Faultline: Microsoft tablet pitched at TV addicts as well as wordsmiths Jun 21, 2012 – Rethink Research
In the end Microsoft’s tablet was only half launched, since pricing and date of availability are yet to be revealed, but nonetheless it can hardly be dismissed as vaporware as a few hardened cynics suggested. There were enough hints for us to reveal that it will be priced just below comparable versions of the iPad rather than other laptops or PCs, even though the tablet is designed to straddle the two worlds. The first model, running the Windows RT operating system and pitched more at consumers, will start shipping in September perhaps around the IBC exhibition, while the Windows 8 Pro version will come in time for Christmas, both available online and via Microsoft’s small chain of around 25 stores. Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system has itself yet to be launched, probably next month, with only pre-release versions generally available at present. Windows RT is a stripped down version of Windows 8 for ARM processors aimed particularly at tablets, not just Microsoft’s own. The Pro version, called Surface for Windows 8, is designed for Intel processors, in this case i5, and appears to be more for professional use.
However both are designed for work as well as play, which is the main differentiator over the iPad, with Microsoft Office preloaded in each case. The main innovation is the attachable keyboard that doubles as a cover, available with both models, designed to appeal to the great rump of humanity that are unable to type effectively on touch screens.
The principle offering is a 3mm thick track pad and keyboard that still relies on touch, although on keys rather than a screen, but for hardened word smiths of the old school, there is the option of a still-slim 5mm thick ‘chiclet’ keyboard, where the keys have straight rather than slanted edges to look more stylish and enable normal push key typing in as thin a package as possible.
The incorporation of a USB connector is also essential for office work, enabling attachment of flash drives and memory sticks for moving content or software into and out of the device, rather than having to rely on Internet access via Wi-Fi. This also scores over the iPad, which has been criticized for its absence of physical ports for connectivity. At the same time the two Surface tablets have twin cameras, stereo speakers, and dual microphones tuned for Skype, which makes them suitable for conferencing applications. On board storage is just about adequate for business applications, with a choice between 32 GB or 64 GB for the Surface RT, and between 64 GB and 128 GB for the Surface for Windows 8. Another attractive ingredient for office working is support for a pen at 600dpi resolution, which can be used to annotate documents or fill in forms.
Microsoft has been equally determined to score over the iPad for entertainment, and it appears to have succeeded with a display screen size of 10.6 inches, almost an inch bigger than the iPad's, and with the same shape as a movie screen to avoid black fill-in bars when watching films. The larger Pro model also has full 1080p HD display, at 1920x1080 resolution, although the iPad already supports 1080p.
The tablets both also have MicroSD and Micro HD video connectors, so that they can be used as video players, or even de facto set top boxes, for full size TV screens, while the iPad can only transmit video to another box over Wi-Fi. Micro HDMI is a stripped down version of the HDMI interface to look much like a USB connector, so that it is electrically compatible with any HD ready TV. It is defined as a type D connector in the HDMI 1.4 specification and retains the standard 19 pins of types A and C, but shrinks the connector size to 2.8 mm by 6.4 mm from 4.5 mm by 11.5 in the case of a type A connector. Wi-Fi performance is also boosted by having 2x2 MIMO antennae, which tends to improve coverage as well as throughput.
Weight and thickness are also key competitive factors for tablets, with every mm and gram scoring points, putting pressure on designers to trade these off carefully against display size, capacity, performance, and battery life. The Surface for Windows RT, the one pitched directly against the latest iPad, weighs in at 676 gms, virtually identical to the 680 gms quoted on Apple’s web site for the WiFi only version of the latest iPad (with 3G as well the iPad is another 50 gms). They are also almost identical in thickness, the Surface for Windows RT being just 1 mm thinner at 9.3 vs. 9.4. However the keyboard cover adds another 3mms, or five for the chiclet version.
The Pro model is significantly heavier at 930g, and thicker at 13.5mm, to accommodate an Intel Ivy Bridge i5 processor, and a bigger battery at 42W-h, although that is only the same as the iPad.
Of course there would be something wrong if Microsoft had not managed some significant improvements on the iPad, and Apple will no doubt bite back. The detachable keyboard however is an innovation Apple is unlikely to replicate, and should give Microsoft a clear run in the business sector where these tablets may well become a popular work/play hybrid just as some smart phones have been.
Already Microsoft has achieved its first objective, which is to be taken seriously as a tablet maker and be seen as the first competitor to take on iPad directly at the same price points and market positions. So far others have failed to make much impact, with BlackBerry PlayBooks unsold, Hewlett-Packard having exited the market, and even Amazon's Kindle Fire now only ticking over after making an initial blaze at a much lower price point.
