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?

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"I think [productivity-focused Android tablets] are going to fade away," says Rob Enderle, the principal analyst of the Enderle Group, summing up the group consensus. "I think we'll see Windows convertibles and hybrids pick up that category. The keyboard really goes with Office."

The analysts I contacted also agree that Windows tablets will quickly gobble up Android's market share in the premium-priced tablet segment. Dropping $500 or more on a 10.1-inch Android tablet requires a lot more deliberation than spending $200 on a 7-inch Google Nexus 7. For this reason, analysts believe, consumers will flock toward the more seamless (and less glitchy) Windows experience when going for a big-screen (and non-iPad) tablet.

But will Android tablets vanish entirely? Most of the experts I spoke with don't think so. Excluding Forrester's Rotman Epps, most analysts expect Android tablets to be around for the long haul, albeit in a niche role that focuses on low prices and media playback.

A possible path for Android success

"I think there will be a market for 7- to 10-inch, very inexpensive Android tablets," says Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy. "Not from the major makers, but off-brand. Android tablets will be the budget option."

"Theres a reason why Google came out with the Nexus 7," says Gartner's Carolina Milanesi. "It basically was a very loud message to the OEMs saying, 'Stop trying to be Apple, because you're not. And you're not going to be successful competing at that price point or that form factor. Go cheap. Go $199, so it becomes more of an impulse buy, and consumers will get them and watch videos, listen to music and play games.' All of which is very much media-centric and content-centric."

Enderle agrees, calling the Nexus 7 "the quintessential Android tablet, almost entirely focused on consumption, and that's probably where Android is going to continue to shine."

Rotman Epps doesn't buy this analysis, though: "Other than Amazon, [OEMs] just aren't selling any Android tablets. The iPad mini, if that comes out as we expect it to, will be the final nail in the coffin for Android tablets."

The other analysts think that if Android tablets do die off, it will be due to other causes entirely: lawsuits and Google's lackluster OEM support.

Manufacturers fear the reaper

Even if customers suddenly decide to support Android tablets, OEMs may not stay in Google's camp now that Microsoft has joined the fray. The analysts we contacted say Google's reputation for dealing with manufacturers is spotty at best; in contrast, OEMs generally enjoy working with Microsoft, occasional Surface tablet tensions aside.

Hardware manufacturers jumped on the Android bandwagon primarily because it was the only way for them to join the tablet revolution. In that sense, Apple helped spawn Android tablets, but now Apple might be the hammer that drives manufacturers away from Android for good.

"What really triggered the trend [of manufacturers hedging their bets with Android devices by also developing Windows devices] isn't so much customer satisfaction issues as much as that $1 billion judgment against Samsung," Enderle says, pointing to the sudden ramp-up of Windows Phone development by HTC and Samsung as examples.

"A lot of the OEMs really sweat bullets about being next on that particular list. Apple's actually doing Microsoft one hell of a favor here. That $1 billion judgment made 'free' not so free, Enderle notes, referring to the ostensible price that Google charges OEMs for Android.

Gartner's Milanesi agrees that the risk of litigation from Apple encourages OEMs to see the value in adopting a Microsoft OS that costs money up-front. When you're in the Microsoft fold, she says, you're protected against Apple lawsuits, and Redmond also chips in with marketing costs and support for the developer community.

Where do manufacturers stand?

What do the companies that have skin in the game think about Android tablets' prospects for long-term survival? On the record, they're decidedly less pessimistic than the analysts are, which should come as no surprise, as they have to be cautious when making comments that might reflect on their roadmaps. Nonetheless, the OEMs do acknowledge the altered role that is likely to define Android's future.

Jay Parker, Lenovo's head of consumer/SMB operations for North America, recently told AllThingsD that the company plans to offer Android tablets "for the foreseeable future," but that it will offer only Android slates built in the Kindle Fire mold: small, cheap, and designed for playing around.

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