Why Surface Will Be Good for the iPad–and the Rest of Us

by Steve Wildstrom   |   October 31st, 2012

Microsoft SurfaceFor the past 2 1/2 years, iPad as has ruled the world of tablets. Except for Amazon’s Kindle Fire and the Barnes & Noble NOOK Tablet, both special-purpose devices dedicated to consumption, there has been no competition worth mentioning. But with the entry of Microsoft into the fray, both with the Surface and an assortment of third-party Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, the business is about to get a lot more interesting.

I start from the premise that only competition keeps the tech business driving forward and that in the absence of effective competition products stultify. This definitely happened in PCs. After Apple failed to respond to the introduction of Windows 95, the Mac market share fell to the low single digits and without effective competition, Microsoft innovation faded. It has only been Apple’s across-the-board success in recent years that lit a fire under Microsoft.

The iPhone never had iPad’s grace period. It entered a crowded market, where it had to displace the entrenched market leaders: BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Palm, and Symbian. That proved to be surprisingly easy, helped by lunkheaded competition, but  Android soon came along as a serious challenger. I don’t think there is any doubt that the iPhone and Android have made each other better and I expect this process to continue, especially if Google can build and app and services ecosystem that rivals Apple’s. And I think the entry of Windows Phone 8 can  only improve things, pushing both Apple and Android, though its commercial success is an open question.

The fact that iPad has improved quite a bit since its 2010 introduction seems largely the spillover of iPhone features into the tablet space: better apps, better services, faster processors, and the retina display.  The first notable effect that tablet competition has had on the iPad is the introduction of the iPad mini, which is clearly a response to smaller tablets finding at least some success in the market.

Android tablets, especially the larger ones, have suffered from many problems. but the overwhelming issue is the lack of decent software. The success of iOS devices and even, to some extent, of Android phones has proven that consumers want native apps. But Google has had a very hard time seeing beyond the browser. The Android app situation remains calamitous, with most of the available choices being blown-up phone apps that are terrible on a 7″ tablet and unspeakable on a 10″.

Microsoft is not making this mistake.  The selection of Windows RT apps is still quite limited, but Microsoft understands the care and feeding of developers. The RT apps that are available are designed for the Surface’s display (and those of Windows 8 laptops and tablets) and consistently speak the Metro (for lack of a better name) design language common to Windows 8/RT and Windows Phone. Many of the apps are quite good (a notable exception being the built-in Windows 8/RT Mail app, whose awfulness is both inexplicable and inexcusable.)

Equally important, Surface is being launched into a mature Microsoft ecosystem. Microsoft has spent years seemingly pouring money down the holes of Xbox and what used to be called the Windows Live collection of online services. But now, those investments may be about to pay off, as the company pulls together the entertainment content of Xbox and cloud services such as SkyDrive, Outlook.com, and Office 360–not to mention the deep understanding of cloud services it has gained from its enterprise back office offerings. iOS devices sold a lot of Macs because of the way they work so well together in the Apple ecosystem. The same dynamic could work for Microsoft in reverse: the vast installed base of Windows PCs could sell Surfaces and Windows Phones to gain the advantages of the Microsoft environment.Surface is being launched into a mature Microsoft ecosystem..

Surface is not designed as a head-on competitor for the iPad. In many ways, from its ability to work with USB peripherals to its all-but-mandatory keyboard, it is far more PC-like. Like the iPad itself, it represents a new device class in what is turning out to be a surprisingly big space between smartphones and traditional PCs.

It’s going to take a while before we can judge the success of the Surface strategy. Microsoft, however, is a patient company that is smart enough not to expect an instant payoff from its very big bet. But by offering tablet-hungry consumers a worthy alternative to the iPad, Microsoft has put pressure on Apple to keep its game up. That can only be good for all of us.

