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My Thoughts on Bill Gates’ Recent Comments Regarding Tablets and Microsoft Surface

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Before I start, I would like to get a few things out of the way. I do not dislike Microsoft or Bill Gates. They have earned their success, and have been a driving force in the tech industry. I just (strongly) prefer Apple’s products over Microsoft’s. Secondly, what they are doing with Windows Phone 7, Windows 8 Metro, and their Surface initiative are all uncharacteristically bold moves, worth taking a look at. With that out of the way, lets dig in.

Bill Gates recently sat down with Charlie Rose for an interview. He unsurprisingly, and understandably gushed over Microsoft’s recently unveiled Surface-branded tablet initiative. When Rose asked why earlier Microsoft tablet products didn’t catch on, Gates responded by saying that he had the idea “way too early”. To my mind this may be correct on a technical level– that a sleek device like a Surface tablet or iPad was limited by technology of the time– but Gate’s vision of the tablet was to squeeze Microsoft’s Windows monopoly onto a different form factor. This didn’t catch on because a windowing environment simply doesn’t work well with touch input. Gate’s way around this problem was a stylus (yuck).

Gates goes on to hand out, what I believe, at least from a design standpoint, mixed messages. His company was founded on the idea of choice- their software on whatever hardware you would like. Now that Apple’s model of end-to-end hardware/software integration has caught on with the iPhone and the iPad, Microsoft is doing the same, despite its money making stance of the 90s.

As apparent with the Surface announcement, Microsoft has bought into the iPad concept, in a way. They introduced two devices: a chunky Intel-based tablet that can run both iPad-like, Metro apps, plus traditional Windows apps, and a slimmer, Metro-only iPad-like experience. Both came with an admittedly awesome looking, cover that acts as a keyboard as well. Gates claims that customers “don’t have to compromise”. This line of thinking very well might catch on in the market.

Microsoft is addressing one of the early criticisms of the iPad with this mentality- these devices can be used to create content, not just consume it, as the iPad was (incorrectly) accused of doing. This sounds great, and very well may catch on in the market, but therein lies the difference between Apple and Microsoft. As of now, iOS devices are not meant to outright replace traditional computers, although they certainly can for home users.* By cutting away all of the cruft that comes with the legacy of the PC, the iPad is something new, far lighter, and more equipped for specialized tasks.

To me, this is why the ARM-based, Metro-only Surface tablet is more interesting. With this device, Microsoft is taking a leap of faith on the shift in the computer market we are all experiencing. The Intel-based tablet seems like a bit of a copout, just in case the iPad-style of things doesn’t continue its stratospheric trajectory.

Then again, the dumbest or smartest thing Gates said in the interview, was that there is a “strong possibility” that Apple needs a Surface-like device in their product lineup. This statement shows us one of two things: Either Gates still doesn’t understand that Apple creates something, tests it internally, and delivers only what they believe is the best solution. They do not offer a myriad of products and let the market sort it out as companies such like HP, Dell, and Samsung do. Or, he genuinely believes that Apple will need a Surface-like product, and is praying that the company is too stubborn to admit this fact and change course. But then, why would Apple change course? The iPad is selling phenomenally, other tablets are struggling even though they’ve adopted the same concept, and the Surface tablets are still months from release.

Microsoft has certainly done something different with the tablet concept than Apple, which is to be admired for its boldness. That boldness though, is relative to Microsoft. This is a company that traditionally tries to keep the toothpaste in the tube. That is, establish a monopoly and then protect it. The market is changing on them, and fewer people are buying PCs in favor of Macs and even more iPads. Microsoft realizes that they must change course if they want to maintain any sort of market presence moving forward.

Instead of aping the iPad model as Google has with its Android, they have seemingly split the difference between the tablet and PC markets with their new Surface devices. On the one hand, if Microsoft had put all of their wood behind the arrow of the iPad model, most of us, myself included, would have accused Microsoft of simply copying Apple’s lead once again. On the other hand, with the move Microsoft has made with their Surface products, at least with the Intel variant of the device that the company was obviously more proud of, it seems that they haven’t totally shaken away their PC roots and are once again trying the only thing they know.

