It is certainly one of the most interesting topics in the tech industry ever since the first iPad released in 2010, or the first flop line of Surface Pro and RT in 2012. People tend to enter in heated arguments over which device is better than the other. There is no definite answer to this, and it all boils down to, what is your need? The best selling tablets, are indeed, Apple’s iPads. But is it the best productivity device out there? You decide for yourself.
In this two part series of articles, I will go down memory lane when the first iPad and the first Surface released. How they competed head to head over the years, what are their unique selling points and why is one device better than the other, in its own right. I’ll also give my own personal opinion, what I feel about the two devices.
First Gen hardware
With a lot rumors, speculations, the next category defining piece of tech to be out of the gates of Cupertino, California. Apple finally unveiled on April 2010, the first iPad. At first, it looked like a big square iPod Touch + iPhone squashed together. But iPad was more than that.
It felt solid and premium, and very thin and light at that time. It did some tasks in a very efficient, natural way than the laptops or the smartphones did at that time. It was a true revolutionary device, which was best at, browsing the web, looking at the photos in a whole new way and watching videos on the 9.7 inch device was a treat. It handled mails decently, and listening music (iPod) was also fantastic. I distinctively remember, when my ex-boss in late 2010 had got the first iPad, and I had chance to play around with it for a while. At first, I could not the true essence of the device. All I could think of it as a big giant iPod. But in just couple of hours, it was evident that this piece of hardware in your hands does certain things really well, better than the laptop back in the day.
However, that was pretty much it. It was geared towards an entertainment device, an in-between category created by Steve Jobs, as he said, what was that one device, that was sitting in between a phone and a laptop. He even mocked the low cost, terrible Windows netbooks. A device that was better at doing things on the phone and on a laptop/desktop. That’s where iPad was born. No doubt, it did a few things better than a phone and a laptop, but, that was it. It remained a consumption device, for reading, watching, listening. iPad has pretty much remained the same throughout its various versions, until iPad Pro in 2016.
Microsoft, on the other hand had tremendous pressure from its shareholders, its fans, developers, and the whole tech industry. Microsoft had failed miserably creating a viable third platform with its Windows Phone 7 and 8 series. It was late to the party, by the time Microsoft arrived, people had already moved on with iPhones and Androids. This was a huge problem for Microsoft, and it became a chicken and egg scenario, what comes first?
Since there was no enough audience or users for its platform, the developers completely ignored creating apps for the Windows Phone. Microsoft was in a fix, developers did not see any incentive making apps for them, and users didn’t want to buy their phones because, well, there were no apps. Microsoft once a company that was loved by developers for its Windows (desktop) platform were now shying away from developing anything on Mobile for them.
So unlike Apple’s efforts which worked for them back then, scaling up their matured iOS platform to iPad. Microsoft had to do the other way round, and the hard way. They took their clunky, bulky, humungous Windows OS and started engineering it to fit or, forcefully adjust itself into the new and modern world of touch first, light weight operating system. After the debacle they had with Windows Vista in 2006, they bounced back with Windows 7 which was well received, it was the OS that Vista should have been.
However, in the world of iOS and Android, Windows 7 was becoming irrelevant and it was mostly perceived as business only OS. Don’t get me wrong, there are billion machines out there running some variant of Windows by both home and business users. But it was a transitional period, where mobile and mobile OS was attracting popularity, Windows on the other hand was more of a appliance for home users, to be used for only certain, more complicated computing needs. Mobile devices were the go to device, from browsing the web, to checking Facebook, reading & writing emails, taking pictures, games et cetera, the simple and basics tasks most home users carry out.
In 2012, Steven Sinofsky (former head of Windows division) introduced their new operating system, Windows 8. A sad answer in an iOS and Android world.
Remember, Windows has always been a mouse and keyboard oriented OS. Even with Windows 7, they tried to make it touch friendly but it was a far fetched wish. It was never designed for it, it was never meant for touch first world. All the million plus applications available for Windows 7 were designed for keyboard and mouse input, for precision mouse clicks, drags and drops, small icons.
Windows 8, tried to change all of that. It was a tale of two Operating Systems (OS) forced to marry and live together happily ever after. But neither the two OSes were happy, they could not perform their core duties properly, and neither were the audiences happy for the two to get together.
Microsoft brought in Metro concept of Windows Phone 7 & 8. The Live tiles user interface. It was a fantastic idea, but only on the paper. The user was forced to live in the new metro world as seen in the image above. The metro was designed for touch first world, there was a new app development model/framework that only ran and lived in the Metro side of the OS. The Live tiles, the fresh new fast and fluid metro interface, faster search, better and contained install/uninstall process of the new apps was all for the better. Except, it threw the user out of the metro UI the moment you clicked on a Win32 app (eg iTunes or Chrome browser) and brought back the old desktop (like Windows 7).
This was the biggest issue with the OS, and people absolutely hated this notion of going back and forth with the jarring UI. If the user wanted to go to start menu (like in Win7), it brings in the Start Screen (metro UI) hiding away the desktop and anything important running on it. So if you had to multitask between these two UI, the work was too much and a lot of moving between the UIs. Heck, they even removed the most loved, used feature, the Start menu button from the bottom left (Windows Orb). It was only brought in back with Windows 8.1 when users made a big fuss about it.
This was the history of Windows, bringing in touch element to Windows 8/8.1 to fight uphill battle with iOS and Android. At that point of time, there were no good hardware devices that could showcase the power of touch in Windows 8. There were no tablets, there were no touchscreen laptops, but, there was this Windows 8 that needed to go out there, and wanted the users to experience the new metro world.
The stage was set for Windows 8 along with a brand new Microsoft device, the Surface.
Microsoft Surface was a stunning looking device made out of what they called VaporMg magnesium alloy giving it a semi-glossy look.
It featured a kickstand, a Surface Pen, an optional but important keyboard and came preinstalled with Windows 8. It was the first from Microsoft a 2-in-1 device, that, if used without a keyboard was a tablet, and if a keyboard is attached, converts into a laptop (so to say).
Surface was released in two flavors, there was the Surface Pro, which ran the full blown Windows 8 Pro, that could run modern/metro apps as well as the classic desktop applications. And then there was a confused, younger sibling, called the Surface RT (more confusingly, meant RunTime). The Surface RT, would look and feel like the normal Surface or Windows 8 in it, only to know that, it only ran modern/metro apps. So all those classic, yours truly Win32 apps that you came to love, would simply not execute on the Surface RT.
Cutting the long story short, the result of forcing Windows 8 down peoples throat, putting out Surface RT which many people bought thinking like there was nothing wrong with it, and the first gen of Surface device which was at that time not understood well by the people, specially the consumers. The result was, a whooping $900m (aprox) write-off. There were so many Surface devices that was dusted on the shelves, in warehouses.
The biggest culprit for this loss in my opinion was, one, the Windows 8, two, Microsoft did not explain/advertise it well what really was Surface RT.
Throughout 2010 to 2013 and partly 2014, iPad did really well, so much so that, in 2012, Tim Cook (Apple CEO) said in an interview that “You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are not going to be pleasing to the user.” He meant, you cannot put a tablet and a laptop together, and of course, it came from someone who were selling their Macbooks and iPads in millions.
This was a brief history on the two companies, two products. I will continue writing on the topic in my next article, “Surface/iPad – Now (Part 2)“.
In part 2, I will essentially be discussing where the two products stand today, and the two companies. I will be discussing how Surface product line has shaped up, and what made Apple to change it’s strategy and make something closer to a toaster and a refrigerator, I mean, the iPad Pro.
Till then, have a great day.
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