Why is Microsoft’s Surface obsessed with Keyboards?

by John Kirk   |   June 28th, 2012

IS THE KEYBOARD THE KEY TO THE SURFACE?

On June 18, 2012, Microsoft announced it’s new Surface Tablet. There are many questions swirling around the Surface, but one the more subtle, yet more important, questions is why Microsoft is so obsessed with the Surface’s add-on Keyboard.

Microsoft devoted a large portion of their Surface keynote to the keyboard. The word “keyboard” was used dozens of times during the 45 minute presentation. Further, the Surface is never depicted without the keyboard and, in fact, the keyboard is always prominently highlighted whenever the Surface is displayed.

The emphasis on the add-on keyboard did not escape the attention of the press either. Some sample headlines tell the tale:

- Microsoft’s Surface: when the keyboard is key
- Microsoft Surface Keyboard Is Here
- Microsoft Surface Takes On iPad With Secret Weapon: The Keyboard
- Microsoft’s Surface Tablet Brings The Keyboard Back
- Microsoft takes on tablets with keyboard-equipped Surface
- Microsoft’s Surface tablet: The keyboard is the key

MY KINGDOM FOR A KEYBOARD

As if all that wasn’t enough, Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, recently had this to say about computers in the classroom:

Just giving people devices has a really horrible track record. You really have to change the curriculum and the teacher. And it’s never going to work on a device where you don’t have a keyboard-type input. Students aren’t there just to read things. They’re actually supposed to be able to write and communicate. And so it’s going to be more in the PC realm—it’s going to be a low-cost PC that lets them be highly interactive. – Bill Gates

(Emphasis Added)

Dear Microsoft, Steve Balmer and Bill Gates: What is up with your obsession with keyboards?

A NICETY, NOT A NECESSITY

First of all, let me say that I’m a touch typist and I simply love my notebook’s physical keyboard. Adore it. I even named my first child, Qwerty, after a keyboard. (She still hasn’t forgiven me.) But do I think that keyboards are essential for computing? Heck no. Let’s not get carried away.

Do you remember (seems like only yesterday – because it WAS only yesterday) when the only way to text on a phone was to use the numeric keypad? The number “1” meant “a”, and pushing the “1” twice meant “b”, and so on and so forth? Painfully tedious.

Yet I saw kids typing faster on their phone’s numeric keypads than I could type on my computer’s keyboard. And if you don’t think that kids can type faster on a virtual tablet keyboard than most adults can type on a physical keyboard, it’s only because you aren’t paying attention.

Keyboards are a nicety, not a necessity. If you own a tablet and you find that you need to type faster, you switch to an attachable keyboard – you don’t switch to an entirely new operating system.

THIS ALL HAS A FAMILIAR RING TO IT – A PHONE RING

All of this “keyboards are essential” talk has a familiar ring to it. Let’s see, now where have I heard it before?

Oh yeah, it was in 2007 when the iPhone was introduced. The iPhone didn’t have a physical keyboard either. Let’s step into the Wayback machine and see what tech luminaries have had to say over the years about the iPhone’s lack of a keyboard.

RESEARCH IN MOTION

First up, Research in Motion (RIM) co-founders Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis

“As nice as the Apple iPhone is, it poses a real challenge to its users. Try typing a web key on a touchscreen on an Apple iPhone, that’s a real challenge. You cannot see what you type”
Jim Balsillie, Co-CEO, Research in Motion, 7 November 2007

“Not everyone can type on a piece of glass. Every laptop and virtually every other phone has a tactile keyboard. I think our design gives us an advantage.” – Mike Lazaridis, Co-CEO, Research In Motion, 4 June 2008

Say, how’s that whole keyboard advantage thing working out for you fellas, anyways? What’s that you say? The keyboard’s gone. And you’re gone. And what’s happening to RIM is a dog gone shame?

DROID

Well, surely Android got it right with the Droid. Let’s take a look at one of their earliest commercials:

iDon’t have a real keyboard.
iDon’t run simultaneous apps.
iDon’t take 5-megapixel pictures.
iDon’t allow open development.
iDon’t customize.
iDon’t run widgets.
iDon’t have interchangeable batteries.
Everything iDon’t…Droid does.

Verizon, 18 October 2009

And how many prominently promoted Droid devices are still sold with keyboards? (crickets) Hmm, maybe iDon’t need a “real” keyboard on my phone after all.

DEJA VU ALL OVER AGAIN

But, of course, I’ve saved the very best for last:

“$500 fully subsidized with a plan! I said that is the most expensive phone in the world and it doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine …. I like our strategy. I like it a lot….” – Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, 17 January 2007

Now, is that the very same Steve Ballmer who just introduced us to the Surface…with an attachable keyboard? Not to rub it in, Mr. Ballmer, but your strategy of relying upon the importance of a physical keyboard was wrong…and not just a little.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the iPhone. The iPhone now generates nearly $25 billion in revenue per quarter or over $100 billion per year. And – are you ready for this – the iPhone, all by itself, is bigger than ALL of Microsoft. That’s right, one single product, that didn’t exist five years ago, is now bigger than Microsoft…

…and it doesn’t even have a keyboard.

