surface

Tablets Trade-Offs And Compromises

 

A couple of hours after landing in SFO from Paris, I find myself setting up two new tablets: a Microsoft Surface and an iPad mini. While on the road, I had read much on both products and felt reasonably well prepared for the tasks.

This proved correct. But the product experience was another thing.

First, the Surface: Unpack, plug in, boot up, no problem. The magnetic touch keyboard and power adapter latch onto the tablet-PC without ado, the machine’s virgin launch is a breeze: I answer a few simple questions, enter my hotmail credentials and I’m in business… sort of.

In order to get a taste for the full Surface experience, I fire up Word 2013 (included with the tablet) to write this Monday Note. Not so slick, the keyboard and touchpad aren’t very helpful. When I ordered the Surface, I chose the slim $119.99 Touch Cover combo rather than the thicker $129.99 Type Cover. Building a keyboard into a protective cover is a great idea, but, as the name implies, the Touch version doesn’t have a real keyboard. Instead, you have to work with an unsatisfying, felt-like surface without tactile feedback. For “real” typing, I need the “real” Type Cover. I’m off to Stanford’s MS Store to correct my expensive mistake.

Keyboard problem solved, I hit another snag. While Word 2013 does a good job zooming using a two-finger touch, the Control Panel and other essential parts of Windows RT are (barely) touch-enabled retreads from Windows 7; they ignore your zoom. I discover this when I need to type accented characters such é or ñ, characters that, of course, don’t appear on the keyboard. Normally, this isn’t a problem; go to the Windows Control Panel, select the English International keyboard as the input mode, and you’re set. You type ~ followed by n to get ñ.

But how does this actually work in the reimagined Windows RT? I fumble around and finally find my old friend, the Control Panel:

From there, I go to Clock, Language, and Region, pop open the Input Method menu… and select the wrong mode. Because of the lack of zoom, picking the right option in a list a game of chance. You need the sanded fingertips Steve Jobs famously derided when asked about smaller tablets.

If I use the Touch Cover trackpad instead of directly touching the Control Panel on the ironically named Surface screen, things improve dramatically: My fat fingers now become delicate. This might explain why Microsoft insists on selling a keyboard with its Surface tablet. Without one, in my admittedly limited experience, it’s not quite useable.

Then there’s the UI formerly known as Metro. In the current state of Windows 8 and Windows RT, it’s only skin-deep: Using Office apps or modifying system settings quickly calls up the old Windows 7 UI. It’s not the end of the world, the UI will evolve with future versions but, in the meantime, the much-hyped Surface tablet cum PC feels far from polished and consistent. And the no-less-touted reimagination of Windows doesn’t go much deeper than the very neat and imaginative UI on its… surface.

At least the vaunted Surface kickstand works quite well… although only in landscape mode, and, even then, only if you’re sitting. If you type while standing or want landscape mode, forget the kickstand.

I’ll keep using the product in personal writing and presentations to make sure I’m not missing some killer feature. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know if Steve Ballmer or Microsoft Board Members use a Surface tablet rather than a MacBook Air running Windows 8, a truly excellent combination in my own paid-for experience.

On to the iPad mini.

Like its forebears — and its current competitors — setup is fast and easy. If you already have an iPad or an iPhone backed-up in iCloud, everything syncs and downloads nicely.

But what about the “mini” part?

I bought a Nexus 7 when it came out and liked the fact I could pocket it, whether in jeans or in jacket. The iPad mini is larger than the Nexus, slightly more than half an inch (14.7mm) wider. Still, the “mini” will fit inside the front pocket of most jeans. Unfortunately, it’s too tall for most shallower back pockets, but it’ll fit nicely in outside jacket and topcoat pockets (as measured in this August 2nd, 2009 Monday Note where I hoped for a pocketable Apple tablet) — and doctors’s and nurses’ lab coats…

Regardless of how you carry it, the iPad mini’s hardware is neatly detailed. It’s thin and light and the “aluminium”, as Sir Jonathan Paul Ive (KBE) rightly pronounces it in the Queen’s English, works well with the white front bezel. The (stereo) speakers sound good although, to my ears, they’re surprisingly no better or louder than the latest iPhone’s, themselves a marked improvement over earlier generations.