Who knows, the market may absolutely love Microsoft’s new Surface tablets, both the Intel and ARM variants, and like the idea of both working with Windows and a tablet interface**. All indications suggest otherwise at the moment, as the iPad is selling extremely well. It appears that the market enjoys the idea of a device that can be specialized to a task one application at a time.

In summary, Gates, as a champion for Microsoft, has managed to straddle the fence of the two competing ideologies in the tech industry with his comments regarding the company’s new Surface devices– end-to-end integration and openness that allows for hardware variety. This seems odd coming from Gates and Microsoft, but Apple’s strategy is clearly winning at the moment, and by all indications the entire industry is moving in that direction. Microsoft has to do something, which in this case, swallow their pride and build their own hardware and try something new.

*Who knows, in a decade or so the iPad might be able to do everything we need from a traditional PC. For now, at it appears it will stay this way for some time, the analogy from the late Steve Jobs best fits here. Traditional PC are the equivalent of trucks. We’re always going to need them, and they’re always going to be around, but for the vast majority of people, this is unnecessary. No, for the rest of us, we need a sedan, which can’t do what a truck can, but is enough to get us where we’re going.

**Although it doesn’t sound like it, I can’t wait to get my hands on one these devices and see how it works.

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  • George K Fahnbulleh

    I am continuously surprised at tech writers who scoff at the concept of the surface, especially those who favor Apple products. Anyone surprised by this CONVERGENCE, simply refuses to accept how technology evolves…yes evolves. The iPad was the next evolution of the tablet as a computing device. While it has great portability, and user experience, it does not fulfill the role of a computer, from a content creation perspective. Just about everyone who owns an iPad and has to create content, also owns a computer…evolution incomplete.

    Enter the Surface Pro. It may not be the perfect computer. It may not be the perfect tablet. But it can be good enough at being both of those things to replace both for an individual. The evolution will continue, with innovations in this convergence process from all players in this space. The notion that one company has won or will will, no matter what their marketing departments want us to believe, is not borne out by the historical record.

    • Alex Jordan

      Overall, I have not scoffed at the idea. In fact, I’m rather excited and competition is a good thing. I come from the Windows world, but I simply prefer Apple products. Now, I disagree that this is an evolution, your word of convergence is more accurate. But to me, a convergence pollutes both experiences.

      Also, I have created a tremendous amount of content on my iPad. Many of the articles seen on iSource have come from my iPad. I have edited photos, and produced audio files. It’s a great device for creative work, although more can still be done on a traditional computer.

      Thanks for your comment.

      • Apple capitalized on the convergence of mobile phones and music players. Then they gave the iPod a bigger screen, camera, and apps. That’s it. Nothing has (substantially) changed about their ‘computer’ business – they still can’t sell PCs at any reasonable clip to compete with Windows OEM sales. Their laptop sales are up a bit more, but still no where near on par with iOS sales. Besides, iOS sales are temporal, and by design! Apple relies on device turnover. The entire business model requires it. Apple also requires their products to stay segregated, or risk serious cannibalization. And with the popularity of their devices, they undoubtedly have acquired customers (through carrier subsidy) who will never see themselves spending top dollar for a laptop/desktop to complete the iEcosystem to get them full functionality. These users just care about features and usability. When those features and usability require 8 different itemized purchases of $30-50 on top of a pricey computer that isn’t easily upgraded and doesn’t replace their WinPC, suddenly the cool and hip iPhone .. just isn’t anymore. Why not pay a single $15 or $40 (Win7 vs XP Win8 upgrade price), get the same features on a subsidized phone that natively runs cross-platform apps and is fully-integrated for free, and keep that hard-earned cash?

