Scratching the Surface: When is a tablet not a tablet?

June 20, 2012

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

Microsoft’s huge announcement Monday that it was going into the consumer computer business is a turning point for the Redmond giant – a real gloves-off, damn-the-torpedoes moment. It’s also perhaps a grudging nod to Apple and Steve Jobs’s view that hardware and software need to develop together to get it right. Until now Microsoft has ceded hardware issues to other companies – Dell, HP, Acer, Samsung, etc. Now it will compete with them.

But the notion that “The Surface” – Microsoft’s new tablet PC unveiled Monday but not expected on the market until the end of the year – will take on Apple’s iPad is misguided.

We’re still in the early stages of the tablet era, and nobody can really claim to exactly define what a tablet is. But for me “tablet” means the computer is self-contained and mobile – you can use it standing up and even walking around. Whatever defects the iPad is perceived to have – starting with a software keyboard – its ease of use in contexts where a traditional clamshell computer can’t be used makes it the embodiment of a tablet.

Microsoft’s Surface does not seem to be cut from the same cloth. It’s more expensive model will run the heavyweight programs Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office, but the cover/keyboard and the kickstand – both of which are grounded tools – are chief among the attributes Microsoft touts.

With that keyboard, Surface sales won’t be at the expense of the iPad, or any other tablet. It’s a signal that the Surface isn’t really a tablet at all, but an ultra-cool portable laptop.

It might seem a peripheral point, but peripherals neuter tablets. iPad wannabes with touch-screen capability and removable media and USB ports have come and largely gone because the things you do with a tablet really have nothing to do with computing in the traditional sense. The tablet concept is to make the device as thin as possible – literally and metaphorically. It must disappear and require nothing of you as it does your bidding.

The iPad resonates because it’s a good-enough productivity machine. You can do social media and web-surf and bang out emails like crazy. I’ve written a hefty number of these columns with an iPad, standing up on a moving train.

That said, I still feel the need to have a “real” computer. Something more powerful, something that has a USB port, something that has a traditional look and feel to it but as little heft as possible. Something like a MacBook Air, or the slew of PC versions that started cropping up last year in earnest, from the very hardware partners Microsoft is now confronting.

I suspect Microsoft is really going after the ultra-light laptop space, by inventing a new slice: a tablet-size laptop. And if the pricing rumors are true, the high-end Surface will be:

  • cheaper than the low-end MBA
  • about the same price as less-sexy ultra-lights from other PC manufacturers
  • in the price range of the iPad
  • much more expensive than the Nook Tablet or the Kindle Fire.

So it’s cheap if thought of as a laptop, and expensive if thought of as a tablet.

But rather than get bogged down in semantics, I propose this test: Will someone buy a Surface instead of an iPad, or own both? In other words, my guess is that Surface will enlarge the market for notebooks – as the MacBook Air did – while having no discernible effect on iPad sales.

Of course, Microsoft is probably trying to have its cake and eat it too. Word is, there will be an onscreen keyboard (though it was not demoed), but given the promotional materials, Microsoft clearly expects the cover always to be used with Surface – unlike with the iPad, which works just fine without the smart cover Apple sells separately. This conceit must have Steve laughing from the grave. It has always been Microsoft’s Achilles’ heel: It dictates with the best of them, but doesn’t listen well.

So, I won’t protest too hard that Microsoft is calling the Surface a tablet. It wouldn’t be the first time it muddied the waters to conquer by trying to divide. But the real news here is that Microsoft is getting into the ultra-portable-laptop business in a way that allows it to control everything. And that has to have the folks over at Apple grinning just a little.

PHOTO: Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer holds the new Surface as it is unveiled in Los Angeles, June 18, 2012. Microsoft Corp unveiled a tablet called Surface on Monday, in a move to rival Apple Inc’s massively successful iPad.  REUTERS/David McNew


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Mr. Abell,

I’m not sure the Microsoft tablet is the answer but they are on the right track. Unlike you, some of us have not drunk the Apple kool-aid. I say that as someone who using Macs for desktop publishing almost 20 years ago.

The iPad fails because some of us do not wish to have (and cannot afford) multiple devices that do roughly the same thing. It’s a bit like what’s happening to digital cameras. I own a camera, but I don’t use it because my phone(not an iphone) takes great pics.

