When it comes to tablets, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) has seen little love. Its fans have expressed an array of frustrations (Why doesn't Microsoft make Windows Phone 7 tablets today? Why no ARM support yet? Why did it kill the popular Courier project?). Its critics write it off as a tired old hat that lacks the innovation necessary to succeed. And market analysts have been perhaps the cruelest of all, battering Microsoft's stock and admonishing it in reports.
But the latest numbers from research firm Strategy Analytics show [press release] something surprising -- Microsoft finally appears to be improving its tablet position.
According to the researchers Microsoft picked up 4.6 percent of the global tablet market in calendar Q2 2011 -- up from a mere 1 percent or so of the market, a year ago. In fact, Microsoft managed to beat struggling Canadian gadget maker Research In Motion Ltd. (TSE:RIM), whose much-anticipated Playbook tablet debuted in April to less than stellar reviews. RIM gathered 3.3 percent of the market.
The fact that Microsoft beat RIM is particularly exciting for the company, as it did so without a dedicated tablet OS or support for ARM processors -- widely viewed as the best solution for the tablet space. When Windows 8, an OS with a tablet-centric design, comes a-calling in 2012, packing ARM CPUs, one would imagine Microsoft could do very well.
On the other hand, RIM is left to contemplate its next move. Clearly its new QNX operating system, while perhaps better than the previous Blackberry OS, isn't thrilling customers.
Apple, Inc. (AAPL), maker of the incredibly popular iPad experienced somewhat mixed news, as well. While it is still seeing terrific growth in tablet unit sales, its market share shrunk year-to-year, dropping from 94.3 percent in Q2 2010 to 61.3 percent in the most recent quarter.
Tablet sales rose 331 percent, so Apple still did quite well. But tablets sporting Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android OS are eroding Apple's lead, with sales of Android designs jumping from 2.9 percent to 30 percent in a single year.
The situation seems eerily reminiscent to Android's growth in the smart phone sector, where Android jumped from being a virtual bit player, to being a strong second, to being the clear-cut market leader, in a 2-year span.
Of course, it's possibly Android could see its market share momentum slow or even reverse, if Apple can succeed in convincing U.S. courts to ban its competitors' products from the market. Apple is currently suing  the top three Android device makers, seeking injunctions to prevent them from selling product in the U.S., on the premise that Android OS "steal[s]" patented ideas from Apple.
If Apple's bid to kill Android with lawsuits falls short, though, it may find itself in second place within a year. And with Microsoft looking poised to finally get serious about tablets in 2012, the Cupertino gadget maker is surely a bit concerned.
The market share numbers in the report were generated using collected sales figures, arguably the most accurate form of market share reporting. The report is available for a cool $7,000.