Has Microsoft Missed The Boat With A Tablet OS? Forrester Says Yes

Android device makers, RIM (NSDQ: RIMM) and (catastrophically) HP (NYSE: HPQ) have made little dent so far in the tablet market, currently dominated by Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) and the iPad, and a new report out today from Forrester says that you may as well add Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) to that list now, too.

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would launch its tablet-friendly version of Windows, Windows 8, sometime in 2012. Device makers who are reportedly signed on to make Windows 8 tablets include Dell as well as Nokia (NYSE: NOK) (itself pinning its OS strategy heavily on Microsoft’s star).

But 2012 may be too late: according to Forrester’s analysts, consumers who were once looking forward to the launch of a Windows tablet are losing interest. In Q1, 46 percent of consumers said they would most of all prefer Microsoft’s OS on a tablet; today, that number has come down to 25 percent. Apple, meanwhile, appears to have gained some more fanboys, increasing to 28 percent from 16 percent in the most-preferred platform standings.

The prominence of Apple is even more stark when you consider preferences based on actual devices, where the iPad zoomed ahead of the competition at 61 percent:

Bu the decline in consumer interest is not the only problem, says Forrester, which provides a laundry list of challenges that Microsoft faces in tablet game:

— It calls Microsoft a “fifth mover” in the tablet market, coming well after every other big player (and then some if you count Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and its route to “forking” Android) has had a crack. Those who are still standing like Apple, Samsung and possibly even RIM will have launched their second or third-generation products by the time Microsoft finally sees its first tablets come out.

— Forrester notes also that the iPad and Apple have moved in on application development, and even enterprise use, areas where Microsoft with its cadre of developers should have been reigning supreme.

— The analysts also believe that Windows Phone 7, which currently languishes with seven percent market share in smartphones, will not be a boost, either: Microsoft will not be able to benefit from the stickiness of one in attracting people to the other, as Apple has done with its iPad. (The analysts do, however, point out that Nokia’s use of the platform could serve to boost that standing.)

Taking a litte step back here, it may be worth playing devil’s advocate for a moment.

Earlier this year, Nielsen noted that tablet penetration in the U.S. was at less than five percent. While that has probably moved on since May, considering that the U.S. is one of the biggest markets today for advanced mobile devices, it is probably safe to say that similar penetration, if not less, holds in other markets.

If you are of the opinion that tablets are a mainstream and not niche product longer term, this implies that there is still a very big market to play for, not just for Microsoft but for the many others making tablets already.

Although Forrester does rightfully point out that so far Apple has captured developers’ attention in terms of content development, that has not held back the launch of some recent tablets with innovative content plays of their own — namely the Kindle Fire from Amazon, which not only offers a lot of apps, media and other content to users, but has advanced the notion of how to offer these in a unified cloud-based service. And for a very low price, to boot.

If anything, what these factors seem to imply is that Microsoft still has an opportunity, but the gauntlet is now down for whether they and their device partners will be able to deliver on innovative, price-sensitive products to meet it.