Technology: Surface makes the Tablet Wars Fade to Irrelevance?
I like tablets. Back in 2008 and fed up with the unconnected nature of paper and the relative cumbersomeness of slow-booting laptops, I put pen to paper and came up with an idea for a thin digital device that could take the place of a pad of notebook paper and let me read pdf’s and run time-management software. There was nothing like that on the market at the time, so I shelved the idea and made due with paper and my laptop. Two years later, though, Apple introduced the iPad and the tech world celebrated the next Apple miracle. Clearly I was not the only person to have thought of how nice it would be to replace paper with something digital and in a pad-sized form factor.
**Please feel free to skip down to the last two paragraphs now to avoid all the framing discussion.
Fast forward to 2012, and we have a lot more than iPad’s to choose from in tablets. Smartphones are the ultimate expression of modern connectivity and become more powerful each year. The 4G networks being rolled out now offer the near-instant connections that previous network generations merely dreamed of, and high-performance smartphones with dual- and even quad-core processors provide snappy responses to enable fast and reliable consumer utilization of smartphone apps. Which are available in their thousands, and their tens of thousands… heck, Apple offers over half-a-million! Android is not far behind with 470,658 as of today. Windows has hit the 100,000 app mark, and even struggling Blackberry has over 60,000. That is enough apps for anyone, though there is still a lag in making popular apps available on other platforms and many that never make it past the iPhone and Android markets.
So we have excellent always-connected smartphones, easy-to-read-on tablets, and more laptop categories than we know what to do with. However, there is still one key differentiator left, and that is the ecosystem.
We are all familiar with the term and its concept. If you buy a Mac, you buy the Apple core software that is designed by Apple to run well on a Mac. You become familiar with how Apple arranges controls and how Apple programs generally work. You probably listen to music from iTunes, and what could be more natural than selecting the iPhone for your smartphone and an iPad to slide into your briefcase. You will have invested a fair amount of money into getting the best apps from the Apple App Store, and everything generally syncs quite nicely with everything else. You are, in short, living in the Apple ecosystem.
Google, Microsoft, and Blackberry are not as integrated as Apple, but each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I am currently a resident of the Google ecosystem, where I enjoy integrated services from Google that connect almost seamlessly with my Android smartphone. I use multiple computers in different places, so I have abandoned the use of thumb-drives and MS Office in favor of Google Docs. Sometimes there are features that I need that send me back to MS Office, but for most things Google Docs does just fine, and is always available regardless of where I am and what the computer I am using happens to be loaded with. Such services are at the core of an integrated ecosystem.
I expect that I could be quite happy with the ecosystems that any of the major technology providers have built. So it is not that. The choice in new hardware – namely smartphones and tablets – is rarely down to any one thing. It is a combination of many things that add up to be more than the sum of their parts – you could call it an ecosystem. 🙂 Does the ecosystem have the right apps for you? Does the form factor of the smartphone match what you need? What about its features? What about the tablet? Is it the right size for what you want to use it for? What about the cost of all these devices and services? Apple is famous for consistent quality; Android offers many hardware choices at different price points. Certainly the services very as well, and some ecosystems will work better for your needs than others.
These are all things we know. However, here is my real point: with the introduction of Windows Phone 8 and the Microsoft Surface, Microsoft has emerged as a third major ecosystem to compete with Apple and Google. A computing ecosystem needs a smartphone, tablet, a full-sized computer, and cloud services, and until now Microsoft has lacked the tablet and been deficient on the phone. This left us with only Apple and Android, with Blackberry a distant and declining third. Like Apple and unlike Android, Windows Phone 8 has a firmware core that comes from a full-blown computer operating system. This should give Microsoft an edge as performance developments and enhancements continue to push tablets and smartphones ever higher into performance realms formerly the province only of ‘real’ computers. Windows Phone 8 has received high marks from many reviewers, and the Surface is even being touted as the tablet that could finally end the iPad’s dominance. With a solid OS, sought-after features, and great looks, it very well might. That would accomplish a major milestone to end the tablet wars – a tablet that can take on the iPad at its own price point and win. An end to the ‘iPad, then everything else’ paradigm would help consumers focus on their technology ecosystem needs without being distracted by the knowledge that the iPad is simply the best tablet out there. The traditional Microsoft strengths in the enterprise space combined with the security features on the new Windows Phone 8 and the productivity-oriented Microsoft Surface ought to give Microsoft a big edge in business sales and provide significant attraction to the average consumer as well.
In conclusion, I expect the new Microsoft Windows Phone 8 and the Surface to find considerable success in the enterprise space – especially at the expense of struggling Blackberry – and emerge as a real competitor to Apple and Android in the consumer space as well. Windows Phone 8 offers a solid OS that should integrate strongly across smartphone, tablet, and laptop (like Apple), while offering a variety of hardware choices that can be selected to fit the consumer need (like Android). If Microsoft offers enough of an incentive for high-quality app development or translation to run in Windows, we could easily see three very strong ecosystem choices develop. Hmm – Microsoft as the new and hip – truly what is old is new again. Despite what happened at Nokia (with the old Windows platform, mind), this should be fun to watch.