It’s not often that Apple singles out a competitor during one of its launch events. But there was Phil Schiller, the company’s senior vice president of worldwide marketing, whaling away on the Google Nexus 7′s pitiful stretched-out phone apps during the iPad mini unveiling. Does Apple really feel threatened by this or any Android tablet? It shouldn’t — not when its most dangerous tablet foe is now Microsoft.
The company that did nothing but watch Apple sell more than 100 million iPads over the last two-and- a-half years is putting its full weight behind Windows 8 — and its own Surface tablets — to finally take Apple head-on. Yes, Android now has 41 percent of the tablet market (according to Strategy Analytics), and apparently a new Nexus 10 tablet is on the way, but longer term it’s all about Apple and Microsoft.
In the immortal words of Steve Ballmer: developers, developers, developers. Microsoft’s CEO recently estimated that the company could sell as many as 400 million Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices combined in 2013. And with more than 675 million Windows 7 licenses sold, Windows 8 represents a huge upgrading opportunity for Microsoft and its partners.
[MORE: 10 Ways Windows 8 Beats the iPad]
In other words, anyone who makes an app will soon prioritize Windows 8 over Android on tablets, if they haven’t already. Although Microsoft blurs the line between tablet and PC–in a good way–it’s clear than the company sees a clear difference between phones and slates. That’s simply not the case for Google, which has hurt its cause by lumping everything together.
Of course, Windows 8 (and its close cousin, Windows RT) won’t achieve anywhere near the above scale if it doesn’t offer a user experience that rivals or beats the iPad. In many ways, this software does, thanks to a dynamic and personal interface and a core of slickly designed apps that should inspire developers to think outside the iPad.
Here are just a few things the new Windows does that the iPad doesn’t. You can run two apps side by side using the clever Snap feature. You can pin everything from your favorite people and Internet radio stations to the highly customizable Start Screen. And you can run the full Microsoft Office out of the box. The Live Tiles, which provide at-a-glance info, make this platform feel more modern and cutting-edge than iOS.
However, both the iPad and iPad mini have a not-so-secret weapon. Apple recently surpassed 275,000 iPad apps. That’s an order of magnitude higher than the 4,000 or so apps in the Windows Store. Apple also has a huge lead in the education market, where it now offers 80 percent of the high school curriculum though iBooks, as well as the business world, where 94 percent of Fortune 500 companies are testing or deploying the iPad.
Here’s another number that will propel Apple in the next phase of the tablet wars: 7.9. That’s the size of the iPad mini, an affordable but very well-built $329 tablet. This is no iPad Lite; it’s a full-fledged tablet with the same resolution as the original iPad, which means you’ll be able to run all of those apps. Those in the market for a larger slate can spring for the $499 fourth-generation iPad, which combines Apple’s sweet Retina Display with a swifter new A6X chip.
[MORE: Windows 8 Laptop Reviews]
Apple isn’t the only company capable of creating sexy hardware, though. The Surface was a labor of love for Microsoft, the company’s first computing device in its nearly 40-year history. Engineers obsessed over everything from the way the included kickstand sounds when opening and closing to making the magnet for the Touch Cover strong enough that you could suspend the tablet from it. However, the inability of this and every Windows RT device to run desktop programs puts that much more pressure on Microsoft to get Windows Store devs to deliver.
In the short term, the expanded iPad family will continue to dominate the tablet world. Its momentum is simply too great. But the Surface proves that Microsoft is serious about taking control of its destiny, partners’ ruffled feathers be damned. The mere existence of this device has already spurred Windows 8 and Windows RT device makers to step up their game — or at least to lower their prices. That’s a surefire sign that a true tablet war is upon us.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.