You don’t have to look far to see how dominant a force Samsung has become in consumer electronics. Its products are market leaders or at least in the top tier in many areas — smartphones and TVs immediately come to mind.
But the Korean company is active in virtually any category you can think of. While Apple (NSADAQ:AAPL) focuses on a few key segments, Samsung makes also makes home appliances, robotic vacuum cleaners, cameras, PCs, printers, Blu-ray players, stereo components and others. As Slate’s Farhad Majoo recently wrote: “Samsung is willing to try anything. Actually, it’s willing to try everything.”
Given that assessment, how do you feel about Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) RT’s prospects when Samsung announces it’s not going to bother releasing its new Windows RT tablet, called Ativ Tab, in the U.S. because of lack of demand from its retail partners? According to TechCrunch, this was the same tablet that Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer had in hand when he crashed joined Qualcomm’s (NASDAQ:QCOM) keynote at CES last week. And tablets are the very definition of a hot category. Ouch.
We knew from the moment Microsoft announced its tablet strategy that it was going to cause confusion. Having two different tablet operating systems (Windows RT and Windows 8) along with two different classes of Surface devices (Surface RT and Surface Pro) was bound to leave consumers scratching their heads. That’s especially so when they aren’t mutually compatible, and one is available, while the other is coming soon.
Add in Windows Phone 8 — the company’s smartphone platform, which also differs from Windows RT and Windows 8 — and things get even murkier. Even Microsoft retail staffers were confused about the differences, leading to a public statement that they would get additional training to help explain the choices to customers.
The Android camp doesn’t have this issue. Google’s (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android is a mobile operating system, and while it comes in different versions (the latest being 4.2, or Jelly Bean), there is no distinction between professional and consumer, tablet or smartphone. And there’s no desktop version at all to muddy the waters.
Apple’s strategy to have two distinct operating systems, one for all mobile devices (iOS) and one for its PCs (OSX), differs from Microsoft in three important ways. Apple makes it very clear which is which, its tablets and smartphones run the exact same system and it doesn’t blur the lines by offering its PC operating system on a tablet.
Amid reports of soft sales, Microsoft scrambled to push the Surface RT into additional retail outlets in December (it had been previously available only online and through Microsoft stores), adding Staples (NASDAQ:SPLS) and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) while expanding international sales.
Still, Bloomberg reports an analyst at UBS expects Surface RT sales for the quarter ending December to be only half the forecast volume — just 1 million units. While this is a prediction and won’t be hard fact until Microsoft releases actual sales figures, the sentiment among analysts has generally been that Surface RT is stumbling. Sure, 1 million is double the 500,000 units Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM) moved in its first quarter of PlayBook tablet sales, but do you really want to be compared against that?
Samsung isn’t the only one to have reservations about Microsoft’s Windows RT tablets. Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) went on record as having warned Microsoft about using the “Windows” label on the RT tablets, pointing out the likelihood for confusion. Other key Microsoft hardware partners like Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) and Sony (NYSE:SNE) have opted to stay out of the RT business altogether, while Asus is taking a wait-and-see approach.
While uncertainty about market demand for yet another tablet operating system and concern about confusion over the Windows strategy are big reasons why PC makers are aloof about Windows RT, Microsoft’s decision to compete directly against them by releasing its own Surface tablet probably didn’t help.
Did the platform get a boost from CES and Ballmer’s showcase efforts? PCWorld posted an article titled “Why Windows RT is Hurtling Toward Disaster” pointing out a distinct lack of Windows RT exhibitors at CES. It said: “for all intents and purposes, Windows RT died in the desert last week.” So no, not really.
Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Pro 8 tablets likely stand a better chance. They’re going to be big and expensive as far as tablets go, but they’ll run the full desktop version of Windows 8, and users can install Windows 8 software on them. They’ll be useful as potential laptop replacements, and a healthy number of hardware manufacturers already offer tablets and tablet/Ultrabook hybrids that run Windows 8. They’re getting a good reception, and with PCs running the same operating system, at least the platform is viable.
Whether Windows RT is viable is one of the big questions of 2013, but at this stage the prognosis isn’t great. Samsung’s announcement about backing off is just the latest setback on that front for Microsoft, but it’s a high-profile one.
As of this writing, Brad Moon didn’t hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.