JUST SCRATCHING THE SURFACE (Pun Intended)

To be fair, Microsoft’s obsession with keyboards may merely be a single symptom in an even larger problem. The Surface is, perhaps, a bit too aptly named. With a keyboard and a kickstand and an upturned rear-facing camera, it’s very clear that Microsoft intends the Surface to work best of all on…well…on a suface. A flat surface, to be precise

But tablets want to be held, not held down. Tablets want to be touched, tablets want to be moved, tablets want to be “free”.

A WORD OF ADVICE

Microsoft, in 2007 you thought that keyboards were essential. Here it is, 2012, and you appear to be making the very same mistake all over again. A word of advice. A keyboard is a peripheral device, not the principal device. Focus on what matters or soon nothing else will matter at all.

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • shockme

    You nailed it.

  • grwisher

    I have a theory that Microsoft’s emphasis on the keyboard may be because of the aspect ratio of the Surface screen. I believe the Surface screen’s aspect ratio is 16×9 as opposed to the 4×3 of the iPad. Because of this, when you bring up the Virtual keyboard of the Surface in landscape mode, you may not have much real estate in order to view your work. The reason I specified landscape mode is that Microsoft is so proud of their kickstand. That suggests, to me, that Microsoft thinks the Surface will be used in landscape mode most of the time.

    Just a theory.

    • http://twitter.com/AdamChew1 Adam C

      Just like a laptop and not like a mobile device.

    • macgregor

      Is there even ANY evidence that the Surface will even work in portrait mode? Clearly the keyboard only functions in one orientation and obviously those Windows apps aren’t going to want to be in anything but landscape as it is more of a destop type orientation. This rigidity of orientation is perhaps the biggest flaw in the design and the keyboard just follows suit.

      • Dan

        Microsoft have previously demoed Windows 8 on tablets and shown it operating in portrait mode. They even showed off accelerometer-controlled rotation, so the software is clearly designed to do it. Consequently, there really isn’t any reason to think that Surface won’t be able to rotate the display.
        Having said that, Microsoft have also stated that they consider landscape mode to be the orientation that will be most used on Windows 8 tablets. So much so, that they even designed a split-key virtual keyboard so that it was easy to type with just your thumbs whilst holding a tablet in landscape mode.

  • Rich

    “Focus on what matters or soon nothing else will matter at all.”

    John, aren’t you forgetting Microsoft’s cash-cow desktop business (which won’t vanish overnight), the Xbox 360, and the Kinect? Those are all very successful operations.

    • FalKirk

      I’m only referring to the personal computing portion of Microsoft’s business and even more specifically to the tablet portion of their business. To be fair, personal computing is the face of company, the part most people think about when they think about Microsoft.

      However, Microsoft has many, many other profitable interest that are doing great. They will not only survive, but thrive…
      …but perhaps not so much in tablets.

  • FalKirk

    Ben Bajarin just tweeted that “Maybe we should start calling Surface a Sub-Ultrabook and not a tablet….” There’s a lot of depth contained in that terse remark. Perhaps the sub-ultrabook is Microsoft’s sweet spot in the market.

    • benbajarin

      Yes, I think this point is worth fleshing out.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1131685622 Peter Buckton

      Yes.
      We could call it the sub-surface…
      or – sub-merged
      or perhaps, just – sunk.

      Surface – what an oxymoron. When they plainly expect it to be used with a keyboard and the kickstand, the last thing it is, is ‘a’ surface. That’s 3 at least.

  • Chris

    Absolutely fantastic take. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, John.

  • Uday Varma

    Fantastic Article – Short, to the point and loads of quotes to back it up..

    Qwerty Kirk – That is an awesome name. and probably the fastest one you can type. LOL

  • Jurassic

    Differences between iPad keyboards and MS Surface keyboards:

    1. Keyboards are an optional accessory for iPad, but they are a necessity for running Windows applications (which are not touch enabled, and are designed for larger displays) on Surface (if and when it goes on sale).

    2. There is a huge selection of keyboard accessories for iPad, but only two floppy keyboards for Surface.

    3. Keyboards for iPad have real keys. The Surface keyboards don’t have real keys, but have just printed or slightly raised areas where keys would be.

    4. Keyboards for iPad are rigid and can support the iPad at an angle on non-flat surfaces (like your lap). Keyboards for Surface are floppy, don’t support the tablet, and can’t be used on non-flat surfaces.

