Microsoft garnered just a "niche" in the global tablet market in the first quarter of 2013, following a period of user confusion after the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, analysts say.
According to Strategy Analytics, Windows 8- and Windows RT-based tablets garnered a combined 7.4% of the global market in the period, with 3 million units shipped to retailers.
It is the first full quarter that Windows tablets have been compared with Android and iOS, Strategy Analytics said.
Apple's iOS tablets, including the Mini, led the way in Q1 holding nearly half of the market -- 48.2% -- with 19.5 million units shipped. Android tablet shipments from a variety of manufacturers totaled 17.6 million, or 43.4% of the tablet market.
Only a year earlier, Apple's iOS-based tablets claimed nearly two-thirds of the market, or 63%, while Android-based devices accounted for a 34% share.
The dramatic 177% market share rise of Android tablets over the 12 months doesn't include low-budget Android white box tablet models. With those devices, Android's share would have totaled 52%, and pushed iOS back to 41%, Strategy Analytics said.
The overall tablet market surged by 117% during the period, with 40.6 million tablets sold in the first 2013 quarter compared to 18.7 million in the same period last year, Strategy Analytics said.
The modern tablet industry was launched in the second quarter of 2010 with the introduction of Apple's first iPad.
In a statement, Strategy Analytics described Microsoft's 7.4% tablet share as a "niche" of the market. It owed the small share to "limited distribution, a shortage of top tier apps and confusion in the market."
Peter King, an analyst at Strategy Analytics, said in an email that Microsoft's Windows 8- and RT-based tablets are similar to the first iteration of any company's technology -- "never without some problems."
Microsoft has the resources to turn things around for its tablets, he said, adding that "we hope they do. The ecosystem needs a playing field with at least three OS's."
Microsoft announced the 10.6-in. Surface Pro and Surface RT tablets last June in Hollywood, Calif. In October, the company showed off third party Windows 8 tablets and convertibles and discussed more details of its Surface RT tablet at an event in New York City.
The Surface RT began shipping to users in October along with other third party tablets. The Surface Pro went on sale in February.
In November, Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky left Microsoft, which analysts said at the time indicated a sure sign of problems.
In January, IDC surveys found that Microsoft had shipped 900,000 Surface RT tablets in the fourth quarter of 2012, which it said illustrated "muted" demand for the product.
From the start, prices for Microsoft's own Surface tablets have been higher than prices charged by third party makers of Windows 8- and Windows RT-based tablets. Despite the availability of those lower-priced tablets, the platform has yet to rise above the single digits in market share.
King noted that confusion surrounding the Surface tablets late last year was compounded when Microsoft proclaimed it wanted to keep its plan for the device "top secret."
"A piece of hardware from guys with no track record of making any hardware successfully, with the exception of Xbox, combined with a totally new touch version of Windows, combined with a high price tag, is hardly the recipe for mass on-line purchasing," King said.
When Microsoft began selling the device in limited retail locations at the end of last year, it was too late to take advantage of holiday shoppers. "They totally missed the important buying season," he said.
"Today, distribution is still very limited and there are very few stores where you walk in and expect to see an RT or Windows 8 tablet," King added.
While Apple has 350,000 tablet apps, "Windows is starting from scratch with tablet apps. Right now it would be a hard call to choose to develop [apps] for Windows [over Android or iOS]. This is a crucial issue, because unlike for a phone, a tablet is not nearly as useful without great apps," King said.
He also noted that potential buyers have long been confused by Microsoft's tablet plan. "Was RT aimed at consumers? If so, why was Microsoft not filling consumer [sales] channels from day one? Why so highly priced? And is the Windows 8 tablet aimed at enterprises? If so, why would enterprises choose that over an ultrathin or convertible PC?"
King said part of his optimism about the future of Windows 8/RT tablets is based on new features that could come in the next generation Windows Blue operating system -- as well as price reductions.
"Microsoft's partners will be anxiously waiting to see what improvements can be made, and be hoping that they are made soon," King said.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is [email protected].
Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.