If you were to imagine the ideal devices to knock Apple’s iPad off its throne as the king of tablets, they might look a lot like the Surface slates Microsoft announced Monday night.
They give up nothing to the iPad in physical design, have similarly sized 10-inch screens and run an operating system that, like the iPad’s, is ideal for touch-screen slates. Unlike the iPad, the Surface comes with a built-in kickstand, the ability to automatically detect whether you are interacting with the device with a pen or a finger, support for a trackpad and, at least on one model, the ability to run applications designed originally for Windows PCs.
Microsoft clearly has a product that is not only competitive with the iPad but also offers features not available on Apple’s device. And many of those additional features happen to be ones that Microsoft’s corporate clients are likely to find attractive.
I’m not ready to call the Surface devices iPad killers. There remain too many unanswered questions about the tablets and Microsoft’s ability to compete in the market. One key factor will be price. Microsoft implied that the two model lines will start at about $500 and $1,000, respectively. That seems too high.
Apple’s position is so dominant that taking it on is going to be a tough task, one that other companies have thus far failed at. The ground is littered with would-be iPad killers.
Even though it’s been more than two years since Apple launched the iPad, it still basically has the market to itself. In the first quarter, Apple shipped 63 percent of all tablets. Second-place Samsung shipped less than 9 percent.
Google’s Android software until now has been the chief competitor to Apple’s iPad in terms of tablet operating systems. But the Android-based tablets also have had few significant advantages over the iPad other than a lower price. And, in the case of devices such as Amazon’s Kindle Fire, that cheaper price tag came with fewer features or much smaller screens.
But Apple’s position is not unassailable. If a company put together the right combination of features, design, marketing, price, apps and business savvy, they could slice into Apple’s share of the market.
That’s what makes Surface so compelling: At first look, it’s a credible challenger to the iPad.
I recently tested out a beta version of Windows 8, the upcoming version of Microsoft’s flagship operating system. I hated running it on a laptop. But that’s because Windows 8’s interface, with its large app tiles and gesture support, seemed designed for use with a touch screen, not a mouse and keyboard. I thought at the time it would be ideal for tablets.
Microsoft seems to be listening to its corporate customers and addressing their concerns. There’s a growing interest in tablets among those customers. But many corporations want the tablets they buy to be able to run older Windows applications. Some corporate and business customers have used Windows-based tablets in the past and liked their support for pens and handwriting.
Microsoft’s keyboard add-on for Surface could also prove popular. Many iPad owners use their devices in place of laptops, and a host of accessory makers have developed keyboards for the iPad. But they tend to feel cheap, clunky and heavy. And because the iPad doesn’t support trackpads or mice, users have to interact with them with the touch screen, which can be awkward when they’re connected to a keyboard.
By contrast, Surface will support a trackpad, and the keyboard is thin and light.
But I have doubts about Microsoft’s prospects in the market. It has a long history of making hardware, but mostly simple accessories such as keyboards and mice. The company does not have a great track record with more complex devices.
Yes, Microsoft has a hit with the Xbox and its Kinect add-on. But the company famously lost money for years making the original Xbox, and the early versions of the Xbox 360 were plagued with quality problems that users came to call the “Red Ring of Death.”
And outside the Xbox, Microsoft has largely failed. The Zune didn’t make a dent in Apple’s iPod sales. The company killed its Kin phones — Remember them? Probably not — less than three months after it launched them due to poor sales.
I’d rate the Surface tablets’ prospects much higher than Zune or Kin, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if the tablets experienced quality or software problems or other assorted bugs. As Apple showed with the antenna problems that plagued the iPhone 4, even companies with a long history of making hardware mess things up. And as the challenger, Microsoft will be allowed less margin for error.
Also, I can’t help wondering how Microsoft’s manufacturing partners are going to receive this announcement. As the computing market has shifted from traditional PCs to tablets, PC makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell have been yearning for something that would help them compete against Apple. I think many saw Windows 8 as a potential salvation.
But they can’t be happy about now having to compete against Microsoft as well as Apple. They also can’t be happy about the potential conflicts of interest such a competition naturally entails. How are they going to react if Microsoft undercuts their prices or offers features on its tablets that they — because they don’t control the operating system — just can’t match?
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @troywolv.