Why is Microsoft’s Surface obsessed with Keyboards?

on June 28, 2012
Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.