The Surface and the iPad

by Jim Dalrymple   |   June 21st, 2012

I have ridiculed companies like Samsung for simply copying Apple’s tablet strategy and for not showing any vision, so I’ll give Microsoft credit for at least coming out with some new ideas with the Microsoft Surface. However, I’m not sure it will work for them.

Microsoft has been in the tablet business for a long time with its partners and it has failed miserably. The company has tried to convince consumers that a tablet needed to be like a PC, but consumers didn’t buy it.

Apple on the other hand drew a line between the traditional laptop and tablet. The iPad is a touch device and apps are made so you can interact with it using your fingers and gestures. Apple contends that there is no need for a mouse with a tablet because your finger is the pointing instrument.

Just because Apple says this is the way it should, doesn’t mean it’s the law. However, consumers have clearly spoken by purchasing millions of iPads. The iPad is the type of device that people see fitting into their lifestyle.

From what I’ve seen, it seems to me that Microsoft is trying to do a similar type of dance with the Surface that it did with previous tablets. The company is trying to convince consumers that this device can be a computer and a tablet at the same time. Based on the sales of the iPad, I’m not sure that’s what consumers really want.

I’ve seen people argue that Windows now has the largest app library by default because you can use all of your Windows apps on the Surface. I don’t see that as a good thing.

Apps made for a desktop or laptop are not designed to work on a touch-enabled device. That just makes sense. Interacting with those apps on a tablet will be cumbersome and frustrating for users. I think that’s a given.

Of course, you always have the Surface’s stylus, but then you seem to be getting away from a touch-enabled device and going back to devices that were around years ago. That’s not a step forward in the industry, although it still may be for Microsoft.

It’s well known that Steve Jobs hated the stylus. He told Walter Isaacson about a Microsoft engineer who kept talking about a tablet years ago.

“But he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead,” said Jobs.

I’m certainly not saying that Microsoft’s tablet offering is dead in the water — it’s much too early for that. But unlike some in the mainstream media, I’m definitely not ready to proclaim the Surface will overtake the iPad either.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the Surface because Microsoft wasn’t exactly forthcoming with details, so for now we play the waiting game.

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Jim Dalrymple

Jim Dalrymple has been reporting on Apple for almost 20 years and has written for many industry publications. Jim currently runs The Loop, a technology focused blog, and plays guitar in his spare time. You can follow him on Twitter or visit his Web site.
  • http://mikemanzano.com Mike Manzano

    The original tablets didn’t suck because they were PCs, they sucked because they had poor battery life, were unwieldy to handle, and didn’t have an interface that directly supported touch. With the new hardware of the Surface, and the new interface provided by Metro, these issues may have been resolved. That’s why, even as a Mac zealot, I am excited for the Microsoft Surface.

    • FalKirk

      “The original tablets didn’t suck because they were PCs…”-Mike Manzano

      You’re very wrong. The original tablets failed precisely because they tried to transfer the desktop metaphor to the tablet form factor.

      The desktop uses a mouse. A mouse is pixel specific. Menus and scroll bars work great with pixel specific input because the desktop metaphors were designed around that input.

      It’s insane to use a mouse with a tablet. It defeats the whole purpose of the tablet form factor. You can’t be holding a tablet in one hand and setting the mouse down on a flat surface to make the device work.

      But it seemed to make sense to substitute the stylus for the mouse. This would allow one to use the pixel specific user input and retain the mobility of the tablet.

      But no one liked it. And few knew why. Until the iPad.

      Yes, the iPad has instant on. Yes, it has all day battery life. Yes it has far more processing power than its predecessors did. But the heart and soul of the iPad is the use of a touch interface supported by a built from the ground up touch operating system. Everything else is just icing on the cake. Touch, on the other hand, is the cake.

      The Surface may or may not be a success. But if it is a success, it won’t be because of a kickstand or a pen or a keyboard or a trackpad. Every single one of those things is a peripheral device that is peripheral to the purpose of a tablet. If the Surface is a success it will be because it is a superior touch tablet. If it’s not, first and foremost, an outstanding touch tablet, then nothing else matters.

