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Microsoft Surface Takes On The iPad - Our Take on Which is a Better Videoconferencing Machine

June 19, 2012 | David S. Maldow, Esq.
Microsoft Surface Case and Keyboard Set.jpg
Microsoft Surface Takes On The iPad
Microsoft is once again putting out its own hardware in an attempt to compete with an Apple product. Unlike the Zune, this offering may have some legs. Microsoft generally makes its billions licensing software, and leaving the hardware business to its partners. However, this approach has failed to get them a foothold into the growing tablet market. Third party tablets powered by Windows software just aren't competing well with the iPad. The iPad has nearly complete dominance, with over 50% the tablet market. No one competitor even stood out until Amazon was able to gain ~15% with its low priced Kindle Fire (running Google's Android software). 

Evidently, the tablet market is too important for Microsoft to just sit back and let Apple dominate it without a challenge. Not only are tablets selling like hotcakes, they are hurting sales of PCs and laptops. Tablets are becoming a replacement computing platform and Microsoft desperately needs to get in the game. When innovation fails, copying is always an option, so Microsoft is now going with the Apple model of controlling the entire process, hardware and software, and making their own device. To be fair, the Surface isn't a complete iPad ripoff. Conceptually, Microsoft and Apple have approached their tablets from completely different directions. Apple started with the amazing UI of its iPhone and created tablet sized version which allowed it to be a true computing and content digestion platform. Microsoft is starting with its new Windows 8 Pro desktop software and creating a tablet sized version of its PC experience. The end result may be similar, but the iPad will always feel like a supersized, enhanced version of the Apple mobile experience, whereas I expect the Surface will generally be used as a mobile version of one's workstation.

Microsoft has confused this announcement by offering two versions of Surface, neither of which have release dates or prices.

Microsoft Surface Versions Table.jpg
Without getting too deep into the software weeds, we can just say that RT is a version of Windows 8 originally designed for third party tablets. The RT version will be priced similarly to the iPad's base price and has similar physical dimensions to the latest iPad, but much lower resolution. The Windows 8 version will be a bit heavier, thicker and more expensive than the iPad. The result is that the RT version is a compromise compared to the iPad's capabilities, while the Windows 8 version appears to be more like a laptop with a touch screen, in terms of mobility and price. If Microsoft had combined these two products into one Surface tablet, with iPad dimensions, resolution, and pricing, while running Win 8, then Apple would have a lot more to worry about.

Resolutionary iPad Image -.jpg
From a videoconferencing perspective, I can't imagine choosing the Surface RT over the new iPad, and paying the same price for 1/4 the resolution. I also can't imagine choosing the Surface Win 8 over the new iPad as I expect it would provide a similar video experience, but for twice the price, in a heavier and bulkier package. If, like me, one of the main uses of your tablet is a video endpoint, the iPad is still the best choice.

Earlier reviewers seem excited about the keyboard cover (a prime example of how MS is positioning the device as a laptop replacement). Touch screen keyboards are a compromise, so an external keyboard is appreciated. Based on its appearance, I question whether it provides a nice tactile response (it is just easier to type if it feels right). I also question the inclusion of a touchpad on the keyboard. I understand that MS wants the Surface to be able to run all Windows programs, but ideally all apps will take advantage of the touch screen which, in my opinion, is a much better user experience than using a little pad.

In my world, the big deal is that it will run MS Office natively. While the iWorks applications on my iPad allow me to work with Office files, the integration is a little clunky at times. On the other hand, I've always been frustrated by Office products and resented being forced to use them. As a result, I have been enjoying iWorks, despite the integration issues. In particular, the iPad's "Keynote" app is actually fun to use compared to MS PowerPoint. The bottom line, love it or hate it, millions of workers are tied to Office and if the Surface can provide a compelling tablet experience with native Office integration they should be able to get at least some traction. 

Will this be the next iPad or will this be the next Zune? It is impossible to predict at this point, there are just too many factors. The iPad has such a strong foothold in the tablet market, but Microsoft completely owns business computing and may be able to convince workers that they can go mobile, and keep their comfortable Windows workspace. Another factor to consider is the emotional response and attachment that people have for their iPads. It is more than a well designed product, people just love it. Microsoft has never been able to match Apple's ability to create lovable products, instead they create business tools that no one loves but everyone uses. We will have to wait and see which approach will work best in the battle for the tablets.

About the Author
David_Maldow, Esq.David Maldow, Esq. is a visual collaboration technologist and analyst with the Human Productivity Lab and an associate editor at Telepresence Options. David has extensive expertise in testing, evaluating, and explaining telepresence and other visual collaboration / rich media solutions. David is focused on providing third-party independent analysis and opinion of these technologies and helping end users better secure their telepresence, videoconferencing, and visual collaboration environments. You can follow David on Twitter and Google+.

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