        “.. fewer people are buying PCs in favor of Macs and even more iPads.”
        depending on how you read that, it might not mean what you want it to mean, but assuming you mean people are buying macs or iPads in lieu of Windows PCs, this is a confusing point to make. For one, an iPad cannot replace the productivity of a Windows PC, and the app-centric model is nowhere near close to catching up with the out-of-box flexibility and application availability you get with a traditional desktop environment (Mac or PC alike, and Macs are still miles behind WinPCs). Secondly, Apple capitalizes when they keep you locked inside their ecosystem .. and THAT means getting people to buy a traditional desktop AND ALSO an iPhone/iPad. This simply isn’t happening. People still use their Windows PCs because they have to because it’s the only place it can be done. They use their iOS devices for things /they can/ do reasonably well. But many of these ‘can do’ tasks are purely euphoria-based and don’t replace ‘real’ computers reasonably well, like kids in a candy shop: spending 10 minutes sitting on the couch trying to get siri to tell you what time the sun will set on a specific day next year versus walking to the desk to use the real computer, or a complicated search that requires more nimble & efficient ergonomics than pinch and zoom, touch typing, and barebones browsing features, etc.

  • ViewRoyal

    There are some deep problems with the Surface concept(s). There are really two very different products with the Surface name.

    The ARM version of the surface uses only the new Metro interface on which multi-touch, full screen apps will run. Metro is based on Windows code, in the same way that Apple’s iOS is built on OS X code. But the ARM version of Surface can’t run Windows applications. So this device is really meant to be similar to, and a competitor to the iPad and Android tablets.

    The ARM version of the Surface is no more a Windows PC than the iPad is a Mac. Unlike the iPad, there are currently no third-party Metro applications (and no guarantee if and when developers will produce Metro versions of their Windows application).

    Because of all this, most Windows users will want the Intel version of Surface so that they can run their current, important Windows applications. But…

    The Intel version of Surface must use a keyboard and trackpad/mouse, and the stylus, in order to use those Windows applications since they are not multi-touch enabled. So what we have with this version of the Surface is another attempt by Microsoft to sell people on the Tablet PC concept, which has been a failure since it was introduced by Bill Gates in 2000.

    In addition, the Intel version of Surface will be priced similar to Ultrabooks. For the same price as an Ultrabook you get a tablet+keyboard combo that weighs as much as an Ultrabook, is thicker than an Ultrabook, has a slower Intel processor than an Ultrabook, has less RAM than an Ultrabook, has a much smaller SSD than an Ultrabook, has a floppy keyless keyboard instead of a real keyboard like Ultrabooks, and has a 10″ display instead of the Ultrabooks’ 13″ or 14″ display.

    Oh, and Ultrabooks can be used on uneven surfaces, like your lap, while the Surface+keyboard combo can’t. 😉

    Maybe Microsoft will come up with a more practical concept, and produce an Ultrabook that has a swivel display that you can use with just the stylus.

    Oh wait! That’s the same thing as the Tablet PC!


    • dhearn

      I think they intended to work towards a common OS between two processors.

      So if you buy “windows 8” software it runs on mutiple platforms.

      The aim to deliver the same concept on mutiple devices….

      Hence the reason they have said 20 thousand times how easy it is to recode for the arm

      • exactly. unified platform. the same market dynamics that ushered their dominance in the desktop space will still play the same role. It’s simply easier to develop for Windows; their tooling is vastly more superior than the competition and the developer community more defined and dedicated. More companies use their OS for day to day business. 90% of the world’s internet-connected devices run Windows. Yes, iOS (and Android) sales have been enormous. But /then/ what? This notion of post-pc is failing really hard. You can’t be post-pc and still require a pc to create any functionality or drive productivity out of the iOS device. With Win8 running on all form factors, developers don’t have to fragment an increasing amount of their time on specific platform targeting: write once, deploy to every platform. Done. OEMs will ship more computers than ever over the course of the next 12-18 months, and all those computers will run Win8. Metro WILL BE targeted by developers simply because it’s Windows and so many computers run it. AIO PC sales is the fastest growing form factor in PC sales, and Win8 is a perfect fit with Metro. ISVs will be using the universality and robustness of the OS to sell Surface tablets, both ARM and Pro. Much of the market still doesn’t understand the play here by MS .. but it’s not reactionary by any stretch of the imagination. This was in the works before the iOS explosion. It’s a long play that still has a little further to go before the real value becomes blatantly obvious to people too entrenched in the current platform wars. Unless Apple is taking a cue from the MS playbook and keeping quiet about their planned revolutionary idea to get them out of this profitable corner they’ve painted themselves into, they’re going to need all the cash they’ve been stacking once MS starts taking the reins back..

