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Windows and Android tablets: More bang for makers' bucks

At a crossroads when it comes to producing tablets in an ever-expanding market, PC makers should consider offering versions powered by both Windows and Android, argues The NPD Group's Ross Rubin.

PC makers find themselves at a fork in the road when it comes to tablets, and, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, their best option may be to take it.

Even among a group of iPad competitors that has generally lagged far behind Apple's tablet in sales, PC vendors have fared relatively poorly. Whether they've tried somewhat-interesting keyboard-enabled variations, as Asus has done; cranked out solid thicker devices, as Acer has done; focused on pocketable designs as Dell has done; or ventured forth into their own operating systems, as Hewlett-Packard has done, these companies have seemed out of their element, when it comes to selling devices that fit somewhere between smartphone and laptop.

Android has been the only viable licensed choice for tablets like the 8.2-inch Motorola Xyboard that measure 10 inches or less. Josh Miller/CNET

Part of that is a long reliance on Windows, the dominant PC operating system that will make a strong foray into the tablet market before the end of the year. The introduction of the next version of Windows should not only pair up PC makers with a familiar partner for the tablet market, but also facilitate the development of devices that can serve as notebooks as well as tablets.

At CES, Lenovo gave an example of such a device: the Lenovo Yoga, whose keyboard can rotate around behind its screen. According to a recent NPD Connected Intelligence report, the arrival of the next version of Windows should facilitate such products, with 40 percent of those interested in purchasing a tablet wanting a physical keyboard to supplement touch-screen entry.

This does not mean, though, that PC makers will or should abandon Android, despite the hard luck that most tablets based on the successful smartphone operating system have had. As was made evident by the success of the Kindle Fire last holiday season, consumers have some appetite for tablets smaller than 10 inches.

NPD Connected Intelligence has found that 40 percent of those who intend to buy tablets and have a screen size in mind are seeking a device that measures less than 10 inches. Android has been the only viable licensed choice here, powering such devices as the 7-inch Kindle Fire, the 8.2-inch Motorola Xyboard, and the 7.7-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. Indeed, the minimum screen resolution requirement to take full advantage of Metro and run two apps side by side is 1,366x768, which lends itself to larger tablets (future Retina Display-like screens notwithstanding).

Advantages to each
There is room, then, for PC makers to offer both Windows and Android tablets. Windows tablets are capable of serving as full PCs (even if they must temporarily leave the Metro world to take advantage of many Windows apps), whereas Android tablets -- particularly smaller ones better suited to video playback or book reading than full-on Web browsing and productivity applications -- can be thought of more as PC companions.

If PC makers seek to progress on the latter front, though, and expand their horizons beyond the Windows ecosystem they have inhabited for so long, they must balance the "best of both worlds" message of Windows 8 with the companion device message of Android tablets, a message with which they had fleeting success during the short heyday of Netbooks.