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.