        • Alex Jordan

          Your line of thinking sounds like it has come from the 90s. Yes, Microsoft-powered PCs are still the dominant force in the market, but that market isn’t extremely profitably by itself. Microsoft manages to “tax” each one of its OEMs and make a nice profit, but the manufacturers themselves have rushed to the bottom to make the cheapest machines possible. Apple took the other approach and went for the creme of the market- they are now the largest company in the world by market capitalization because of it.

          Whether some like it or not, the post-PC device is the next big thing. Oh, and as to your point regarding marketshare- Microsoft has stagnated, while Apple continues to grow.


        • dhearn

          Since the 90s…..

          Apple has shown the world , how to make 30% of of every program made for YOUR OS.

  • Randy Rosso

    Nice article, and I generally agree. Just a minor editorial point — “it’s” means “it is”, not the possessive. Every instance of “it’s” in this article should have been “its”.

  • John

    What an embarrassing article written by an obvious Apple fanboy. Not only is the content a colossal embarrassment, why not take some grammar classes?

    • Alex Jordan

      Using the term “fanboy” closes down civilized discussion. I am not a fanboy, I came from the Windows world, I just found that I prefer Apple products. Plus, I am paid for my news coverage and opinion here. You don’t have to like it.

  • Steve W

    The day the iPad was introduced, I made the observation that the iPad would succeed where PC tablets failed for the following reasoon:

    “Before the iPad, the average cost of a PC tablet was 50% MORE than a comparable PC laptop. The iPad costs 50% LESS than a MacBook.”

    I also made a prediction: Successful iPad competitors must cost 50% less than comparable PC laptops, merely matching the price of the iPad won’t be good enough. HP discovered that people would line up for a $99.00 Slate; however, HP doesn’t know how to make a profit selling Slates for $99.00.

    Amazon racked up some holiday sales with the $199.00 Kindle Fire. After the holiday frenzy, the “comparable PC laptop” bugaboo caught up with the Kindle Fire. People realized that the Fire is more like a netbook than a laptop.


    I now predict that the Surface RT will need to cost 50% less than the Surface Pro. I am having a harder time figuring out the “sweet spot” for the Surface Pro.

    The MacBook Air became a big hit when it became Apple’s least expensive MacBook. Ultrabooks have not become a hit because they are more expensive than comparable PC laptops. Pricing the Surface Pro like an Ultrabook or a MacBook won’t work. I think it needs to be priced like comparable PC laptops. The problem is, I don’t know enough about the Surface Pro to determine which “successful” laptop to compare it with, or how “comparable” it will turn out to be.

    • Tablets are like the early days of laptops, and even more like gaming consoles.

      It’s been well-documented and understood that gaming consoles will undoubtedly have to be sold for a loss initially. Most of the failures you’re highlighting simply couldn’t sustain this model or didn’t command enough of the market to last.

      Microsoft will certainly understand this as they’ve proven the model with the XBOX. I have no doubt that MS won’t mind selling a Surface at a marginal loss to grow the platform, and will be doling out cash to ISVs and OEM partners who use the universality of Win8 and proven robustness of their OS to sell software and hardware (Surface) to meet the demands of changing business.

      Giving these partners the Surface means yet another tool in their toolbox they can use to deliver professional end-to-end solutions – they don’t have to rely on the customer’s 3rd-party laptop vendor or some other proprietary device for mobility to provide hardware.

      Surface is a gentle but necessary nudge to 3rd-party hardware vendors. It’s a jump-start for the market. It gives partners a go-to device they can safely hit the ground running with to deliver solutions.

      iPad’s succeed where an unlocked phone with a small screen (or a $700 iPod touch) fail. That’s pretty much it. If you try to sell me a $700 phone, I’m not going to waste my time thinking about it. But slap a bigger screen on that same device, and people are much more likely to buy it .. but ONLY because of the things it allows you to do on a ‘real’ computer that are too unwieldy on a sub-5″ screen.

      Like Dean Politis says below, that’s very ‘low on substance’ — but it’s a great marketing and sales tactic.

