Windows 8 tablets: Too late or is there still time?

Interest in Microsoft Windows 8 (s msft) tablets is waning. Only 25 percent of surveyed consumers last quarter want such a device, according to a Forrester research report published on Tuesday. That’s down from 46 percent of those polled in the first quarter of 2011. The biggest reason for the decline may be the two-year head start Apple created by designing and offering the capable iPad (s aapl) in early 2010.

At this point, Forrester’s research suggests that Microsoft has fallen behind others, and not just Apple when it comes to tablet demand. In a blog post, Forrester’s JP Gownder paints a bleak picture:

For tablets, though, Windows really isn’t a fast follower. Rather it’s (at best) a fifth-mover after iPad, Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab, HP’s now-defunct webOS tablet, and the BlackBerry PlayBook tablet. While Windows’ product strategists can learn from these products, other players have come a long way in executing and refining their products — Apple, Samsung, and others have already launched second-generation products and will likely be into their third generation by the time Windows 8 launches.

Similar to its onetime leadership in the smartphone market — Microsoft’s Windows Mobile platform was popular prior to the iPhone age — Microsoft is now behind on another technology it pushed early. The first Windows PC tablets debuted a decade ago, but outside vertical markets and tablet enthusiast circles, they never really took off. The main issue? Tablets were seen as extensions of the desktop instead of stand-alone mobile devices. Between poor battery life and user interfaces that weren’t optimized for touch, it was generally a recipe for failure.

There is hope yet, however. Again, one has to look at the smartphone market to see it. Although it was slow to react to both Apple iOS and Google Android (s goog), Microsoft’s new Windows Phone handset platform is fresh and fun to use. I find the “metro” user interface to be intuitive and finger-friendly, which is good, because Microsoft plans to leverage it for Windows 8 tablets.

Software is only one part of Microsoft’s tablet issue. What about the hardware? Here too, Microsoft is finally looking beyond traditional desktop and notebook processors, which use more power than ARM-based (s armh) chips that run today’s smartphones and tablets. Windows 8 will support these processors, allowing for devices to run all day on a charge or be in standby mode for a few days.

These two factors by no means guarantee that Microsoft can gain a foothold in the tablet market, and the company will have to work with hardware partners to get the message out: Windows 8 isn’t your father’s desktop operating system. If Microsoft can also work with developers to make the vast array of Windows software more touch-friendly, it could change consumer perception and make a Windows tablet desirable again.