Wednesday, August 17, 2011 at 1:17 pm.

Amazingly, Microsoft might not miss the boat on tablets

Steve BallmerMicrosoft tablets based on Windows 8 won’t be ready until next year. Unexpectedly, that might not be too late to matter.

Yes, Microsoft is still inexcusably tardy. Steve Ballmer first showed off that HP “slate” at CES in 2010 — before Apple unveiled the iPad — and now it’s going to end up being 2 years before there’s a credible Windows-based tablet on the market.

But what Microsoft didn’t know — and couldn’t have planned for — is that all of the other iPad rivals would be flops. Motorola’s Xoom, RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook, and HP’s TouchPad continue to be unpopular devices with poor sales. Microsoft’s other PC partners are mostly sitting around doing nothing, or struggling with Android. (Dell is already looking forward to Windows 8, it seems.) No one is finding any real success but Apple.

So the no. 2 slot in the tablet market is still wide open, and might even be open a year from now. The expectation so far is that Google Android will take it. But Google has done very little to develop an Android tablet ecosystem. And no one knows if the coming Amazon tablet — the only interesting tablet project on the horizon that I’ve heard of — will do much to benefit the broader Google platform.

Microsoft, all of a sudden, doesn’t look so terrible. It needs to move fast, it needs to make the best software it has ever made, and it needs to deliver an entire ecosystem worth participating in. And there’s still no reason to believe that it’s necessarily going to give the iPad any strong competition. But no one else is, either, so far. Microsoft should at least have the opportunity to compete.

Earlier: Michael Dell: Windows 8 on tablets “pretty encouraging” in early going