 

 

Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.
  • Rich

    If Microsoft understands taking care of their customers, they need to inform potential Surface buyers that nothing they download for Windows will work on the Surface with Windows RT. That could be a deterrent to sales of the tablet, but full disclosure is the only sensible policy with this product.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I have raised the consumer education issue a number of times (for example). Microsoft did a decent job of starting to address it at the launch event last week (by the way, on Pier 57 over the Hudson, a venue that I’m sure was under water on Monday). But I haven;t seen any followup. At the moment, Microsoft is the only retailer, so at least returns won;t kill them in the channel. But it would be interesting to see what Surface returns are like.

      • http://twitter.com/BigBenz360 Benz360

        The wife got a Surface RT as a laptop/iPad replacement. This thing is a beast. For the majority of Tablet users RT will be more than enough to satisfy them. The Surface offers a lot more functionality than they are use to.

  • Defendor

    I don’t see how Surface is a new device class. It is a tablet with detachable (Rube Goldberg inspired) keyboard.

    Asus Transformer line does detachable keyboards better. You can also buy something like the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard cover for an iPad.

    A detachable keyboard, no matter how bizarre, doesn’t make for a new device class.

    • steve_wildstrom

      You’re right, but it’s not just the keyboard. It’s not just the device that matters but the software and services infrastructure that support it, and this differentiates Surface from both Android and iOS. Furthermore, the Surface is a lot more PC-like than previous tablets and, again, it’s not just the keyboard.

      • Defendor

        Aside from the temporary Kludge to support Office in a dysfunctional desktop mode, how is this more PC like, than an Asus Transformer running Android?

        • steve_wildstrom

          First, USB support for a wide variety of peripherals. Typically, Android devices that offer USB only support mass storage devices.

          Second, desktop support is somewhat borader than just Office (and I don’t know how temporary Office 2013 is.) You have access to the full file manager (Windows Explorer) and most if not all of the utilities that shipped with Windows 7. In Desktop mode, the Surface has a very PC-ish feel, even if you can’t install new applications.

          Mind you, I’m not saying that either of these things is particularly desirable; I am not convinced that adding PC-like complexity to a tablet is at all a good idea. But as an observation, not a value judgment, Surface is definitely more PC-like.

          • Defendor

            It just seems to me that the vestigial desktop mode is there to support functionality not yet developed for Metro.

            Office is a massive application suite, and the rewrite for Metro would be a massive undertaking, likely lasting years. When that is done, and they have native Metro file manager and other missing bits, what purpose will the RT desktop mode have.

            It clearly looks like a stopgap for incomplete Metro.

            As far as USB. Plugging in my Garmin GPS is going to do me little good if it won’t run my Garmin GPS/Mapping software to go with it. Keyboards/Mice, I believe Android handles those as well.

          • steve_wildstrom

            It’s really unfortunate that Microsoft did not undertake the massive rewrite of Office that was needed to make it a real Windows 8 application. I hope it’s underway now, because it is probably a three-year project. So Desktop mode in RT is going to be with us for a while.

            You are right that Android supports USB human interface devices (keyboards and mice.) I’m not quite sure why anyone would want a USB, rather than a Bluetooth, keyboard and mice don’t really very well in the Android touch UI, but if you want them, you can have them.

          • Walt French

            @Defendor wrote, “…the rewrite for Metro would be a massive undertaking, likely lasting years.”

            Not only are you dead right about Office13 being a stopgap, this is a massive #fail: it will merely accelerate people using other solutions on the 2/3 of devices that are NOT Microsoft Windows.

            I spent several hours this week chasing down, and re-installing an Excel macro I wrote but that disappeared in a corporate move. I am a serious user. But I will not hold my mobile use, which doesn’t need arcane logic, hostage to Microsoft’s solutions. Microsoft has likely already missed its window of opportunity for moving Office — and the rest of Windows’ functions — onto mobile.

          • Walt French

            @steve_wildstrom wrote, “I am not convinced that adding PC-like complexity to a tablet is at all a good idea.”

            I’ll go you one better: it’s an admission that the device is NOT ready to be a real mobile device, that its mobile functions are compromised. That you need to plug in a variety of gizmos — CD/DVD players, memory sticks, mice, printers, blah, blah, blah, BECAUSE there’s not a proper mobile solution.

