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Why the Microsoft Surface tablet is brilliant news for everyone

Well then. That took us all by surprise didn’t it?

Last week’s keynote from Microsoft announcing their Microsoft Surface tablet strategy was unexpected.

We should be clear, though: Of course Microsoft has been looking at tablets. Of course. Tablets (or, quite frankly, “iPads”) are one of the biggest trends in technology right now. Microsoft couldn’t possibly ignore the trend.

There had been rumblings of something coming from Microsoft for quite a while. Most expected the company to announce a hardware partner (or a series of partners). Most expected the actual announcement to take place “later” (where “Later” is defined as a rolling date 6-months-ahead).

Quite why Microsoft announced the Surface strategy last week is unknown. If you look at the calendar of events coming up though you can see why. Google’s got their I/O event coming up — they’re surely going to have to address the appalling state of the Android tablet market. Apple’s lingering in the wings having just completed their WWDC event — the new iPhone rumour mill will shortly pick up pace distracting everyone.

Whatever the reason, the announcement was — shock horror — received rather well, wasn’t it?

There’s a list a million questions long about the Surface. Price point and battery life are amongst the big ones. If the device is half decent, I’m confident developers will give it the requisite attention.

Bring it to market at £1,099 and no one will care.

At £399 around the iPad-defined price point and we should have some exciting times. I have to confess that every time the on-stage team kept referring to the Surface as a “PC”, I couldn’t help but think “45-minute battery”. We need to see iPad-esque battery performance or, again, it’s no dice Microsoft.

I don’t think Microsoft could seriously bring a device to market that was sub-calibre. They have surely learned their lessons from [insert example here] launch failures.

The kick-stand is a brilliant innovation. The integrated keyboard cover looks simply wonderful. I could see myself using the device. With a fair wind, I could see Microsoft selling hundreds of millions of these devices. I could see this rivalling the iPad.

And this is the brilliant news I referred to in the post subject.

Stay with me. And let’s assume the rose-tinted spectacles. Assume a fair wind.

The tablet market is already getting boring. Momentum beyond the iPad has crashed into the wall. Hardly anyone is even bothering with Android — a total abomination on tablets. It’s not even worth talking about ‘tablets’. We all mean iPads.

I can’t move for stories of huge and small enterprises discussing their ‘tablet strategies’ — they mean iPads.

I’ve only found one story in about 2 years of this whole tablet ecosystem detailing a sizeable purchase of Android tablets. I’ll find it and link it here if I can. I’m sure there’s a few more out there. I’ve seen quite a few companies who’ve deployed BlackBerry PlayBooks too.

But alas, the zeitgeist is all about iPad.

This, unfortunately, is a bad thing. It’s bad for innovation. Apple can easily take all of the smart innovation they’re playing with and spread it out across another few years. They can simply pick one or two hero additions (like the Retina screen) and knock out an update every 9 months or so. There’s nothing to compete with.

Watching the Surface keynote though, for the first time I actually felt my iPad 3 was a bit deficient. The kick stand actually looked smart. It makes my iPad feel a bit… well, yeah, why should I have to buy a flipping £39 piece of plastic to make my iPad stand up?

And the keyboard? Don’t get me started on the physical keyboard. That makes my iPad look pretty useless. How come Microsoft were able to create a physical touch sensitive keyboard that’s THREE FLIPPING MILIMETRES thin? That, there, is smart innovation. All of a sudden — and for the first time in AGES — I felt Apple’s iPad was rather deficient as a result of something I’d seen from a competitor.

There’s plenty of caveats here. Yes the iPad is fantastic. Yes I still love it. I’m not about to dump it.

But this is an interesting situation.

Let’s assume Microsoft bring the Surface to market for £399. Let’s assume it does 8-hours easily battery. (Or at least one of their models does). Let’s further assume that developers lap it up. After all, the creation of apps will be pretty straight forward, especially if you’re already familiar with Windows development.

Now let’s look at Microsoft’s partner network. It’s huge. The accessories and additional options could be brilliant, not least because of Microsoft’s open viewpoint — within reason, they’ll let you do anything as long as you license it correctly (as apposed to Apple’s strict control policy). The Surface has got a USB port! Everything you’ve sort-of wanted to do with an iPad, you can now try out with a Surface. Innovation should start flowing. Combine this with a bit of market momentum and things could get rather exciting.

