Tech CEOs trade barbs as tablet wars hot up

The biggest names in consumer technology, stung by a string of disappointing quarterly results this month, are suiting up for what’s shaping to be the fiercest holiday battle in years.

Investors and consumers have already largely written off flaccid quarterly numbers from tech behemoths like Microsoft, Apple, Google and Amazon. What counts is the next 60 days, when the biggest names in technology do battle at a near-unprecedented scale and pace.

Just on Thursday, Amazon compared its Kindle Fire with Apple’s new iPad mini, point by point, in its earnings release, an unusual forum to name rivals. Apple CEO Tim Cook compared Microsoft’s Surface tablet to an over-engineered car that can fly and float. And Microsoft went for the iPad, saying its Surface boasted twice its storage.

All three tablets will vie for the shrinking consumer dollar these holidays. By tech standards, it’s getting ugly.

Michael Allenson, Strategic Consulting Director at Maritz Research Technology & Telecom Research Group, said last holiday season, we saw a lot of buying of tablets in the $200 to $300 price range. This year, the iPad mini and Amazon's Kindle Fires are targeted as large gifts. They are trying to ride that wave and win as much as they can.” The impending clash is far from decided.

Odds-on favourite Apple has lost some of its aura of invincibility, with Google’s Android and Samsung making inroads into its reign in smartphones, Microsoft’s quickening marketing blitz, and Amazon’s Kindle nipping at its heels as the No2 tablet in the United States market.

Tech companies hope lackluster calendar third-quarter results mean consumers have held off from buying gadgets so they can save up for something new and shiny this Christmas -- from the lowest-end Fire at $159 to a Surface around $499 or the biggest, fastest, newest iPad at $829.

The technology industry is grappling with a fundamental shift from deskbound computers or heavy laptops to sleek mobile devices like tablets, which are upending the traditional PC model and prompting companies like Google and Microsoft to invest deeply in hardware manufacturing.

Their entry however is raising the competitive stakes. Companies like Apple usually spend most of their time talking about how great their own products are, but with the competition more intense than ever, Apple CEO Cook spared a not-so-kind thought for Microsoft on Thursday.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, for his part, was pretty impressed with the company’s handiwork, notwithstanding reviews that used words like “disappointing” and “undercooked.”

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, in a talk this month, took a shot at Apple, which has faced a barrage of complaints about glitches in its mapping software since dumping Google’s service from its iPhone. “What Apple has learned is that maps are really hard. They really are hard,” he said. “Apple should have kept with our maps.”

Not to be outdone in the sniping, Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos took a subtle swipe at Apple’s high prices in the Internet retailer’s quarterly results statement on Thursday, saying “our approach is to work hard to charge less.”

Right below those comments, Amazon listed head-to-head comparisons between its $299 8.9-inch Kindle Fire HD tablet, its $199 7-inch Kindle Fire HD device and Apple’s iPad mini, which was unveiled on Tuesday. Analysts were taken aback by how brazen Amazon was being in taking shots at peers.

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