Microsoft's announcement Monday that it will soon produce its own tablet computer could pose a formidable challenge to Apple's iPad, but for bankers it presents the prospect of gaining a useful new tool in the struggle to integrate handheld PCs into their operations.
No question, Microsoft is late to the tablet party. Yet its belated arrival is big news to the vast majority of financial institutions for which its software is integral to core and back-office computing. Now its tablet could offer customers and employees a device to use in branches and in distributed or mobile work environments.
"For several years, Microsoft has been talking about presenting itself as a part of the branch of the future," says Kevin Travis, a partner at the research firm Novantas. "It has been advertising and marketing around conceptual frameworks for new branches, and it has talked about embedded software passing applications from" desktops or servers to tablets.
Microsoft declined to comment and instead referred American Banker to its product introduction press release and its website.
Surface, as its newly introduced tablet is named, will be compatible with Microsoft's soon-to-be-released Windows 8, which is optimized for tablet use, as well as with the forthcoming RT operating system.
Analysts expect both versions to fully integrate Microsoft Office.
In producing the Surface itself, Microsoft will break with its tradition of creating the software that hardware manufacturers install in their machines. Already keen on integrating tablets into branches, technologically advanced banks and credit unions already are now likely be become even more interested in the market potential.
"Incorporating tablets in branches is one of the things we're looking at, particularly in light of the overwhelmingly positive reaction … to Citi's new tablet apps," a Citigroup spokesman wrote in an email.
A representative of USAA Federal Savings Bank in San Antonio said it is exploring opportunities to integrate tablets into its 14 financial centers.
To become a major player in tablets, Microsoft will have to overcome some considerable obstacles. It's years behind Apple and Google, whose iOS and Android operating systems power the most widely used tablets.
Apple is expected to control 60% of tablet sales in 2012, and Android about 32%, according to the research firm Gartner. Microsoft's share: a mere 4%. That single-digit showing comes despite the fact that Hewlett-Packard's Slate, Acer's Iconia and Samsung's Series 7 all run on Windows 7.
Gartner figures that the introduction of Windows 8 will help Microsoft triple its tablet market share over the next our years to 12%. Yet to do so it will have to overcome the miscues that led to hardware flops in the past. Its previous hardware launches have included Zune, Xbox and Kin, a smartphone that was discontinued on account of weak demand. Another challenge involves generating consumer buzz; if customers don't buy the Surface, banks are unlikely to bother provisioning it with apps, experts say.
"Banks are going to follow where consumers go," says Mary Monahan, a research director at Javelin Strategy and Research.
About 21% of consumers said they would purchase a new tablet equipped with the Windows OS, according to an online survey of nearly 6,000 people conducted by Javelin in December. That compares with 36% who said they would do so if it was iOS and 20% who said they'd buy a tablet equipped with the Android operating system.
"It's no longer just about the device. It's about the content ecosystem, and Microsoft will have to create a tablet ecosystem from scratch," Monahan says.
Apple provides about 600,000 applications through its iTunes store. Google offers about 400,000 through its Android Market. By contrast, Microsoft offers about 70,000 apps.
Microsoft has also traditionally focused on application development centered around databases, not users, which is the purview of apps, says Kristin Moyer, a research director for Gartner.
"Industry trends are moving away from applications" related to databases to apps, bits of software centered on users, Moyer says.
Apps are cheaper and easier to develop, customers can download them for free in many instances, and they allow for greater access and collaboration, Moyer says. These are all features favored by banks as they seek to connect with customers who are increasingly tied to mobile devices and social networks.
If Microsoft has an ace in the hole, it might be that its operating systems are already installed inside banks' hardware.
As Apple, Google and other technology industry heavyweights experiment with ideas for the digital wallet, Microsoft already has a big stake in the ground.
Microsoft could embed some version of a wallet within its operating system, giving bank customers a multidevice wallet experience that could easily shift from desktop to tablet and phone, says Paul Grill, partner at First Annapolis Consulting.
"A lot of these technologies are converging, and whether it is banking or retail interfaces, in the future these companies are going to drive toward a more integrated channel experience for the consumer," Grill says.