I have a tablet but there are times I need to type out something quickly (without having to maneuver around the screen by constantly lifting my hands from a keyboard. There are times that I actually want to print out something. I do not want a separate device. I want a device that is flexible. Whatever manufacturer figures that out, and offers a quality device, will win quite a few consumers.

Posted by k3nn3th | Report as abusive

Sorry John, but you couldn’t be more wrong on most points. The most glaring inaccuracy is that Surface is not going to be a competitor to the ipad and will not cut into its sales- to which I say it absolutely will. This will cut into both ipad sales and ultrabook sales. What the Surface represents is the missing link. What I mean by that is that I have a tablet (both ipad and android), I also have a ultrabook & laptop. What I’ve been longing for in the tablet realm has less to do with form factors or how quickly I can stamp out emails- but rather can do those things – and – also unify these different platforms most seamlessly. And the answer to that (if you are one of the roughly 75% users who use a Windows product) will be a tablet that can run your desktop software, or Windows as is the case for me.

Because what I want to do most is run all my desktop apps on my tablet and have full access and synchronization to them, and vise verse. I want to be able to open my familiar desktop browser on my tablet with a touch interface and have complete access to my password form fill data fully accessible. I want all of my bookmarks and google buttons sitting there as I’ve got them on my desk/lap/ultra. I want to be able to buy a common software program and have license across multiple devices- the same with games.

But most importantly I want to have One Common Interface across all these devices. This is where Win8/Metro comes in on the tablet (time will tell with Windows Phone). And from what I’ve seen so far, in the tablet world, MS may have very well knocked it out of the park and if you are Apple or Google, you should be nervous- very nervous…

Posted by mynamehear2 | Report as abusive

the picture shows E.T. holding something superficially resembling a tablet

but actually sending your productivity to hell with same old viral windows and buggy office

stick with samsung, ipad, android if you want to produce something rather than “fix something” with endless msoft update vomitware spewing into your machine

Posted by scythe | Report as abusive

Most of us don’t want or can’t afford two computers. We simply want the lightest, most portable and convenient tool consistent with our needs for both passive media consumption and document creation (or other work). Call it what you will — ultrabook, tablet, etc. — it’s just the hardware package people are rapidly evolving toward. Something very light and touchscreen oriented, but with a real keyboard that is either integrated or easily attached-detached. All of these distinction that the companies create for marketing purposes are nonsense. It’s just a computer, made to meet today’s needs and expectations. Two years from now, everyone will have one. Just like three years ago everyone moved to laptops. It’s just a natural evolution and no single company can “own” it.

Posted by From_California | Report as abusive

Presuming that there is no on screen keyboard because they did not demo one is fairly presumptious. I see the top range one as a tablet AND and laptop. Want a tablet -leave the keyboard in your car.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

I’ll have both an iPad and a Surface – no question. I can’t do flash or a whole list of other websites w/ my iPad and it annoys me like crazy. Now, it’s like I’ll have every app I ever had before and more – except now I’m 100% portable and can take my notes everywhere I go. Can’t wait – totally for business and play imo. Did you see the amount of genius behind it collaborating to build it? The goal was clear – and I’m sold. You know every intro has it’s bugs – those who CAN wait will. Those who have to have the latest and greatest toys are going to scoop them up. Buying it online = no line 😉 Good job MS! Looks freakin sweet.

Posted by soldier777 | Report as abusive

Microsoft blew it on the name. They already have a surface – large table size screens. They should have called it mini-surf or surfs-up.

I guess the same guy who named the google version of their search engine named this tablet like thing. I am actually drawing a blank on it – would have to open an IE browser to get the name of it.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

Seriously, are Balmer and Bezos in some kind of ugly competition? No wonder their stuff can’t catch up to Apple. Jobs was only ugly, but these guys are double-ugly, as our grandmother used to say. Now with Cook on stage, Apple has a half-ugly guy out front.

You’d think these guys might outsource the whole caboodle to Asia and let some Japanese or Chinese car company handle the stage models for them. They can’t be any worse off than they are now.

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

No doubt it will suffer from the usual Microsoft Blue screen of death – their tradecraft for sloppy software development. No doubt getting a wifi connection to work will be a never ending challenge. No doubt it will fail to deliver on just about every metric possible. No doubt it will be about a secure as a collander. Some idiots will buy it, but my guess is that Microsoft has has its day. I gave up on their offering years ago and it was the best day’s work I ever did.

Posted by carnot | Report as abusive