  • John

    Apple is the Bose of computers and electronic devices. Their marketing is superb and they “brainwash” their customers to be loyal beyond logic and reason, regardless of the price tag. And they make their devices “hip” and mainstream so people not only see it as a functional device but also as a fashion/social statement.

    It’s sad really. For every mac computer or laptop, there are a few that are much better for a lot cheaper. For every iPod, same thing. For every iPhone, same thing. You get the idea.

    And not to mention they are trying to sue Google/Android into the grave instead of doing it the good old fashion way of just beating them with better devices. Their whole business model is annoying.

    With all of that being said, I’m not saying that Apple doesn’t make very good products. They certainly do, but at a cost. I’m comfortable in not giving them any of my money while there are better choices available.

    Just my $.02.

  • Dean Politis

    As someone who owns an iPad, I am looking forward to the Microsoft Surface. I do not find the iPad all that compelling of a device. The iPad is all style, but low on substance. iOS is dated and most of it’s latest innovations have been aped from Android.

    On the surface (pun intended), the Microsoft Surface could be a compelling device. If Microsoft pulls this off, this could be a repeat of what they did with the desktop market.

    • Renkman

      As someone who owns an iPad, I find it to be extremely versatile. I use in it in the field everyday, and find it to be a very compelling device. Those who throw the “low on substance” and “not a content creation device” blanket on iPads are generally regurgitating info that they have read somewhere, and are not offering anything new for discussion. If iOS is dated and “aped” from Andrioid, how is it that Android gives more tablets away then they seem to sell?

      • IceMan

        Renkman, I think the argument is that iPads are viewed as a screen that provides versatile output, with very little input. If you like Apple apps and colorful things on a decent sized screen than the iPad is for you. Its no surprise these devices are being used a teaching aids for kids who very young kids. Its a simple point, touch and be WOWed device.

        The only selling point of the iPad is the screen, and that is what Apple capitalised on, the technology of a great screen to view content you can view better on a PC (and do more with).

        Having used Apple ‘Apps’, I have never purchased an application that I found useful on a day-to-day basis, they are simply novelty pieces of software with short life spans.

        Having used an iPhone in the past, and discovering the Windows Phone, I am entirely sure Apple is simply good at marketing new technology better than other companies, and that is all.

        The Surface Tablet will be more practical, powerful and useful in every single way. I will be seriously considering buying one of them.

        • Renkman

          Iceman, that’s the same argument we hear every time a new “iPad killer” is introduced. When you’re on top you wear a big target on your back, and that’s fine. For you to argue that the Surface Tablet WILL be more “practical, powerful and useful in every way” is ridiculous. Not even one Surface Tablet has even been sold. You are arguing for a cause in which you have no evidence to back it up. For you to say the only selling point for an iPad is the screen is also misguided. Millions and millions of people have bought iPads for tasks and content creation as well as consumption. Like I mentioned previously, I use it everyday at work in situations where I would typically have used a big, ugly heavy laptop. I create content, edit content and share this content over email with dozens of colleagues every week.

          Just because the iPad might not be the right device for you does not mean that it is only for kids who like to look at pretty things, and be WOWed. I use Number and Pages and seamlessly convert back and forth with Excel and Word everyday–no short life span there. I have eliminated the need for paper in my line of work, saving 2500-300 pages a year—again, no short lifespan.

          The iPad is not a laptop. It was never advertised as such, we have MacBooks for that, but that doesn’t mean it is not a more than capable device for millions of people. If you want a laptop, or you need something more specialized to run applications in a mobile environment, perhaps the Surface will be that device for some, and that’s fine–in fact, I think it’s a very healthy prospect. I also think in order to get excited or brag about one device; there is no need to trash another device or their parent company—especially when to date they have produced the ONLY viable option for nearly 3 years running.
          I can’t see myself buying a Surface, my iPad has performed amicably for me, and it fulfills the needs I have. However, I wouldn’t mind trying a Surface one day, so that I can see first-hand what Microsoft has to offer.