    • Dan

      1. How many of those keyboards for the iPad are made by Apple? How many did Steve Jobs show off at the keynote where he launched the iPad?
      2. How many third-party accessories are there for Windows PCs today?
      3. How useful is the iPad without a keyboard – including the on screen keyboard?
      Seriously, do you think that surface won’t get any third party accessories that do the same as iPad third party accessories? How can you even compare what a third party has made available for the iPad to what is provided by Microsoft as a first party add-on?
      Finally, you don’t need a physical keyboard for Surface. It has a virtual one just like the iPad – something the iPad would be equally useless without.
      You’re just looking for excuses to accuse the Surface of being inferior to the iPad. But you chose VERY bad excuses.

  • http://www.facebook.com/louise.reay.31 Louise Reay

    And, of course, by virtue of running win 8, the surface will have an on screen keyboard anyhow. So if you want to use it without the attached keyboard, you’re good to go.

    The factors that are making me look seriously at the potential of the surface for me, are the fact that it’s going to be running a full desktop OS, while being very portable. True I could just get a laptop and have a cheaper solution, but I’m being picky and placing serious value on the touch screen.

    That does mean that, for me at least, the potential to have an attached keyboard that is not part of the screen real estate is a very important feature.

    • FalKirk

      “The factors that are making me look seriously at the potential of the surface for me, are the fact that it’s going to be running a full desktop OS…”

      Understood.

      “…while being very portable.”-Louise Reay

      Understood – with the caveat that I’m wondering about just how much more portable the Surface will be compared than an Ultrrabook.

      “True I could just get a laptop and have a cheaper solution, but I’m being picky and placing serious value on the touch screen.”-Louise Reay

      Okay, this is where you lost me. Where to you see the value in the touch screen? F For use with Windows 8? For Metro? For something else? Could you further elucidate your point?

      • http://www.facebook.com/louise.reay.31 Louise Reay

        2 main points.

        1. I love gadgets and a touch screen feels more gadgety
        2. I’ve spent so much time using my phone as a mobile internet platform that I find myself bashing my monitor to try and select things. I’d like that to actually do something other than give me a bruised finger and a bashed lcd panel.

        No doubt you can point out that many will not consider those reasons as being good ones for placing so much value on the touch screen, but I’ll freely admit it’s far more an emotional than a rational decision.

        Not exactly an impulse purchase given the wait time though.

        • FalKirk

          “No doubt you can point out that many will not consider those reasons as being good ones…”-Louise Reay

          Not at all. I just wanted to get a better understanding of where you were coming from. I appreciate the response and the insights.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=588810282 Daniel Ruiz

    You’ll need that keyboard as they have done nothing to optimize office apps for our big fat fingers (also the reason the stylist is included).

    • Nokuchikushi

      It comes with a stylist? That’s fantastic. Just turn on the Surface to get my hair done.

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  • http://twitter.com/ArcComputer david prokop

    Tapping you fingers on hard glass thousands of times per day is going to hurt people.

    The symptoms will start with; a person will lose their sense of feeling in their finger tips, then they will get swelling and inflammation at the tips of their fingers, and touching anything will be painful, then joint pain in their finger joints as the cartilage breaks down.

    fingers need the shock absorbing qualities of a movable key.
    David
    Kinsiologist

    • Roger

      That’s pretty silly. It’s no different than tapping on a keyboard. I defy you to locate one single case of these clinical symptoms resulting from using an iPad. You can’t, but then you’re a “kinsiologist”, not an MD.

  • caywen

    If it’s a nicety, then I’m thrilled the Surface has a nicety the iPad doesn’t. Just FYI, that keyboard cover comes off, too.

    • FalKirk

      “I’m thrilled the Surface has a nicety the iPad doesn’t”-caywen

      How so, Caywen? There are half a dozen excellent third party keyboards for the iPad, not to mention Apple’s standard blue tooth keyboard.

      When the iPad was first introduced in January 2010, one of the accessory’s was a stand alone keyboard that you could “dock” your iPad on. It was never heard from again.

      The Surface may come with an attachable keyboard that is more integrated that the current options available to the iPad but is that integration really the game changer and deal breaker that Microsoft seems to think it is?

      • caywen

        Perhaps I should rephrase: “I’m thrilled that I don’t have to buy keyboard cover separately.” A keyboard cover for the iPad costs between $50-$100. Microsoft’s happens to be extremely well designed and includes a multitouch trackpad.

        I’m not qualified to say what is a game changer or not. I do know that game changers are often very subtle things. The big, obvious things are already done well by everyone.

        I asked my wife about why she doesn’t want a tablet. “No keyboard. I like to type.” summarizes her reasoning. I’ve shown here the attachable keyboards (after all, I wanted an iPad and was trying to convince her). “Hmm, no. I prefer my netbook.” was her response.

