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