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Opinion: How Microsoft’s Surface just might kill the iPad

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Is the Microsoft Surface the next killer tablet? All these “killer this” and “killer that” comparisons get out of control. Every new challenger is hyped as the killer of what came before. But sometimes, it’s true. The iPad really turned out to be a PC killer. People bought iPads instead of buying new PCs, and that market took a pretty big hit. Apple pulled this off by building something that changed the rules for a PC, and we saw it differently.

Where the PC was about performance, the iPad was about portability. Where the PC was about mice and keyboards, the iPad opted for touch, and where the PC was generally about productivity, the iPad was about entertainment.

But it forced a hard choice that most of us didn’t really want to make: Tablet or laptop? This was because the iPad was really a netbook that swapped the keyboard and mouse for a touchscreen, and the iPad’s shortcomings made it a very difficult product to live on exclusively. Most iPad buyers had to keep their PCs or buy MacBooks, and that took what was already an expensive solution and increased it.

With the Surface, Microsoft is trying to reverse the deck and do to Apple what Apple did to PC’s.

Productivity

The Surface comes with Microsoft Office, the unchallenged, dominant desktop productivity product in the market. In fact, the ARM-based Surface actually bundles in Office, so you get productivity capability out of the box, putting it ahead of most PCs. But let’s not stop there, because unlike Apple, Microsoft isn’t being as restrictive of apps that fall into their turf. For instance, the apps can share data, so you can be looking up restaurants on one screen, and then simply click to bring up navigation, or some other app that can use the information from that initial screen. Microsoft also designed in a high degree of accuracy, so you can use a stylus, a tool typically preferred over a finger for creating art or editing pictures. These aren’t netbooks with touchscreens instead of keyboards, they are full PCs. That generally means you should be able to leave the laptop at home or in the office more often.

Designed from the inside out

Apple designs from the outside in. While this does result in beautiful products, it also results in painful problems like Antennagate, or cost problems, which may explain why the iPad mini is priced a whopping 60 percent above the rest of the market. This is also why the first iPhone, when it was presented, was pretty much a pretty brick that took months to get working. When car companies take this approach, you get rolling art that costs a fortune to maintain and isn’t very reliable.

Surface tablet microsoft windows 8Microsoft made a big point of designing from the inside out with the surface. Engineers got the product properly equipped, adequately reinforced, and balanced before designers wrapped the result in a pretty case. The end result is a tablet with a screen optimized for movies and video; a balance that makes it feel lighter than it is and with a full set of features. (It’s missing a 4G radio, but because only about 10 percent of tablets have WAN radios turned on.) Microsoft even put in a fast-charge battery, so you can go from dead to near full charge in around two hours. Oh, and another in-your-face move is that while Apple uses magnetic plugs to charge for their laptops (which uniquely saves the laptop if you trip over the cord), it doesn’t appear on the iPad. The Surface does have this magnetic design. When Apple and Microsoft signed the last cross licensing agreement, Microsoft agreed not to copy the iPad. Instead, it ripped a part off the MacBook to improve its own tablet. Now that really is getting in Apple’s face.

The necessity of a keyboard

A few years back, before the iPad, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were on stage, and Bill said something to the effect that tablets were the future for mobile PCs. Steve pretty much said that only idiots would buy a tablet, because a keyboard was simply too irreplaceable.

Now, both the iPad and Surface tablets have optional magnetic covers, but only Microsoft’s comes with a built-in keyboard. This makes it look like the Surface Tablet is a better presentation of Jobs’ vision than the iPad, and that is about as “in your face” as we can get.

I think it would be fun to run the clip of Steve Jobs calling tablets without keyboards stupid right after a clip of Tim Cook talking about tablets with keyboards as the ugly result of refrigerators and toasters mating, and then follow it with the number of iPad keyboards sold (the market for this has turned out to be impressively large).

Marketing is key

After seeing the cringe-worthy Olympic ads that Apple did, I’m convinced that a lot of talented people left the company after Steve Jobs passed. This gives Microsoft the potential to out-market Apple this round. Kathleen Hall’s advertising team at Microsoft is considered one of the best in the business, but Microsoft traditionally under-funds advertising. If it does that here, this potential Apple killer will follow the Zune into the dustbin of history. The initial TV ads are good, but they’ll need Apple-like seeding and sustained marketing programs (read: loads of cash) to assure this “killer” product reaches its potential. If it opens its wallet wide enough for that, Microsoft may do to Apple what Apple did to it with the iPod, iPhone and iPad, and find that revenge can be oh so sweet.

Check out our review of the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.