Does the world really need another tablet?
Microsoft finally revealed this week that it will introduce its own tablet called Surface. The Microsoft tablet -- still in prototype form only -- looks sleek and slick with a built-in stand and a thin cover that doubles as a keyboard. It won't go on sale until the fall when the next version of the company's operating system, Windows 8, is set to debut. Pricing also has yet to be determined (translation: don't expect it to undercut the iPad).
The market may not need a Windows tablet, but Microsoft desperately does.
The company has been steadily -- some might say, inexorably -- falling behind in the new era of computing, the era in which the ability to easily access information is more important than the operating system or computing device we use to do it. Microsoft still hasn't understood this, failing to become a significant force in smartphones or tablets, mainly because it's working from an outdated model of being the Great Copier.
Microsoft has always mimicked other technologies, from graphical interfaces to Web browsing to financial software. In some cases, it did improve upon what it copied, but in general the company's approach worked because it was based on an artificial monopoly. It was important for us as users to work with common files and formats, so Windows continued to dominate and we adopted its browser and related software.
But it's a different digital world now. No one cares about operating systems and monopolies (Google notwithstanding). The world that Netscape tried to introduce and Microsoft did everything possible to quash is now upon us. You don't need Word to write a novel -- there's free software for that. You don't need Windows Internet Explorer to surf the Web, Firefox does it better. You don't need Outlook when Google offers a free calendar online. Today, we're using iPhones, tomorrow Androids.
Conversely, Apple has always been the Great Aggregator. Under Steve Jobs, the company recognized the best original ideas from others, gathered them all together, and forged them into fabulous consumer goods. It's an approach better suited to today's world of information at your fingertips. Most of us could care less who built the app; all we want to know is where we are, and what's near us.
Today, the aggregators are winning, and Microsoft's antediluvian role as the Great Copier looks doomed to fail with its Surface:
-- Consumers don't care about Word or Windows. Few people will adopt a tablet because it works with Microsoft Office. No one cares about the platform anymore. And big companies don't care much either; the trend is to allow employees to BYOD -- bring your own device. They aren't going to start buying $600 Surfaces for their cubicle drones when those workers are willing to buy their own iPads and Android phones.
-- Better hardware doesn't mean higher sales. Look at the Microsoft Zune, a superior product to the iPod in many ways. It boasted better sound quality and had more features, like an FM radio. But the Zune failed because the software never coalesced smoothly around what people wanted to do: just play decent rowdy tunes.
-- Schizophrenic products don't work. The Surface will come in multiple forms, a cheaper model that doesn't run the full Windows software, and an expensive, $1,000-plus "pro" model that will be a full-blown PC in tablet form. Offering multiple models and having to explain the different features flies in the face of what's appealing about the iPad: It's simple, and it works. If I want to figure out technical specifications, I'll get a laptop.
One suspects that the Surface announcement was a disappointment for Microsoft. Surface is designed to be a movie player, with a 16:9 screen that's obviously intended for HD video (a snazzy new Netflix app was highlighted at the event). By having the press conference in Los Angeles Microsoft clearly hoped that Hollywood studio execs would be standing beside them on stage touting major movie deals for the Windows Store. That didn't happen.
So not much changes with the introduction of a Windows tablet. Google Android and Amazon offerings will continue to be less expensive alternatives to the iPad, while Apple will maintain its market lead on the high end. Between these alternatives, there don't seem to be many Windows of opportunity.
In other words, Microsoft may need the Surface tablet, but you don't.