Next Up: New iPad vs. Windows 8

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Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky shows off Windows 8 at the BUILD conference in September 2011

Apple CEO Tim Cook spent much of Wednesday’s new iPad event reminding everyone in the audience of just how wildly successful the iPad has been. It was hard to accuse him of hubris, though. As Dizzy Dean said, it ain’t bragging if you can back it up.

And so far, the tale of the tablet market is a story of Apple flourishing and almost everybody else crashing and burning. Let’s briefly review the major iPad challengers to date, and how they’ve fared:

HP’s TouchPad: officially dead.

RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook: a dead tablet walking.

iPad-style tablets based on Android: add all of ’em up, and they amount to a meaningful minority of the market. But very little of Android’s success in the smartphone biz has transferred over. As my colleague Jared Newman notes, Android tablets are utterly hobbled by a lack of great Android tablet apps, and it’s not clear whether Google understands or cares.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet: Apparently doing okay, because they aren’t taking on the iPad directly. They’re much cheaper — even with the iPad 2 dropping to $399 — and focused more purely on content consumption. And both Amazon and B&N seem to care more about selling that content than they do about turning a profit on tablets themselves.

Even if you started out assuming, as I did, that Android tablets would be the iPad’s most serious competition, you might now be ready to contemplate the possibility that they’ll never catch on. Which might leave you wondering about the one obvious iPad rival that isn’t quite here yet: Windows 8.

I’m not ready to predict that Microsoft’s next-generation operating system will make the seemingly unflappable Tim Cook break out in a sweat — or even that, a year or three from now, it’ll be clear that it’s doing reasonably well. But it does have several points in its favor that other tablet platforms have lacked:

It’s going to be everywhere. We’re talkingĀ  about Windows, the most pervasive software in history. Even if Windows 8 doesn’t live up to Microsoft’s projections, even if it’s a Vista-esque dud, it’s going to ship on millions of devices from a bevy of manufacturers. It’ll get a fair shot at succeeding, which is more than some iPad alternatives have received.

It’ll compete with the iPad both directly and indirectly. Windows 8 will be available on tablets, based on ARM processors, that will aim to take on the iPad when it comes to thinness, long battery life and general elegance. (Among the biggest remaining unanswered questions about Windows 8: Will these devices be impressive, and will anyone actually want them?) But it will also run on garden-variety desktop and portable PCs as well as ones that split the difference between PC and tablet. It’s possible that Windows 8 will thrive as a next-generation operating system even if iPad wannabes running it don’t fare so well.

It has a chance at having a solid selection of applications. Microsoft knows as much as any company on the planet about catering to the interests of third-party developers. Most of the developers who currently write old-school Windows apps are presumably at least considering writing new-style Metro ones. And Metro feels like it should be a platform capable of hosting engaging, useful apps that don’t feel like sad iPad knockoffs.

None of the above will ensure that Windows 8 will manage to compete better with the iPad than other would-be rivals have. Every Windows 8 device will have to answer a basic question — “Why should somebody buy this instead of an iPad?” — that most contenders to date have failed to address.

(Microsoft seems to be banking on the theory that the answer to that question will be “Because I can use a Windows 8 system like a PC and run powerful traditional PC software as well as Metro apps.” But I’m not so sure that all that many real people will find that prospect enticing, and the ARM-based tablets that will resemble the iPad most directly won’t be able to run classic Windows apps.)

Whatever happens with Windows 8, it should be fun to watch. At the moment, with the exception of the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet, the iPad-alternative wars are pretty darn dreary. Moribund, even. Once Windows 8 ships, they’ll heat up again — and if you already know for sure how things will pan out, you’re a lot smarter than I am.

(MORE: Windows 8 with a Side of Android? Sounds Nice, but Unlikely)