Is Microsoft’s Surface a pathfinder to the iPad’s future?

Sections: Features, iPad, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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Ever since its development was announced last spring, Microsoft’s Surface tablet PC has intrigued me. It seemed to address, at least conceptually, most of the deficiencies of the iPad from my use perspective. I love my iPad, but I find it a cumbersome tool (although delightfully portable) for my primary computing activities as a writer and Web editor.

I really don’t want to leave the Apple ecosystem, but Surface promises to be the greatest temptation yet. Not so much the currently available Surface and Windows 8 RT, which retains many (albeit not all) of the iPad’s productivity platform shortcomings, but the forthcoming Surface Pro that will run full-fledged Windows 8 will be another matter. The operative question is whether Apple will rise to the challenge Surface represents.

Some Apple partisans argue that the Surface—with its multiple choice of user interface and input mode choices, as opposed to the iPad’s imposed simplicity and purity—proves that Microsoft doesn’t “get” tablet computing, and that they’ve just come up with a tablet-like netbook or hybrid computer.


As Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates noted in a PBS Charlie Rose interview, “You don’t have to make a compromise. You can have everything you like about a tablet and everything you like about a PC all in one device. And so that should change the way people look at things.”

Mr. Gates went on to observe that the iPad is okay, but what Apple really needs is a Surface. Interestingly, a point on which Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak appears to be pretty much in agreement.

Speaking at a press conference at the Entel Summit in Chile last summer, Wozniak declared that the Surface is a “beautiful device” of the sort that a reincarnated Steve Jobs hired by Microsoft might have designed, adding that “Microsoft’s latest products have such a strikingly good visual appearance which is a lot of what Steve Jobs always looked for, the art and technology; the convergence of art and technology. And usually it was visual appearance of things.”

The Woz said he wants a Surface, pending actually getting his hands on one. You can check out his comments verbatim in this video (go about 2:30 in for the Surface discussion) posted by iDownloadBlog.

The thing is that there’s an awful lot of us (probably a minority, but a substantial one) who don’t perceive having choice in matters like input modes, operating systems, access to the file system, access to the innards for things like battery or other component replacement, and repair, as a bad thing. For that cohort, the Surface, designed to seamlessly transition between consumption and creation, is an attractive package with some cleverly innovative features, such as the built-in kickstand that folds out of the way when not in use but is instantly available when needed, expandable memory, a real USB port, and drivers to support mouse/trackpad input.

CNET’s Scott Stein also observes that now with two iPad lines—the mini and the Retina—it begs the question of where the iPad, as a product, is heading. He says that while reviewing the iPad mini and switching back and forth between it and the “large iPad,” he finds them similar in experience; different in size and speed; but thinks there’s something else going on, with iPads, to some degree, entering a transition phase. Stein expects that by next year, the mini will get a Retina display, at which point it will become a truly perfect device for e-reading, media viewing, gaming, and apps, and the one many people will flock to. So, where does that leave the larger iPad?

Stein still recommends the fourth-gen iPad over the mini as best-in-class iPad for its performance and its wonderful display, but says the gap between it and the Mini is smaller than you’d think, mainly processor speed and screen quality, which are undeniably important attributes, but ones not every user will care about or appreciate.

He suggests that the next iPad will likely get a quad-core processor and greater storage capacity, but Beyond that, he’s not sure what comes next…except for the iPad to make another leap toward becoming a laptop-alternative mobile computer—possibly the nexus for an increasingly anticipated iOS and OS X convergence.

He further observes that Microsoft’s Surface and Windows 8 are paving the way for OS fusion and convertible devices, perhaps serving as a pathfinder lighting the way for Apple to develop its own iPad based hybrid in a few years with a keyboard, trackpad, and OS X cross-compatibility. I used to think the potential for that was likely wistful wishful thinking. Since the Surface surfaced, it seems a lot more plausible.

The iPad will never be a satisfactory laptop replacement until it gets trackpad/mouse support like the Surface has. Bluetooth keyboards are not enough. Touch input has its place, but it is lame in terms of precision control. I would also say that multi-window multitasking and some user interface access to the file system (both of which Surface has) is a non-negotiable requirement for the iPad to become a serious work and content creation device. The potential is there. It just needs to be realized by Apple taking the logical next steps, and Microsoft is showing the way. Who knew?

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