Turning to the screen, I agree with the many who are less than thrilled with the mini’s display. I think this is the result of a compatibility decision: The mini has the same number of pixels (1024 by 768) as the iPad 2, but at a higher density (163 pixels per inch vs. the original 132 ppi). With the same pixel count as the iPad 2, all apps run unchanged, their screen rendition is just smaller. The visual experience isn’t as pleasant as on the iPad 2 itself, let alone the iPad “3″ and its higher pixel density display.

When you read a Kindle or iBook novel, a magazine such as Bloomberg Businessweek, or the NY Times on your iPhone, the content isn’t simply the iPad version squeezed to fit into the phone’s tiny display. These applications reformat their content, they adapt to be legible… no squinting, no eye strain. Let’s hope these apps will be updated to make better use of the iPad mini screen, as opposed to offering squished iPad 2 rendering.

(We’ve also read the complaints that the mini isn’t a “Retina” device…but on this topic, I must recuse myself: I’ve twice mistaken an iPad 2 for the higher resolution device. Last Spring, as I had just gotten a new high-resolution iPad, at Soho’s Les Amis bistro, I watched a gentleman at the next table flip through beautiful pictures on his iPad. I leaned over and asked how he liked his new iPad “3″. ‘What? No, it’s last year’s iPad 2…’.

A few days later in Paris, I reset my iPad 2 in order to hand it to my Mother-In-Law, a replacement for the MacBook Air that was giving her — and me — headaches. Oops, I actually reset my new Retina iPad, mistaking it for the older iPad 2. No harm done, the iCloud backup resuscitated my new tablet.)

So, which of these two devices will enjoy the brighter future? The “inadequacy” of the mini’s screen quality is an issue — and could become a problem as both Android and Amazon ecosystems keep improving (and continue to undercut Apple’s prices). But I think the improved portability (size, weight), the elegant design and material quality, plus the instant compatibility with the hundreds of thousands of iPad apps will count for a lot.

As for the future of Microsoft’s Surface, as Peter Bright (a noted Microsoft analyst) concludes in his review of Redmond’s new tablet, it really needs a keyboard and pointing device in order to be usable with Office applications. This makes a good case for Apple’s decision to keep laptops and tablets separate, freeing each to do what it does best.

JLG@mondaynote.com

 

Microsoft: Apostasy Or Head Fake?

My appetite whetted by three days of rumors, I went online last Monday and watched Microsoft introduce its Surface tablets. After the previous false starts — the moribund Tablet PC and the still-born Courier — Microsoft finally took matters into its own hands. Ballmer & Co. could no longer wait for OEMs to create vehicles worthy of Windows 8’s “reimagined” beauty and function, not while the A-team ran away with the tablet market.

It was a terrific performance that hit all the right notes:

• World-class industrial design by Microsoft’s guru, Panos Panay.
• An ARM-based consumer tablet running Windows RT, and an x86 enterprise version on Windows 8, both with the innovative Metro UI.
A “digital ink” stylus for handwriting and drawing, faithful to Gates’ famous dictum: “I’ve been predicting a tablet with a stylus for many years, I will eventually turn out to be right or be dead.
• Creative, thoughtful touches: the integrated kick-stand, a novel smart cover with an integrated keyboard, the magnetic stylus that sticks to the side of the device.
• MicroSD, USB 2.0, and Micro HD video connectors.
• 10.6” displays: ClearType HD for the ARM-based tablet, ClearType Full HD for the x86 device.
• Both tablets are slim and light: 9.3 mm/676 grams for the consumer model, 13.5 mm/903 grams for enterprise. (That’s .37”/1.5 lbs, .53”/2 lbs, imperial.)

