By Seb Janacek
What makes the Surface so interesting is that it's Microsoft's first shot at a post-iPad tablet. Photo: Josh Lowensohn/CNET NewsApple rules the roost in tablets. Other platforms have tried to get into the market but without much success. Some such as Samsung are still here. Others like Palm arrived and disappeared in a blaze of fire-sale glory. None has threatened to overtake Apple’s lead. Yet. The announcement this month of the Microsoft Surface tablets is the most significant development in tablets since the 2010 launch of the iPad. Not that the Surface has actually launched, merely announced. It has no price point and no launch date. Windows 8 isn’t due to land until late summer but Microsoft clearly felt the need to make the big reveal now. The timing of the event is sure to have had nothing whatsoever to do with the Google IO event where, to no little surprise, another tablet has been launched. Suddenly, everyone is a hardware manufacturer. Google has now taken the wraps off the Nexus 7, a seven-inch tablet running Android. Although Google and Apple are now fierce competitors, the search giant may have Amazon’s Kindle Fire in its sights rather than the iPad. Two companies, which have focused in the past on developing software and working with hardware partners, have decided their hardware partners aren’t up to the job. This shift in itself is a triumph of sorts for Apple’s philosophy of integrating software and hardware. Quite what Microsoft and Google’s hardware partners do next, goodness knows.
The Nexus 7 tablet is designed to show what Google accepts as a best-of-breed device. Photo: Jessica Dolcourt/CNET NewsThe Google tablet is far less interesting than Microsoft’s Surface devices. The Nexus 7 is just another Android tablet, and Android has so far failed to have the same traction in the tablet market as it has with smartphones. Presumably, the Nexus 7 will do the same job for tablets that the Nexus smartphone does - to demonstrate what Google accepts as a best-of-breed device. Both companies have long relied more on licensing software to partners than delving into hardware. For Microsoft in particular, this approach has been the basis of its tremendous success. The Xbox has been a rare success; the Zune and Kin phones are considerably less celebrated. The Surface tablet, while not a wholly unexpected route for Microsoft, would have been largely unthinkable a year or so. That Google, which also worked primarily with hardware partners, has made a similar leap demonstrates the powerful influence of the iPad. And to think just a couple of years ago, Microsoft founder Bill Gates said of the iPad: “It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it’.” Two years down the line and there’s more than a striking similarity between the two devices but the Surface has some significant differences that proves it has Microsoft’s tablet ideology running through it. What makes the Surface so interesting is that it represents Microsoft’s first shot at a post-iPad tablet. It has clearly inherited some of the features of the iPad but some of its DNA is shared with the vision Gates had over 10 years ago. Microsoft was probably the first major technology company to push the tablet form factor some 10 years ago but without success. The major problem with the tablets running Windows were that they simply considered themselves another kind of PC rather than something else, as Apple did. Jobs and his team rethought what the tablet experience should be without paying any respect to the prevailing wisdom. Given the relatively flat reception the iPad experienced, it was clear no one really got it at first. In a 2010 interview with BNET, Gates said: “You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard - in other words a netbook - will be the mainstream on that.” Looking back on the quote, it’s easy to see that Gates’ ideas remain embedded in the new devices. The Surface has a stylus and a genuinely innovative cover that turns into a keyboard when it’s opened.