            Microsoft surely knows that its audience WANTS ports such as USB for flexibility so they don’t have to set up wifi-aware printers, force their users to rely on Bluetooth mice that shouldn’t be used on planes, etc. But they had to have accepted that they are telling the avant garde users who are actually buying tablets that their devices are designed for the IT Dept, not smart, forward-looking individuals.

            Surely, if Sinofsky has been charged with building the world’s best tablet and tablet OS that shared code with desktops/laptops, he would not have piled on this old crap that increases complexity and pads the BOM.

            The big problem for Microsoft is if Christensen is right, and the disruptive mobile revolution has morphed quickly from proprietary solutions, to open, interchangeable parts. In that case, Microsoft will not attract indie developers’ interest, OEM partners’ commitment of capital, accessory makers’ willingness to risk their brand name on dud sellers. Now that the mobile revolution is 5+ years old, I question whether the aging desktop monopoly can serve as a response to a very-well-developed alternative set of platforms, and expect Microsoft to fail, albeit well after Palm, HP, Nokia & RIM.

    • http://twitter.com/BigBenz360 Benz360

      I have a Transformer and the Surface kills it hands down. The flat keyboard cover is a lot more comfortable to use. You can’t really compare the two it’s apples vs oranges.

  • mhikl

    “After Apple failed to respond to the introduction of Windows 95, the Mac market share fell to the low single digits and without effective competition, Microsoft innovation faded.”

    Excellent point, Steve, profound.

    That is one of those gut feelings I have had over the years, but my Microsoft friends always claimed great innovation with most new versions to Windows. I just saw more glitter and more confusion. It was the lack of consistency that kept me from switching camps. I have begun to fear the same from Apple in both its Oses.

    However, I suspect (and hope I am right) that a year after the shock and impact of decline in health and the reality of Steve’s death, Apple may be getting its footing back on its path. What gives me hope is the coming of a re-vamped iTunes, the changes in some top brass, John Ives step into the mist of software design and the ballsy pricing of the iPad 3.

    Let the critics wail but when Apple tucks in the belly and tightens the belt good things are more likely to come. I don’t know why I haven’t read about skeuomorphic design from Apple analysts before the removal of Forstall (usually strange and interesting words peak my interest) but I suspect there has been some sleeping at the switch in the Apple universe of intelligent criticism. If Steve’s support is what kept Forstall at the head of software design, that is profound. If it took Microsoft and its rejection of cluttered anachronistic design to shake Apple to its senses, then your point is dead on. I may not like Microsoft much, but the amoral can sometimes climb out of their holes and join the better world and some amends be made for past actions. I am looking forwards to a better Apple world with fair and challenging competition, all of which has much to do with a truly creative company’s success. For far too long we have assumed Apple could do it all on its own.

    • capnbob67

      Is it an excellent point? One could say that MS was not innovating when it ruthlessly copied Mac OS throughout the 1990s. Its innovation was at best in its software only/OEM-driven business model. The OEMs did most of the hard work to proliferate the platform and then MS came in with Enterprise licensing, back office infrastructure and milked its 2 main platforms (Windows and Office) ever since. XBox was a money pit that has sold as many 360s in 7 years as iOS devices in a holiday quarter. WinMob was a Palm clone

      Win8/WP8/RT is the first real risk and first original UI it has developed for decades (pretty much ever). This has been forced upon them because Apple and Google have moved the market beyond them and they are playing catchup in the worst way. The dismal Win8 upgrade numbers, enterprise disinterest, consumer unawareness and sure-to-be-poor Surface sales shows how far MS has fallen without many even noticing. Win8 upgrade pricing has been slashed and Office RT is free so even their cash cows are being slowly sacrificed to try to reverse the slow death.