47 minutes later, Microsoft has jumped to the head of the tablet race. Yesterday’s laggard is now the Big Dog. Thrilling. I want one — probably the lighter Windows RT model.

The live demo wasn’t fumble-free, as a number of critics have pointlessly pointed out. Yes, Windows Chef Steven Sinofsky had to swap out a busted tablet, but this (probably) means nothing, it happens all the time, trust me — I gave my first computer demo 44 years ago and have fumbled through a few more since then.

I smile when I imagine Ballmer on the phone to Tim Cook, letting Apple’s CEO know that a complimentary toaster/fridge – the “convergence” of his nightmares – is on its way to Cupertino’s One Infinite Loop. (Perhaps I should explain: In a recent D10 Conference interview, Cook dismissed the notion of a hybrid tablet + laptop with a quip: “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those aren’t going to be pleasing to the user.”)

Fantasy phone call aside, this is an historic event. Microsoft decides to make its own hardware and, straight out of the gate, unveils two attractive products that combine the best features of tablets and laptops, both supported by the huge Windows ecosystem.

Unsurprisingly, the momentous happening unleashed an orgiastic excess of premature evaluation. Reactions were fast and predictably polarized. It was, in the repurposed words of one witty blogger: Choo, choo, all aboard the Pundit Express to PageHitsVille! (He was referring to a different event, but I can’t resist repeating the epigram.)

After a few hours, a pattern started to emerge:

- Reviewers who weren’t in attendance, unencumbered by direct experience, were more inclined to view the new products through pre-existing biases and to issue clear-cut predictions.

- The privileged few who were invited to the press event in Los Angeles were more nuanced in their analyses, but with a recurring complaint: They didn’t have an opportunity to use the product for themselves, they were hurried along in small groups to look at non-functioning machines. A couple examples:

I was only permitted to touch the device while the machine was powered off. Microsoft representatives were happy to show off the device, but they didn’t let me actually use the new tablet (Slate’s Farhad Manjoo).
As for performance, we’ll be honest: tech press were treated to about two minutes at each of several stations, some of which demoed design, and not so much the power that lies inside that thin frame.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see a working demo of the keyboards. As in, we weren’t permitted to type sample sentences and feel what it’s like to hammer out characters on a flat keyboard, or on keys that have just 1.5mm of travel (Endgadget’s Dana Wollman).

With these observations in mind, I took another look at the video and realized how many other important details were omitted from the well-oiled presentation: Price, delivery dates, battery life, wireless connectivity, display resolution (could we have an unequivocal definition of the ClearType HD and ClearType Full HD?).

The missing data, the evasions, the lack of hands-on examination, even the circumstantial evidence of a stage struck device…it all smacks of products that aren’t ready — or even almost ready — for customers’ mitts and credit cards.

This leaves us with a list of questions.

First: Why now? Microsoft’s agitprop specialists aren’t new to the game. They know what happens when you show up with less than fully-baked devices and refuse to answer simple, important questions. Why not announce on, say, October 15th – the beginning of the Holiday shopping season — when they would have a better chance of running a FUD (Fear Uncertainty and Doubt) campaign against the opposition? Why the rush?

Maybe it’s the expectation that Google will announce its own Android tablet at Google I/O later this week…but I find the argument unconvincing. Microsoft would have been better off letting Google speak first so they could analyze the product and come up with a sharply targeted counter, especially if Google ships much sooner than Microsoft.

Second, the Apostasy question. For decades, the Redmond company has preached the Righteous Way of its OEM ecosystem, the wide range of hardware configurations and prices for its Windows platform. Now Microsoft pulls a 180º, they design and contract/manufacture Surface tablets by themselves, with distribution through the Microsoft Stores and online. That’s a whole different religion.

Why?