        • “You are arguing for a cause in which you have no evidence to back it up.”

          well, fwiw, so too are you then .. so your point to his point is just as moot. assuming you aren’t arguing that truth, i’ll address why this point is valid.

          like you will probably readily admit, people use iPads for a great many tasks, mostly web-based, that they can obviously use a ‘real’ computer for. That’s great, but in and of itself, there is nothing technically challenging or beholden to the iPad product that differentiates itself in any other facet than marketing. (well, and doing well to lock their customers into their products and get them foaming at the mouth for very very very easy-to-implement in a rushed and bare-bones manner features.)

          devices like smartphones, iPod touches, iPads alike (androids too) are only as useful as they are able to allow us to do tasks we would usually do on a traditional computer but in a mobile(ish) form factor. That’s it.

          And when it comes to it, even these devices don’t come anywhere close to truly replacing the efficiency of the traditional computer, the only exception being tasks in which mobility is a factor. (aka, it’s more efficient to spend 20min on your phone tinkering with your bank account than driving 30min to the bank or home to use your computer for 5min, or fire up carry your laptop around, wait for wifi, etc, etc)

          Yes, there are things you can do that are situationally more efficient, but by and large the consumption device is a consumption device. In an apples to apples, side-by-side test of productivity (even excluding ‘real’ productivity work that simply can’t be done on iOS because it’s not a full OS), anyone on an iOS device would be obliterated by someone on a full pc (mac or windows alike).

          But, to be sure, laptops & ultrabooks (and certainly desktops) are beat out by the portability of tablets and phones. And it’s this shortcoming that is conquered by the Surface + Win8. Oh, you need a mouse because you need pinpoint accuracy when interacting with your device? OK, np .. here’s a touchpad .. or if that doesn’t suffice, a USB port for a mouse. Oh, you want to draw an pin-point accurate line without having to zoom in 10x? Here’s a stylus (even though I don’t like them they are useful). Oh you want to plug in some external storage? nbd, here’s an SD slot.

          and on top of all the physical & technical advantages of actually trying to put a real computing experience into a mobile form factor .. the windows ecosystem dominates. Even the android/iOS app gardens can’t compete with the ubiquity of apps available for x86 .. and WinRT app availability will grow as well because it’s a whole new metaphor for desktop applications as well (which is a bigger market than you might think because AIO pcs are the fastest-growing segment of the PC market).

          the iOS explosion didn’t change the fundamental market forces that led to Microsoft’s dominance during the desktop era. It certainly didn’t change Apple’s desktop sales in a radical way. And Apple cannot unify their platforms now (ie, bring real computational ability on par with a laptop to mobile devices) because it would either cannibalize their laptop/desktop market or increase price of the iPad so much that they are back to square one. The ball is now in the court of the ISVs and OEMs .. who have a solid grasp on the traditional computing platform that is not going anywhere. This 10-year-long play by MS is only starting to gain steam and show its value. The next 12-24 months will be a period of rapid growth by MS in these areas Apple & Google are now leading. They’ve built a robust, cross-platform ecosystem that pits every Windows software & hardware vendor against Apple and Google, while simultaneously folding the Windows legacy into the mix to ensure success. Microsoft doesn’t need a rush of early-adopters and voodoo marketing to drive their products; they let the market capitalize on the flexibility and robustness of their well-planned architecture.

  • dshearn

    its very easy to think the surface is going to be the perfect device for those of that have all along wanted a PC experience from our tablet or phone devices.

    It sounds perfect because apple and android have taught us that lightweight OS running on light weight tablets can run cool and still be snappy.

    Right now , that is what the dream is and the Surface is a CONCEPT that we all want to buy in to.

    Reality might have this as a unbalanced device that is prone to heat with terrible batt life…..

    I hope its everything I want….but there has to be compromise somewere

  • Does it really make any difference in which direction one or other of these new models goes? If the public doesn’t like it they won’t buy it, and the manufacturer must move on or lose out. Technology is evolving too quickly, the market is too competitive for anyone to worry about one particular model, one particular version for more than a few minutes.

  • Lou

    I currently own a Motorola Xoom and would like to upgrade to a tablet with more functionality. I am looking at the new iPad and would like to see the new Asus Infinity TF700, due out next week. Now I am debating whether or not to wait to see the Surface. My guess is I will wind up either keeping the Xoom or buying another tablet and wondering whether I should have waited for the “better” tablet to come out. Honestly, you could be waiting forever. It can become quite maddening for sure.