        I showed her pictures of the Surface, recently. “Ooh, when is it coming out” was the response. Why? It must be something subtle about the *way* Microsoft has integrated the keyboard. It’s not just the checkmark on the back of the box. It’s subtle.

        • FalKirk

          “I’m thrilled that I don’t have to buy keyboard cover separately.”-caywen

          Actually, we don’t know if the keyboard is bundled and we don’t know anything about costs.

          “I showed (my wife) pictures of the Surface, recently. “Ooh, when is it coming out” was the response. Why? It must be something subtle about the *way* Microsoft has integrated the keyboard.”-caywen

          Perhaps. Or it could be because Apple never shows the iPad with a keyboard and Microsoft never shows their proposed tablet without one. As Ben Bajarin mentioned in the comments, “(m)aybe we should start calling Surface a Sub-Ultrabook and not a tablet….”

        • Nokuchikushi

          Yeah, the cover’s not going to be included. It’ll cost extra. The Surface is a laptop, and not a very good one at that.

  • Bill

    Microsoft is obsessesd with keyboards because they are obsessed with the enterprise. And enterprise is still some way from being a touchscreen dominated environment. Procurement departments are pretty conservative after all and will buy what they know, so anything with Windows on it will be reassuring.

    Once you’ve embedded tons of these things into businesses then you’ve got the opportunity to on-sell Windows Phone 8 and try to push the iPhone back out of the enterprise.

    • SixnaHalfFeet

      While I thoroughly enjoyed John’s article, I think Bill has hit on Microsoft’s secret weapon, strangling the compition from behind. Apple may have an uzi, but Microsoft has learned how to rope all the cows before they get unruly.

      With luck or a new Apple strategy the iPhone/iPad will maintain its dominance due to its superior design/build/usability, but if Microsoft can lure enough corporate types into its ecosystem, it can use the same strangle-hold they used before and strangle Apple from behind. Although, even if that happens, due to Apple’s abilities and sheer innovation Apple will not go away and I will still be happy, just not as happy.

  • http://twitter.com/JayJayTG Jay Gilliham

    MS isn’t saying that a keyboard is a necessity they are simply providing options for the users. That’s what Windows is about, being flexible and providing options for different types of users. Lets say MS didn’t mention anything regarding keyboards the headlines would be moaning regarding all the people in the world who need keyboards for productivity and that MS has lost focus on high number of its users. The Type/Touch Cover is just a cover that doubles up as a keyboard if you want to use it. Being Windows and knowing that most people need to use office apps etc in day to day life they will probably end up using it anyway. At the end of the day regardless of how you feel many people NEED keyboards, business and education rely on them, games such as MMO etc rely on them. Me, I am all about touch screens, but if MS just pushed touch there would be much uproar regarding compatibility and legacy in the Windows 8.

  • Grwisher

    What is Microsoft going to do if they take this keyboard concept internationally? How many of these specialized keyboards will it require. Apple’s keyboards work on all of their computers. Or, if MS’s intention is only to produce a reference design and let their OEMs do the heavy lifting and the keyboard becomes a necessity – what are the OEMs going to do. (My apologies to the person I borrowed this comment from in another article.)

  • sfphoto1

    The launch of the iPad marked the beginning of the MC (Mobile Computing) era. An era where almost anyone can use MC devices as part of daily life.
    “Why is Microsoft obsessed with Keyboards?” is a better title, I think, because it truly reflects the passing of the PC (Personal Computing) era.
    Goodbye, Microsoft. I am sorry, sir, but your “Surface” is destined to become part of a museum collection as the last artifact of the PC era.

  • Abdul Rahim Al Moustapha

    What is more productive editing a text document with a virtual keyboard eating up half the screen or keeping all your screen real estate and using a physical one? In my opinion touch screens alone are not sufficient (good for content consumption and light editing) and physical keyboards alone are pointless if you are just viewing content. What Microsoft is betting on and I happen to think is great is that with the surface consumers and business get to use the surface as a heavyweight productivity tool using a mouse/keyboard and then simply detach and use it as a consumption device.

  • jochimin

    You are a typist and a jerk

  • http://www.facebook.com/laputa1943 張家良

    Excellent article, do you have a twitter, facebook, or something I can follow?
    Enjoy reading your comment on things a lot! Great logic, and lots of fun.
    Henry from Taiwan

    • FalKirk

      “…do you have a twitter, facebook, or something I can follow?”-Henry

      Not yet, Henry. For now, just keep monitoring us here at Tech.pinions.

      And thank you for your kind words.

  • capablanca

    Great job, John. Your writing is organized and economical. Your thesis is cogent.

    -capa

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  • Thirdeye

    Geez, what a sophomoric article! Kids type fast on their phones? “yea if u r ok wit snd msg like this lol.”

  • Thirdeye

    Problem with using a surface to type with Surface? OK, then type on your iPad without a surface. Take your time.