will also have a major impact on Google. Just look at the list of Microsofts Windows 8 tablet and hybrid partnersSamsung, Asus, Toshiba, and the rest. They all make Android tablets, too.

[ FREE DOWNLOAD: Windows 8 Deep Dive Report | Windows 8: The 10 biggest problems so far ]

Apples position in the tablet market is so dominant that it need not fear encroachment by Windows 8 devices. But most of Googles hardware partnersespecially the ones that make the larger, so-called productivity devicesneed to ask themselves a tough question: Will Windows 8 obliterate consumer interest in Android tablets?

Early opportunity squandered

At least one expert thinks that this question isn't hard to answer. Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps sees a bleak future for Android tablets.

"No one's buying Android tablets other than Amazon or Barnes & Noble [models] anyway," she says. "If theres a market for non-Apple tablets, it has been and will be Windows. Its pretty clear that there just hasn't been any demand for Android tablets other than the niche earlier-adopter market, while Windows has mainstream consumer interest."

Despite being the only major tablet alternative for people who don't want to bite into Apple, Android has clearly had little impact on the tablet market. IDC's second-quarter tablet report shows that more than two-thirds of all tablet shipments originated in Cupertino, and even those numbers don't tell the full story. IDC (which is owned by PCWorlds parent company IDG) and other top research firms track tablet shipments to retailers, not tablet sales to customers. So when you take into account that some variable proportion of shipped Android tablets languish unsold on retailers' shelves, Android's situation may be even bleaker than IDC's numbers suggest.

In the recent Apple vs. Samsung case, for example, court filings showed that Samsung had managed to sell only 712,000 Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablets in the United States since the slate's launch. Those are sad numbers, given that many observers considered the Galaxy Tab 10.1 to be the perfect iPad alternative for much of 2011.

Also troubling for Google's operating system is the fact that the Kindle FireAndroid's brightest tablet star and best tablet selleris not the droid you're looking for. It runs a proprietary, heavily skinned interface that renders it more of a content delivery system for Amazon than a proper Android tablet.

Ominously, the Kindle Fire accounts for the majority of Google tablet sales. IDC claims that Amazon is the world's third-most-prolific tablet manufacturer, even though Amazon sells its slate only in the United States. And reports from ComScore, Pew Research, and Amazon itself indicate that the Kindle Fire outsells all other Android tablets combined.

In other words, Android owes most of its slim slice of market share on an Android tablet that doesn't look or feel at all like a pure Android tablet. Google's baby is sucking wind, folks.

Cue the Windows 8 tablets.

Windows 8 and its direct Android prey

Finding agreement among tech industry analysts is always a challenge. Nonetheless, all the analysts I consulted agree that Windows 8 tablets will devastate the handful of productivity-focused Android tablets on the market, such as the Asus Eee Pad Slider and the Asus Eee Pad Transformer series. Whereas security concerns have prompted risk-averse corporations to shy away from Android tablets, Microsoft's operating systems sport deep, business-friendly featuresincluding the all-important Microsoft Office.

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