Is it because, as one supporter put it, “greedy” OEMs have become “obstacles of innovation”, that “the software giant has bled too much for OEMs far too long”? That’s one way to look at it. (Another reading of history sees that under the Windows thumb, Microsoft’s vassals have had little choice but to engage in a price war, in a race to the bottom. For PC makers, this undercut the margins they needed to design and manufacture the “innovative” products that their overlord now chides them for not having in their arsenals.)

There must be a more sensible explanation, and our friend Horace Dediu doesn’t disappoint. In his Who will be Microsoft’s Tim Cook? Dediu comes up with an eye-opening analysis that focuses on the “business model inversion” that has taken place in the last two years.

For decades, software generated much higher margins than hardware. Microsoft was admired for its extremely high margins, while Apple was criticized for stubbornly sticking to hardware and its lower profitability — to say nothing of lower volumes as a marginal PC player. But now, as Dediu points out, Apple is the company with both the higher revenue and operating margin [emphasis mine]:

If we simply divide revenues by PCs sold we get about $55 Windows revenues per PC and $68 of Office revenues per PC sold [1]. The total income for Microsoft per PC sold is therefore about $123. If we divide operating income by PCs as well we get $35 per Windows license and $43 per Office license. That’s a total of $78 of operating profit per PC.
Now let’s think about a post-PC future exemplified by the iPad. Apple sells the iPad with a nearly 33% margin but at a higher average price than Microsoft’s software bundle. Apple gives away the software (and apps are very cheap) but it still gains $195 in operating profit per iPad sold.
Fine, you say, but Microsoft make up for it in volume. Well, that’s a problem. The tablet volumes are expanding very quickly and are on track to overtake traditional PCs while traditional PCs are likely to be disrupted and decline.
So Microsoft faces a dilemma. Their business model of expensive software on cheap hardware is not sustainable. The future is nearly free software integrated into moderately priced hardware.

Which leads Horace to his killer conclusion:

For Microsoft to maintain their profitability, they have to find a way of obtaining $80 of profit per device. Under the current structure, device makers will not pay $55 per Windows license per device and users will not spend $68 per Office bundle per tablet. Price competition with Android tablets which have no software licensing costs and with iPad which has very cheap software means that a $300 tablet with a $68 software bill will not be competitive or profitable.
However, if Microsoft can sell a $400 (on average) device bundled with its software, and is able to get 20% margins then Microsoft is back to its $80 profit per device sold. This, I believe, is a large part of the practical motivation behind the Surface product.
The challenge for Microsoft therefore becomes to build hundreds of millions of these devices. Every year. Sounds like they need a Tim Cook to run it.

It’s difficult to argue with Horace’s logic, but there’s another way to look at Microsoft’s new posture: It’s just that, a posture, a way to wake up PC OEMs and force them to react. “If you do the right thing and come up with the world-class product Windows 8 deserves, we’ll back off and let you enjoy the just deserts of your efforts.” It’s a devious thought, but it could be more realistic than the notion that Microsoft will produce something in the order of 100 million Surface tablets in 2013 in order to keep their dog in the fight. (For reference, the lead PC maker, HP, currently ships about 16M devices per quarter.)

I’m also curious about Microsoft’s rigid insistence on calling these devices PCs. See their official site announcing a “New Family of PCs for Windows”:

Try as they might, Microsoft won’t be able to convince folks to refer to the Surface as anything other than a “tablet”. The Redmond team seems fixated on a best-of-both-worlds product: Everything a PC does plus the best features of a tablet. This is what John Gruber calls being caught Between a Rock and a Hardware Place. (Gruber’s post, which quotes Dediu’s, is itself quoted and felicitously expanded upon by Philip Elmer-DeWitt.)

Peter Yared offers his help with a witty clarification:

In the end, I can’t see how Microsoft can suddenly morph into a tablet, er, PC maker capable of pumping hundreds of millions of devices per year. The fuller Surface story is yet to unfold.

JLG@mondaynote.com