Add in Windows 8 on the desktop, the XBOX (“TV”) and Windows Phone and things start to look rather compelling.

I’ve always found Apple are good when it comes to leading their own little niche. I wonder how they’d react to concerted, aggressive, exciting and highly inspiring innovation from Microsoft and the company’s partners?

One point I haven’t examined is why Microsoft has opted to produce the Surface themselves rather than with a hardware partner such as Dell, HP, Nokia or HTC. There’s quite a few possible explanations. This is something I discussed with Ben and Rafe in this week’s 361 Degrees podcast. See what you make of the views there.

I would really like to see a decent effort to counter the iPad. The industry sorely needs a bit of competitive innovation. Like the mobile industry, it’s been rather depressing finding out that — for the most part — no one in the industry could innovate out of a wet paper bag when compared to Apple. Indeed Apple’s court action against Samsung has had some superficial merit in my opinion: Why, of all a sudden, was it written that mobile phones (and tablets) had to be black touchscreen slabs that all LOOK like the iPhone/iPad?

Anyway. That’s another story.

Are you with me? Are you excited at the possibilities?

(Watch the Surface keynote here thanks to The Verve)


  1. I agree.

    I agree about all those stupid iPhone clones large and small.

    I agree about Apple’s innovation block – there are a million great reasons to include USB port(s), micro-SD ports, HDMI ports or whatever. We want and need to DO PRODUCTIVE STUFF with our tablets, not just be googley-eyed consumers.

    I am beyond sick of the total lack of innovation elsewhere as other companies suck their thumbs and sway back and forth trying to figure out how to out-iPad the iPad.

    I am hoping that the *Surface* moniker reveals itself to be a smart evolution of the original surface tabletop, complete with a way to ‘see’ what is touching the screen. At the very least that could mean that the tablet is able to ‘see’ that you are using a stylus, and will ignore your palm touching the screen. Ever tried to ‘write’ on an iPad? And with that, Im sure Microsoft can give s great handwriting recognition a the OS level, which makes it available everywhere like, oh, I don’t know, PocketPC had a decade ago!

  2. I think this looks pretty neat. I really liked the keyboard cover and wished my iPad had one. I hope they are successful with it. What do you think are the implications for Nokia as I am guessing there will not be a Lumia tablet now.

  3. Or it could pave the way for Nokia, Eric… Microsoft could be putting the flag in the ground to help guarantee the success of the device then we could see Nokia deliver their own version of the Surface?

  4. In the U.S., Microsoft has always owned the “enterprise”. CTOs in the states maintain the MS software and thus prefer to keep everything on the same OS. Then, up pops the iPhone and iPad. all of a sudden executives are telling the CTOs they want it to have one. With no alternative, the CTOs make this work.

    Now, MS comes with what appears to be a great alternative AND it has a keypad, highly necessary for enterprise related functions like spreadsheets and documents. To me, it is the keypad that is the selling point. On my iPad I had to go buy a keypad. My choices were the normal sized keypads that I had to carry separate from the iPad, thus rendering this useless to me, or a keypad that doubled as a case and keypad. I opted for the latter. Yet it makes my iPad 150% bigger to carry around.

    I need a keypad for work. I can’t use the slow interactive keypad on the iPad. My kids don’t mind, but for me, with large amounts of data input, it was not feasible. With the keypad included, MS is going straight back towards “work” users and the enterprise.

    I would never count MS out here.

  5. I think we expect the Surface to be successful, assuming Microsoft have the same short supply issues Apple have with the iPads after launch there is certainly a window of opportunity for Windows phone licensees to establish a brand, or some differentiation from the Microsoft hardware.

    That I think is the real question, can the licensees compete on features or will they be forced to compete on price alone? Industrial design might be the way to compete?

    I would hope for Nokia they can make Lumia a brand people want with a range of handsets, tablets and portable media players.
    Looking at the style for the Lumia, N8 and N9 handsets a tablet could also have a decent aesthetic and differentiation.

  6. Ewan, per your question on pricing, I reckon it has to be in tandem with the iPad, correct? I don’t think it has to be cheaper, just something to justify this purchase over the already popular iPad. I think they can pull that off if Apple did, no?


  7. Ewan, per your question on pricing, I reckon it has to be in tandem with the iPad, correct? I don’t think it has to be cheaper, just something to justify this purchase over the already popular iPad. I think they can pull that off if Apple did, no?



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