      • http://mikemanzano.com Mike Manzano

        “The desktop uses a mouse. A mouse is pixel specific. Menus and scroll bars work great with pixel specific input because the desktop metaphors were designed around that input.”

        Um, the original tablets used a stylus. You know, a pixel-specific stylus. Like this Wacom tablet sitting in front of me on my desk. No one, not even Microsoft in the early days of tablet computing, recommended using a tablet (in hand-carried tablet form) with a mouse.

        Using a windowed environment with a stylus isn’t perfect, but it isn’t bad. Using a stylus with Photoshop is better than a mouse, regardless of the platform. To make a blanket statement that the entire WIMP computing experience sucks when using a stylus vs. a mouse is hyperbole. It is certainly no worse than trying to draw precise diagrams on an iPad with a fat finger.

        I use to use an Apple Newton MessagePad 2000. That was an awesome interface with a stylus. In fact, if all they did was re-create the MP2k with newer hardware and built-in networking, I’d buy it all over again in an instant. The MP2k was built “from the ground up” to support a stylus (just as the iPad was built “from the ground up” around your finger) and it was—and continues to be—incredible. I give demos of that thing to people all the time and they say “they had that back in the 90′s?” They are incredulous that Apple killed it.

        Yes, you need touch. Touch is awesome. Touch on an iPad is great. But it is incomplete. I like doodling and sketching. I like drawing tiny diagrams. I like the ability to place a cursor between two letters with one precision tap. I like writing notes with one hand while resting my palm on the screen. All of these things are missing from the iPad. From what I can see, Surface has a nice touch interface on the Metro side, and a great system for stylus input. Imagine new kinds of multi-modal interfaces that use touch and pen concurrently.

        Imagine rotating a piece of virtual paper using finger gestures with your left hand while shading your virtual pencil sketch with the stylus on your right. Imagine scrolling through your term paper with your left thumb and annotating with your right. You can’t do any of these things without switching “modes” by tapping on buttons on an iPad (and I’ve tried every single notetaking app out there). Which is more natural? A button to switch from gesturing to inking, or simply gesturing and inking?

        Steve Jobs did an amazing job elevating gestures as a way to communicate with devices into the forefront of public thought. He did a great job making people see there were other ways to manipulate a computer than a mouse. However, he did so in a way that made styli sing second fiddle just so he could jab one at Microsoft and their early (crappy) tablet computers. He has an entire generation thinking stylus input will never work, yet he builds in voice input with Siri that can sometimes be more frustrated than getting a deaf, retarded dog to sit. People have been using styli since the ancient Mesopotamians used them to write in cuneiform. It is as natural to us as fingerpainting and gesturing.

        What I see in Surface is a platform to experiment with new ways of computing. In this way, it is the next evolutionary step from the iPad. The Surface will not succeed because it is an excellent touch tablet. That’s Apple’s game. The Surface will succeed because it is an excellent touch and inking tablet.

        And don’t even get me started on the advantages of an always-available touch-typeable keyboard.

        • Grwisher

          If you want a stylus for the iPad, Google “stylus for ipad”. You will get 48,400,000 results. Then take your pick.

        • FalKirk

          “Using a windowed environment with a stylus isn’t perfect, but it isn’t bad.”-Mike Manzano

          Reality disagrees. This isn’t a matter of opinion, this is a matter of experience. The windowed environment with a stylus has been tried for over a decade and it never became popular. Yet when Apple introduced the touch based iPad to the world, it sold as many tablets in six months as had been sold in the previous ten years.

          The touch based user interface on a tablet was a revelation. It removed a layer of abstraction, simplified input and amplified mobility. It revolutionized the category. That’s not hyperbole. It’s the opposite of hyperbole. It’s a statement that is meant to be taken literally.

        • Rich

          You’re expressing your own personal preferences, but the market hasn’t shown much interest in styli.

        • kibbles

          “Using a windowed environment with a stylus isn’t perfect, but it isn’t bad.”

          …but that isnt the same as being GOOD.