      I can’t see Win8 in all its glory reversing these trends and MS will continue to spend more and more to try to right the ship. The fact that the central concept of compromised experience is what MS expects to save it in the face of a market defined by optimized devices is just indicative of how much MS is out of touch with reality

      • steve_wildstrom

        Your history is somewhat confused. Microsoft arguably copied Mac OS in the original Windows design (the litigation over this was settled in 1997), but by the time of Windows 95, the Windows UI was diverging in very significant ways. Besides, an OS is way more than its UI and by the late 90s, Windows, at least the Windows NT/2000 versions that ultimately formed the base of Windows XP, was indisputably superior to Mac OS. Apple was flailing in its effort to create a replacement and it wasn’t until Avie Tevanian came about and started on what became OS X that the effort got on track.

        Xbox has been a money pit, but the deals with entertainment content providers that Microsoft has negotiated for Xbox put it way ahead of Apple in content and now those relationships are being brought to Windows.

        Microsoft has serious problems finding any growth in its core businesses (though they will continue to bring in lots of money for a long time to come) and it is trying to move in new directions. Success is far from guaranteed, but it is way to early to declare failure.

        • capnbob67

          No confused history here Steve. Win95 was a refinement on stolen ideas and it was still inferior. MS triumphed at that time with its superior business model at the time where Enterprise sales dominated the market. Apple’s struggles to move to OSX has no bearing on MS ability or not to innovate. Changing kernels is not innovation.
          How do MS’ attempts to copy iTunes, Spotify and others count as innovation or make them superior to Apple? Apple, Pandora and Spotify were the innovators. MS has ridden their coat-tails again. They have a comparable music catalog to iTunes (only because Apple and others paved the way with the content owners) but are in fewer countries. They do have a different model (free/ad then paid) but that hasn’t proven to be a differentiator for them or any other music service. Do they have more movies or tv? They don’t, but If they did it wouldn’t be because of their skills but the content owners’ fear of Apple.
          MS has a weak history of true innovation and it is no surprise that they are struggling now.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I think this history should be looked at in three phases. From the beginning through the 80s, Apple was the innovation leader. The 90s were Microsoft’s decade, while Apple wandered in the wilderness of the Jobs interregnum. And the Microsoft project that really mattered for the long run was not Windows 95/98, which was a GUI built on top of a shaky DOS foundation, but Windows NT, which led to Win 2000 and XP. And to the extent Microsoft borrowed from others, it was less Apple than Digital Equipment because Dave Cutler, the principal architect of NT, had written VMS for DEC.

            Since the rebirth of Apple in the late 90s, it has again become the leader/ But people fail to appreciate the huge amount of work Microsoft has done in the enterprise and in infrastructure. There the challenge came not from Apple, but from Linux and from traditional enterprise powers such as IBM and Oracle. Microsoft is now bringing its back-end power, and area where Apple has always been weak and where Google has significant chops, to bear on consumer markets.

            I’m not picking any winners here, just saying it is going to get interesting.

  • hc Potter

    Two other tablets become available in November through a new site called TabletSprint – which offer some impressive features and prices, and stack up against the iPad and the new Google Nexus 10 inch tablets for nearly half the price – One model is the Novo 10 by Ainol electronics, a tabletmaker which received a CNET/CES 2012 “Tablet of the Year” award for another tablet they produced earlier this year – The Novo 10 offers a Quad Core processor and a pretty amazing 1920×1200 Liquid Crystal 10.1″ screen (like iPad Retina display) and will retail for about $269 and feature an advanced 10-Point Multi-Touch, HDMI with 1080p (HD) output to a TV, Dual Cameras, Bluetooth, WiFi, Built-In GPS, a Micro-SD Memory Card Slot, a Micro-USB port, a Strong Battery (10,000 mAh), Android 4.1 O/S (Jelly Bean) and Google Play access (400,000+ Android Software Apps). A similar model is also available in November that is produced by another Asia firm, Ramos Technology, that’s called the W30-HD, which also has many of the same features, Plus 3G built in that works with any GSM carrier (AT&T & T-Mobile) and is expected to be priced around $320. One of the only sites that seem to carry these models in the U.S. so far is at TabletSprint — which also offers a few well-priced, quality 7 inch tablet models–

    • Rich

      What’s your point? Were you paid to post this?