Tablet mania

posted by Jeff | Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 4:04 PM | comments: 0

Computers in the tablet form factor seemed to be something of a fantasy for a long time. Most notably, Microsoft was pushing laptops that converted into things with screens you could use a stylus on. They actually gained some traction in the medical niche, but widespread use never caught on.

Touch and gestures became obvious for things that weren't ATM's when the iPhone came out in 2007. It's weird to think about how obvious that is now. When the iPad was announced, and then released in the spring of 2010, I figured, sure, I'll buy one. They aren't cheap, but they're not expensive, so why not?

But I never did buy one, at that point. My gadget problem did not get the best of me, and I didn't do it. My better judgement held me back, because I didn't really see where I would use it. I finally did buy one, a year later, mostly so I could see what my sites looked like in the browser, and how they worked in a touch scenario. I replaced that iPad a year later because of a generous trade-in from Amazon and no-contract LTE hotspot sharing on the new model.

Once I finally had one of these devices, I started to understand where it fit, but also that it wasn't an entirely necessary object. What it really came down to is that the iPad is almost strictly a consumption device. You don't really create stuff on it. Yes, you can peck out e-mail and respond to forum posts, but it's not a place you want to do any serious writing, or otherwise create media. It's not that you can't, it's just ergonomically awkward. You certainly can't write code on it or unleash your Photoshop masterpiece.

What the iPad did do successfully is push the engineering and industrial design to places it had never gone before. That's a big deal. Being a decidedly different kind of computer with different goals freed it of the constraints that computers have had since the IBM PC. It didn't need to have certain ports or be expandable or whatever. Tweaking geeks hate this (especially when it comes to the slim Mac laptops), but let's be honest here... you can generally get three or more years out of these machines without changing them, and even resell them after that. The simplicity and elegance of the iPad is part of its allure.

Now we have Surface, from Microsoft. I might be a little biased having worked there, but I firmly believe that what they're capable of is huge. I think they finally woke up and realized that no matter how great the software is that they're making, you can't entirely rely on manufacturers to build great hardware around it. This has become painfully obvious with laptops, where it has taken four years to start making hardware as great as the Apple stuff, and it's still not "better." They took things into their own hands and announced their Surface tablet this week.

What surprises me is that it's not a "me too" product. They didn't just make a tablet in the image of iPad and put Windows on it. I already knew that the user interface and connected service integration would be better, by way of the Windows 8 betas and almost two years using Windows Phone. What they did was blur the line between the "PC" (an increasingly stupid term, because I frankly believe that an iPad is also a "personal computer") and the tablet. They did this with a genius cover that's also a keyboard. They decided to put USB and HDMI ports on it. You can even use a stylus on it. If I were to summarize what's different, I'd say that it's not strictly a consumption device the way the iPad is. That's the important distinction.

That said, there is some potential for confusion. What they announced is actually two variations on the tablet. One runs on the lower power ARM chips similar to those running the iPad and Android tabs. The other is actually a full-blown Intel CPU computer, in a tablet package. The former can only run the tablet specific Metro apps designed for it, while the latter can run anything Windows can. If I were strictly a pundit, I'd say, that's fine, so much of what anyone does anymore is browser based anyway. I don't know if regular consumers will understand or appreciate the difference, and I worry that this will be a serious point of confusion. Maybe it won't matter at all.

It's also not entirely clear what Microsoft's intentions are. OEM's can still make their own tablets running their software, so does that mean they're really just making the ultimate reference design? A template for others? While it's hard to say, my hope is that they're in it to win it. While licensing the operating system is the company's heritage, and it has made ridiculous coin doing so, one could argue that there's high potential for high margin in these devices. Apple makes cool software, but let's not kid ourselves... they don't license OS X or iOS because the money is in the hardware they sell, often at ridiculous margins. With carrier subsidies, they're doing as much as 60% on the iPhones, and the laptops and iPads up to 50% (not accounting for R&D, mind you). Who doesn't want to be in that business?

Regardless of what you like to use, seeing Microsoft finally come to the party is pretty exciting. I'll buy a Surface, sure. I doubt I'll be the only one.


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