Business

What Apple gets wrong about the Surface (and what Microsoft gets wrong about the iPad)

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While this week’s spat between Apple and Microsoft has made for some great entertainment, it’s also proved something, too: The two companies really don’t understand each other all that well.

Much of the reason for that is marketing. Microsoft and Apple have to say they offer two very different devices because accentuating differences is often the best way to sell products.

But don’t be so eager to believe them. Apple and Microsoft may be convinced that their views of each other’s tablets are logically sound, but they both get some pretty fundamental things wrong. Here are just two examples.

What Apple get’s wrong: “Devices like the Surface are proof that PC makers are confused.”

Microsoft Surface with Keyboard Cover

Above: The Surface approach is far from confused.

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

The Surface, in Apple’s eyes, is evidence of a crisis. “Our competition is different: They’re confused. They chased after netbooks. Now they’re trying to make PCs into tablets and tablets into PCs,” Apple Tim Cook said on Tuesday.

Apple, in contrast, is focused: The iPad is a tablet, not a PC. And Apple is comfortable with that.

Unfortunately, Apple is very wrong — at least about the Surface.

When Tim Cook argues that Apple’s competition is “confused,” he ignores the fact that, for Microsoft, the Surface’s hybrid approach is a wholly intentional part of Microsoft’s vision for computing.

The company has taken what it sees as the best parts of the tablet and the PC (touchscreens and keyboard input, respectively) and it’s combined them, creating a device that can be used for both work and play.

Or as Microsoft communications VP Frank Shaw put it yesterday, “[The Surface] is a single, simple, affordable device that helps you both lean in and kick back.”

In Microsoft’s ideal use case for the Surface, a user would do some work, unclip the Surface’s keyboard, and then easily transition to watching a movie, reading an ebook, or playing a game. One device, many uses.

Put another way, creating a device that’s both a PC and a tablet isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. If the Surface isn’t selling well, it’s not because it does too much.

What Microsoft gets wrong: “The iPad is for play, not work.”

ipad-keyboard

Above: Looks a bit familiar, doesn’t it, Microsoft?

Image Credit: Flickr/Janitors

For a long time, the iPad was lambasted — largely unfairly —  by critics as a device unsuited to doing actual “work.” While the iPad is great for consuming content, the thinking went, it’s less good for creating content.

This is a flawed line of thinking that Microsoft isn’t eager to give up.

As Shaw writes:

And so it’s not surprising that we see other folks now talking about how much “work” you can get done on their devices. Adding watered down productivity apps. Bolting on aftermarket input devices. All in an effort to convince people that their entertainment devices are really work machines.

The problem, though, is that’s just not true.

For one, the iPad is now home to a variety of powerful productivity software that extends beyond just iWork. Consider productivity suites like Polaris Office or standalone apps like iA Writer. For many iPad owners, getting work done on a tablet is just as easy as getting work done on a desktop.

Of course, it also helps that there are countless options for iPad keyboards, which, when combined with the iPad, make the tablet look a whole lot like the Surface.

The core problem, I think, is that Microsoft has a very specific sense of what “work” is. From what I can gather from Shaw’s post, the only real difference between the Surface’s approach to work and the iPad’s approach is that Windows 8 lets users run two apps side-by-side, allowing them to multitask or compare documents.

Yes, this is one of the best features of Windows 8, but not all work requires multitasking (and some work just might be better without it). More, with iO7, Apple has made it very, very easy to switch between apps, making the iPad even more useful for people running multiple apps at the same time.

The bottom line: Everyone’s wrong (and everyone’s right)

While Microsoft and Apple are trying to set up their tablets as two different devices, the fact is that there really isn’t all that much separating them. They’re lightweight, accessible, and are completely changing how people consume, create, and communicate. But you can’t sell tablets with that message, so the companies are taking the offensive, drawing lines in the sand where there probably shouldn’t be any.

Still, while Microsoft has solidly laid out its vision for tablet computing, the fact is that the execution of that isn’t going so well just yet.  Alongside its earnings last quarter, the company wrote-off $900 million in Surface “inventory adjustments.”  Months later, Apple says it sold 170 million iPads. So it’s pretty clear which approach is winning right now.

 


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