Earlier today I read an article by Tom Warren at The Verge entitled Apple finally admits Microsoft was right about tablets. I wasn’t especially surprised considering that Warren has always been completely MS-centric. He’s a good writer and does his job well, but I he’s not the guy I look to for even-handed reporting.
As a full-time Windows user myself and someone who certainly doesn’t dislike the platform, I still heartily disagree with his take in this article.
Every iPad has transformed into a Surface in recent years, and as of this week, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro look even more alike. Both have detachable keyboards, adjustable stands, trackpads, and styluses. With iPadOS getting cursor and mouse support this week, Apple has finally admitted that Microsoft was right about tablets. Let me explain why.
I will admit that the headline and the quote above look like an easy sell. At its most simplistic core, there is some truth here. However, when you get past looks and hardware alone, I believe Mr Warren’s argument unravels. To get at some of those reasons, we need to look back at the beginnings of the iPad and the Surface.
The iPad touches a nerve
As Steve Jobs eloquently laid out in its introductory event, the iPad started its life as a completely touch-based “third device,” positioned between the laptop and the smartphone. It quickly found great success in that niche. The fact that it was limited and built around accomplishing certain tasks very well made it an easy sell over netbooks running Windows, which were built to try to do too much with far too little.
However, that space that the iPad was originally built to reside in shrank significantly over a five year span. Smartphone screens got bigger. Laptops got smaller, thinner and much faster. Then Microsoft’s Surface set the expectation that touchscreens needed to become a part of the Windows laptop experience. More on that in a bit. As the iPad’s home turf got squeezed, sales predictably fell and Apple naturally had to evolve the platform to occupy some new ground.
Microsoft stakes its ground
As for the Surface, it started life with grander expectations than it ultimately lived up to. It began as the poster child for a massive shift that would take Windows away from the past and toward a future that would see touch and pen put on equal footing with traditional input. It was the hardware side of what was supposed to become a major inflection point, with Windows 8 and Windows RT holding up the software end.
Unfortunately, for all of the success Microsoft has had in delivering great hardware, the original purpose of the Surface was an abysmal failure. Windows RT, Microsoft’s attempt to move completely away from legacy and toward a centralized, Apple-like model, was a disaster and was completely scrapped. Windows 8 didn’t fair much better, with many users and companies opting to just sit it out. As with Netbooks a few years before, there were too many compromises for too little reward and users pushed back against it.
I wanted Windows 8 to succeed at the time, because I wanted to see touch elevated on my laptop, as well as my iPad. In the end, it was just too much middle ground and too much compromise. Microsoft sacrificed too much of the traditional interface and didn’t deliver enough to justify moving to touch as a primary input.
People didn’t see Windows as a touch-first platform because Microsoft did such a poor job of presenting a vision of it to them. However, users did like the portable 2-in-1 form factor of the Surface Pro and some other early Windows convertibles. They also appreciated the addition of touch, even if it was nothing more than a side show. Even if it isn’t fully native, it still has its uses.
Not so first class
In his article, Mr Warren talks about the early vision of the Surface much differently than I see it.
Microsoft’s return to tablets was a rough ride and far from perfect. Bill Gates tried to convince the world that tablets would be a thing all the way back in 2002, but the hardware and software were far too primitive back then. The software maker eventually introduced the Surface RT alongside Windows 8 in 2012 as a clear response to the iPad, but it had an ARM-powered desktop operating system that didn’t support your favorite apps. It was slightly confused, but Microsoft’s tablet principles were clear at the time.
In my opinion, Microsoft’s tablet principles were flimsy and far less than clear. As I said at the outset, Mr Warren is basing all of this on looks and hardware alone. It is a purely skin-deep assessment. Software absolutely cannot be ignored.
The software side of the iPad is a massive reason why it succeeded and why it ended up being more than just a big iPod Touch after release. It’s a big reason why developers flocked to the platform. The software side of the Surface was a complete disaster that lead to massive backtracks and personnel being fired. It caused an entire re-think of the Windows operating system timeline and the Surface’s role within the company. This absolutely cannot be ignored when comparing the two devices.
Warren then shifts to Steven Sinofsky’s thoughts on tablets and Windows 8 back in 2012. Referring to him, Warren says the following:
The message was clear: touch-based computing would be a first-class input for Windows 8 but not the only way to use the operating system. Microsoft insisted you needed a mouse for precision, a keyboard for typing, and a stylus for taking notes or drawing. These basic foundations led to the Surface Pro, with its variety of inputs to suit different needs.
The problem with this argument is that touch and pen are anything but first class in Windows. Anyone like myself who uses the platform can tell you this. Touch is not the reason that anyone buys a Windows device today. Microsoft tried and failed to migrate toward a touch-friendly Windows, waived the while flag and rolled back to a very Windows 7-like experience with Windows 10. The bottom line is, the mouse and keyboard are first-class and everything else is bouncing around in economy.
