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Tech CEOs trade barbs, warm up for holiday tablet wars

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the launch event of Windows 8 operating system in New York, October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks at the launch event of Windows 8 operating system in New York, October 25, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Poornima Gupta and Alistair Barr

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - 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.

"The tablet space is where the growth is. That's why they are all fighting over it. PC shipments are down and some tablet buyers may never buy another PC," said Michael Allenson, strategic consulting director in the Technology and Telecom Research Group at Maritz Research.

"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 favorite 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 No. 2 tablet in the United States market.

That competition has weighed on Apple's share price, which is at three-month lows after it reported a second straight quarter of disappointing results, sullying its reputation for blowing away Wall Street estimates.

Google is struggling to figure out the dollars and cents of the mobile market and Microsoft is facing witheringly unimpressed reviews for its new Windows 8 platform and Surface tablet.

Meanwhile, Amazon's outlook for the holiday season is being taken as a disappointment, and Best Buy warned late Wednesday that sales and margins are falling.

CLAWS COME OUT

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.

"I haven't personally played with the Surface yet, but what we're reading about it, is that it's a fairly compromised, confusing product," he said, later adding "I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don't think it would do all of those things very well."

Cook may have been going for levity, but the Twitterati booed his joke, since after all most gadget-heads would be very content with a flying, floating car.

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

"We have a device that's uniquely good at being a tablet and a PC (with) no compromise on either one," Ballmer told Reuters Television ahead of the Windows 8 launch event in New York on Thursday. "Work. Play. Tablet. PC. Boom! One product."

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 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.

"I have never seen them directly compare products in a results release like this, and in so much detail clearly calling out their competitors," said RJ Hottovy, an equity analyst at Morningstar. "This shows they are taking the tablet wars very seriously."

(Additional reporting by Bill Rigby in Seattle; Writing by Ben Berkowitz; editing by Edwin Chan and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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