Microsoft surprised the market by coming in with its own product rather than relying on third party OEMs such as Lenovo, Dell and HP to perform the hardware design and innovation. This will cause analysts to revise forecasts, and there is no shame in that, for it is important to reevaluate the market in the light of emerging circumstances. We had predicted that Apple’s share of the tablet market would rise from its current level of 69% to peak at just over 70% later in 2012, before subsiding over the next few years to 50% or just below by 2016, when Android would be on 40%, and Windows 10%. The launch of Microsoft’s tablets and the reception they have had cause us to revive upwards our forecast of the Windows share, although we think it will be more at the expense of the Android than iPad. We now in this three way fight have Apple on 45%, Android on 30%, and Windows 25% by 2016.
The next question is how much of that 25% will be taken by Microsoft itself and how much by third party makers of Windows tablets such as Samsung. Microsoft’s launch of its own tablets has been widely interpreted as a big blow to its hardware partners, but it is perhaps more of a wakeup call. In the PC market Microsoft has always relied on third party hardware makers to provide innovation, and differentiation at varying price points, and this was successful in seeing off Apple as a competitor in the 1990s. It is the fact that the Surface tablets are also in effect PCs that represents almost a seismic shift in strategy, being the first boxes Microsoft has manufactured itself that run its mainstream Windows office software. It may not be an irretrievable step, but merely a marker to set out its stall in the hope that the other hardware makers will become more innovative. But it can also be seen as a recognition that when it comes to tablets, Apple’s model of having complete control over the ecosystem works better than the Microsoft approach, where hardware makers have been happy to pick up easy PC and server sales without being under pressure to innovate.
In fact Microsoft itself has long recognized the potential of the tablet market and carries some responsibility for not making it work, partly because it has in the past started from the PC and worked downwards, while Apple instead scaled up the smart phone. This has been hugely successful so far, but now Microsoft thinks it has spotted a weakness in iPad’s lack of support for productivity and connectivity.
But Microsoft’s past efforts resulted in devices that were too clunky and expensive. The very first came as early as 1991 with Microsoft’s “Windows for Pen Computing” as an add-on to its then Windows 3.1 operating system, to accept input from a stylus, resulting in manufacture of several square portable slabs with a screen on one side, clearly recognizable as the earliest ancestors of today’s tablets. This turned out to be a fad that quickly subsided, because the systems were too unwieldy and the software was not up to scratch, and it was to be over a decade before Microsoft had its next go when Bill Gates announced a device that would fulfill “a dream that I and others have had for years and years.”
This was the Windows for XP Tablet PC Edition. There was much greater enthusiasm this time around, from the usual OEMs including HP, Samsung, Toshiba and Acer, which all produced tablets. But they were still really just PCs, but with less functionality, while also lacking the lightness and battery life of the iPad, and costing a lot more in real terms. Lack of third party application development then snuffed out this tablet generation.
There followed a few related efforts, such as Microsoft’s partnership in 2003 with Fujitsu and ViewSonic to create big tablets called Smart Displays intended for home use, but these were really no more than monitors linked to PCs over early versions of Wi-Fi, and were still too expensive at around $1,000. Very few were sold, and Microsoft canceled the project the same year.
Microsoft had a more serious attempt in 2006, with ‘Project Origami’, involving some of its hardware partners, aiming to make very small PCs with screens sensitive not just to pens, but also touch. Samsung was one of the partners, but the machine was still hard to use without a keyboard. They were still expensive and battery life of only two hours in web surfing mode was inadequate.
There was yet another attempt with “Project Courier,” in 2010, to develop a booklet computer comprising two screens joined by a hinge, and facing each other, again for pen and finger input. Microsoft cancelled the project the same year, arguing it was just flying a kite as part of its ongoing market research and development program.
Given this checkered history it was small wonder anxieties ran high among Microsoft’s Surface development and marketing team on launch day, and it also easy to see why the company has brought the whole project in-house. It is also ironic in that the major innovation was the inclusion of a keyboard, which was one of the Achilles heels of the earlier devices – the fact being that they could not be fully exploited without a keyboard. This time the tablets can be exploited to the full as touch screen devices just like the iPad, but allowing keyboards to be bolted on elegantly by doubling as screen covers. The real test will be how well the keyboards are received and work out for heavy duty text input, for their take up as hybrid workplace devices will determine their success.