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Three Late-Year Catalysts for Google, Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft

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Here's why the big tech firms will be scrambling from now into the new year.

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It's the dog days for most of us, but August is the start of the busy season for technology companies, as the back-to-school buying season kicks off and the new products for the holiday season are rolled out.

This year should be more interesting than most.

There are at least three big changes in the wind that ought to keep them hopping at Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), in particular. They'll be battling each other for market share in a rapidly changing world.

1. Windows XP Will Blow Up Soon

Doomsday is nigh for Windows XP, the elderly but still ubiquitous version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. On April 8, 2014, Microsoft will stop supporting it, meaning it is decision time for millions.

An estimated 37.2% of the world's desktop PC users are still using Windows XP, according to research firm Net Analytics. (Only 16.4% of American desktop owners are still running it, compared with 72.1% in China.)

ComputerWorld estimates that the owners of 570 million machines around the world will be forced to transition from their 12-year-old PCs to a more modern system. Many-perhaps most-will move to mobile devices. But desktop or mobile, their likely choices boil down to Microsoft Windows, Google Android, or Apple iOS.

Here's the fly in that ointment: As ComputerWorld points out, we don't know how many owners of desktops with Windows XP also own a tablet, and have decided that it meets all of their computing needs -- business, personal, or both.

Either way, Microsoft is working hard to keep them from straying from its operating system. Just this week, the company announced that Japanese insurance company Meiji Yasuda has gone with Windows 8 tablets custom-built by Fujitsu (OTCMKTS:FJTSY) for its sales professionals, all 30,000 of them. Microsoft pointed out that all of the benefits of its choice include compatibility with the company's existing XP apps.

But Microsoft has to work harder, because it's starting from behind -- at least for those PC users who will move on to mobile devices. Current market share of mobile devices is overwhelmingly dominated by Apple, followed by Google's Android, though the figures combine smartphone and tablet sales. However you count it, Windows currently has a share below 2% of mobile.

Some analysts believe that the refresh cycle forced by the impending death of Windows XP has already happened, merely cushioning the blow of declining PC sales earlier this year.

Maybe. But most of those XP users are small and medium-sized businesses that operate well outside the tech-centric world. Regional media has begun to highlight the XP dilemma. The Washington Post reports signs of "a tidal wave" of activity at technical consultancies in the Washington, DC, area, spurred by customers scrambling to make sure their businesses can keep running into spring 2014.

(If you're making this decision, you may be interested in ZDNet's report on a British health-care non-profit that upgraded from Windows XP to Windows 7, and found itself on a forced trek through a jungle of outdated and forgotten applications.)

2. Smaller, Cheaper Tablets Are Big Sellers

The competition among tablet manufacturers is already hot, and will get hotter from now through the holiday season, but profit margins are shrinking. The tablets that are selling are in the $150 to $350 price range, and stepping over that line appears to be a near-fatal move.

In the second quarter, 34 million tablets shipped, an increase of 43% year-over-year, according to the latest numbers from technology analysis firm Canalys.

Most of those shipments were for tablets packaged with Google's Android software, so the sales are spread among many manufacturers. They're smaller and lighter than the products of a year ago -- better, but not revolutionary.

According to the numbers, Apple iPad's share of overall shipments dropped 14.2%, to 42.7% in the quarter. Samsung (OTCMKTS:SSNLF) was its nearest competitor, and in fact the only competitor to reach double digits, nearly tripling its share from 7.8% to 21.6%.

As impressive as the year-over-year numbers are, they still show a 10% decline from the first quarter. Research firm IDC, whose numbers came in fairly similar to those of Canalys, expects that trend to reverse later this year.

IDC predicts a surge in sales toward the end of the year, with new products from Apple, Amazon, and others. It also says that Microsoft Windows 8 was making "notable progress" late in the period, although its market share by the end of the quarter came in at only 4.5%.

3. Souped-Up Tablets Are Arriving Now

The above figures, for the second quarter, might not help much in predicting which brands will be bestsellers as we approach the back-to-school season and, later, the holidays. The new generation of tablets is only now arriving.

Early reports suggest that they are more of the same, but in a good way: more features and power, same low price as a year ago.

Barring an unexpected surprise from Apple, the fall competition appears to be narrowing between two brands, the Google 7 and the Amazon Kindle Fire. Of course, since Amazon's tablets use a version of Android, Google wins either way, sort of, but it would clearly prefer that its own hardware triumph.

Google's latest Nexus 7 model is priced from $230, just under that $250 threshold and $30 more than the previous model. But the New York Times review says it's improved in "dozens of ways." And, after testing it every which way, ArsTechnica.com concludes that it "has once again set the bar for not just small Android tablets, but all small tablets from all ecosystems."

The Google tablet will compete against a new generation of Amazon Kindle Fire models, due by early September. Based on leaks of the specs, bgr.com says the new models will have "vastly improved" performance, look, and feel over the year-old models, at roughly the same prices.

Finally, it should be noted that Microsoft is not leaving the field quietly, or at all, despite the lukewarm reception so far of its Surface line of hybrid PC tablets.

There's an update in the works. The chipmaker Nvidia (NASDAQ:NVDA) has confirmed to CNET.com that it is working on the next generation of Microsoft Surface tablets.

No word on pricing or dates. In fact, "no comment" from Microsoft.

Related stories:

If Android Is So Hot, Why Are Samsung, HTC, and Motorola Struggling?

Google Inc Handles a Security Hole in the Worst Way

Why Apple Inc.'s USB Takeback Program Is a Self-Serving Sales Stunt
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