  • crustyjusty

    JIm: I agree with the flaw of trying to merge the devices for the consumer market. The reason that I want to use my iPad to sketch, do light email, read and play games is because it’s not a computer with a keyboard that gets in between me and my tasks. Using an iPad for productivity feels like I’m getting away with something, because it’s pretty enjoyable. And its that different-ness that allows babies and 90 year olds to accomplish more on the platform than they ever have with a PC-like device. Microsoft is going to get burned on this (with consumers), because their approach is dead wrong.

  • Gnosis

    I’m writing this from my iPad: forward looking is transparency. The machine that isn’t a machine but an assistant, companion, friend, whatever fits. Look back to early reviews reflecting how immersive the iPad is. Going back to a keyboard is looking back to an interface fading.

  • Rich

    “Some in the mainstream media proclaim the Surface will overtake the iPad.”

    That’s actually funny.

  • http://www.facebook.com/philip.machanick Philip Machanick

    The biggest effect of this announcement is that any designs in the works that could go Windows 8 or Android will go Android. Why would an OEM risk being trampled by Microsoft? More here http://opinion-nation.blogspot.com/2012/06/will-microsoft-surface-sink.html

  • jamesdbailey

    “I’ve seen people argue that Windows now has the largest app library by default because you can use all of your Windows apps on the Surface.”

    That is only for the larger, fatter and fan included (I wonder if Microsoft has finished designing an innovative fan with asymmetric blades yet) Surface Pro. That device is going to available 3 months after the more iPad like Surface RT. And that ARM based Surface isn’t going to be available until Windows 8 release which might be 2 or 3 months away.

    So in 6 months or so, there will be a Surface device that can run all of your Windows apps poorly on a 10″ screen with a keyboard with trackpad required. Something to look forward to.

  • W. van Dam

    “I have ridiculed companies like Samsung for simply copying Apple’s tablet strategy and for not showing any vision, so I’ll give Microsoft credit for at least coming out with some new ideas with the Microsoft Surface.”
    “However, consumers have clearly spoken by purchasing millions of iPads.”

    So you ridicule companies for not trying something new in this market (as do I), but you also say that everyone should just stick to copying the iPad, because that is how consumers want their tablet. You are difficult to please!

    When Apple launched the iPad they were looking ahead. But when word got out a great many people considered it an expensive toy – many still do – or were simply puzzled at why anyone would buy a tablet – listing all sorts of deficiencies. The main reason for this was that everyone was using existing products as reference material to compare the iPad with – one on one. Tablets were no good as a PC/laptop alternative, too large for a mobile phone, etc. Because the iPad could not outperform any existing product in any product category, it would be a failure…

    You are basically doing the same now. You take the mainstream product, the iPad, and you look at the deficiencies of the new, while this tablet demands you to look at it from the novel use scenario’s it offers. Apple positioned tablets in general as a platform to consume media. Microsoft is obviously set their sights on productivity – which is a strategy in line with supporting their cash cow, MS Office Suite.

    Of course, the (high end) Surface is not likely to be as mold breaking as the iPad. I am actually also doubtful about their chances of success. However, that is not because the iPad is such a success. Rather it is because I think their potential customers will also have issue with the small screen size. Their offer may be an improvement from the perspective of a segment, but I’m not sure it is good enough.

  • http://twitter.com/thetimchannel Tim Fuller

    The app only version will be DOA because it will be priced against Apple Ipad and doesn’t have enough Apps to compete, even before we see whether it can live up to the technical user experiences of an Ipad. The full featured unit may do OK because a lot of people are still LOCKED into Microsoft environment. Neither will touch the sales or success of the Apple product, even if Apple stood still for a couple years and I don’t see that as a realistic projection given that Apple iterates new products faster than their competition can copy their OLD ones. Enjoy.

  • Thirdeye

    Kind of a tired argument. Comparing Surface to underpowered, overweight, costly, limited mobility tablets with the XP interface and essentially no application support doesn’t make sense. The stylus wasn’t the problem. Once stylus functionality is leveraged in the tablet application space, tablets will be much more useful than they are now. When Apple adopts the stylus to keep up with the competition, it will be another “switching to Intel” moment. I’m sure it will be seen by some as a sign of brilliance, rather than as a revision of a flawed strategy.

  • Thirdeye

    Those swivel screens were also delicate, with an unacceptable wear factor.