The fact is, Microsoft has just never focused on making touch-first operation of Windows or pen input a great experience and it shows. And the sad thing is, I KNOW that they could. I’m certain that the Microsoft of today could deliver this. However, with the current direction of the company that has de-emphasized the importance of Windows, I doubt they ever will.
In spite of whatever effort Microsoft has put toward a tablet-like touch interface for Windows, a Surface or Windows convertible is still a highly disadvantaged and compromised experience without a keyboard and either a touchpad or mouse. I am sure that some Surface users are getting ready to @ me right now, but remember for a moment that, despite my love of the iPad, I am also one of you. I am a lifetime Windows user. I still own a Surface Go (meh, at least my wife occasionally gets some use out of it) and use a Lenovo Yoga touchscreen Windows laptop every day at work. I have actually had 4 Lenovo Yogas in a row for work since 2013 and obviously really like them. In fact, all of them still work and the original Yoga still boots in less than 10 seconds. I promise I’m not a hater.
Still, as a lifetime Windows user, I can also tell you with complete confidence that when you remove the TypeCover from a Surface Pro or Go, what you are left with is just isn’t very good. The on-screen keyboard is often slow and clunky. The touch targets are almost always too small. A small amount of OS lag is ever-present. The devices aren’t instant on all the time because the processors can’t cope. I know Microsoft is finally working on that last item with the Surface X, but their ARM support still isn’t all the way there yet.
At the end of the day, there is a reason that no one sells Windows tablets anymore. And let’s be perfectly clear- the Surface Pro, Surface Book and Surface Go are not tablets. Call them 2-in-1s or convertables or whatever, but they are not designed to be used as tablets alone. Having tried to use a Surface Go without a TypeCover for a couple of days, I feel for you if go down this road. It’s rough and I’m definitely not the only one who will tell you that.
Windows 10 just isn’t designed for tablets. That said, it is still a great fit on a Surface Pro, Book or Laptop because the OS is suited to them and because of the quality of the keyboards and touchpads and the overall build quality of the devices. I’ll give you that all day. They are all excellent devices…when used as laptops.
A different approach
While Mr Warren’s entire premise of this article is that Microsoft was somehow right about “tablets” all along, he did give Apple some praise for their implementation of the new mouse support and cursor in iPadOS:
Apple is now introducing trackpad and mouse support fully in iPadOS, and you can use an existing Bluetooth device. Unlike pointer support you’d find in Windows or macOS, Apple has taken a clever approach to bringing it to a touch-friendly OS like iPadOS. The pointer only appears when you need it, and it’s a circular dot that can change its shape based on what you’re pointing at. That means you can use it for precision tasks like spreadsheets or simply use multitouch gestures on a trackpad to navigate around iPadOS.
It’s far more than most people were expecting at this stage, and Apple has importantly kept its touch-friendly iPad principles intact. Right now, you still can’t use this mouse support to drag and drop windows on top of each other freely like you might on Windows or macOS. Nor is it there to do everything you’d typically do with a mouse on a desktop operating system. Apple has adapted a legacy input and modernized it for iPadOS.
I agree with this assessment. I also think it goes a long way toward invalidating Mr Warren’s original point. When Microsoft created the Surface, they added touch without the kind of full and measured consideration for the marriage of hardware and software across the entire experience, as described above. That’s one of the reasons that Surface devices are really thought of as 2-in-1s or laptops and not tablets.
In contrast, Apple didn’t sacrifice any of the original touch experience with these new changes to the iPad Pro and iPadOS like Microsoft did with Windows 8. That was incredibly important for Apple to nail right out of the gate, because they still have a full lineup of smaller iPads, many of which will never be connected to a mouse or keyboard. If they diminished that experience, they would face a backlash similar to the one Microsoft endured.
Apple also didn’t relegate mouse or trackpad input to second-class status, either. You can fully control most aspects of the iPad, much as you could by touching the screen. There are also easy to use gestures that allow control of most elements of iPadOS. I’ve been impressed with the fluidity of using the cursor and control gestures on an Apple Magic Trackpad so far. It’s a really solid start. What Apple has rolled out still doesn’t feel 100% complete, but it’s a damn good first draft.
In my opinion, the overall direction Apple is going with the iPad Pro is bringing it closer to the Surface’s 2-in-1 territory, especially when it comes to hardware. However, that doesn’t mean these devices overlap yet. It also doesn’t mean that Microsoft has been right all along when it comes to “tablets,” as Mr Warren says.
If you are only looking at the hardware side of the equation, I can see where you might agree with him. However, I also think you’re making the same mistake that Microsoft did in 2012 if you stop there. Software is half the battle and that’s where Apple has been eating Microsoft’s lunch when it comes to mobile and real tablets for years. Microsoft’s original vision software for tablets was flawed and their later response even worse and that’s why the iPad Pro and iPadOS of today ultimately hold little validation for it.