The biggest and most obvious question: what could the Surface mean for iPad? Even if Surface proves devastating to Android, the real competitor here is iPad. It has a commanding lead in tablets, driven by its catalog of apps and content. But Surface brings a substantial catalog of software along with it, as well as content. Both have their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to hardware, but on paper, it could be a real dogfight. Or it could just be noise because people would still rather have an iPad.
Head to Head, An Even Match
Both the Surface and the iPad have distinctive and attractive designs. The iPad is super-thin, shiny and very modern. The Surface has an elegant, solid industrial look to it. Both are good looking machines, and clearly Microsoft paid attention to the design. Even though it isn’t the only factor, the visual appearance matters.
Inside, the Surface has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the model. The entry-level ARM tablet is pretty much comparable on paper when it comes to processor and storage. It offers external expansion (via USB and MicroSD) that the iPad lacks, but the iPad has vastly superior screen. The top-level Intel-based Surface has substantially more computing power, but that will come at the expense of battery life. Like the lower-end model, the top-tier surface offers expansion (USB 3.0 and MicroSD), but a screen that still doesn’t match the Retina display in terms of resolution.
Ultimately, how important the hardware differences are will depend on how important customers think they are. The lack of USB isn’t exactly hurting iPad sales, and the increased use of Bluetooth technology for connecting peripherals may make this a moot point. The ability to expand storage could be interesting, but again, may not be enough to make a difference. People tried to make a big deal about the iPod’s lack of an FM radio early on, but that didn’t stop it from basically owning the entire MP3 player market.
Enterprise As Battleground
Where the Surface could hold an advantage is in the enterprise. The issue here isn’t security (both have strengths and weaknesses here), but integration. Ultimately, the Surface is a Windows machine, and with that comes a a level of enterprise support that has existed for a long time. A lot of integration with Exchange, Sharepoint and SQLServer will simply work out of the box. It will also include the same support for user account management and login security as Windows on the desktop and on laptops. Integrating the Surface into the enterprise will likely be a lot easier than with iPad, because it is basically the same as it is for all the other Windows products.
The Surface also runs existing Windows software. Granted, a lot of it won’t be optimized for touch, but enough of the software should work well enough that it won’t be an issue initially. Of course, the existing software catalog for Windows is Intel-based, so you can forget running it on the ARM-based Surface tablets until it is rebuilt for ARM. In the mean time, if you want your Surface to run your existing Windows software, you have to buy the more expensive (and more battery hungry) Intel-based model. If you are looking at the ARM-based edition, then you lose the advantage of your current software “just working”, and if an enterprise has to re-invest in software, then the iPad is a viable option (as it is today).
Ultimately, the Surface could have a stronger enterprise story, certainly for the Intel-based model. That could, in turn, impact the iPad in the enterprise, and give the Surface a place to establish a meaningful foothold in the tablet space. Much as the iPhone got its start in the consumer world first, and then started to displace Blackberry in the enterprise, the Surface could take the same path the PC did, but starting in the enterprise.
Consumer Market Harder
The consumer side could be a bigger challenge, and may be one that has to wait upon success in the enterprise. Consumers are more likely to want the ARM version of the Surface. But it will have a markedly smaller catalog of available software relative to the iPad, but it is more likely to have more apps that are optimized for touch. That smaller catalog of software is a significant hurdle to overcome. Just ask any Android tablet manufacturer. Industrial design counts, but it takes more than a good-looking device to go up against iPad. Apps and content are still a bigger factor.
The technical specs also matter less to consumers. If tech specs mattered, then the iPhone should have been eclipsed by other devices long ago, and that didn’t happen. The iPod wasn’t superior on paper, but it owned the MP3 player market. But there are technological aspects that do matter to consumers, and it revolves around things they see every day, specifically things like the screen and battery life. The new Surface has to come close to the iPad in battery life, and ideally will need to be better. Overcoming the vastly superior Retina display will be a challenge. Neither of these will be deal-breakers, but they don’t make competing with iPad any easier.
The First Real Challenger?
Could the Surface be the first real challenge to the iPad? It certainly has the right elements. It may find that its first real success comes in the enterprise, and not in the consumer space (one which, ironically, the PC-software side of the business has had a hard time marketing into). That enterprise footprint could then lead to consumer success.
But the Surface has one problem: you can’t but it yet, and any comparison is based on the current iPad and the state of the iPad ecosystem. The problem with that is that the iPad the Surface will really be up against is the one that will likely be announced early next year (if Apple sticks to their current pattern), using software that is coming out around September. By announcing this far in advance, Microsoft has gone and shown their cards to everyone else, and now they have at least 6 months to create some kind of response. For Apple, that gives them time to tweak the next iPad to counter parts of the Surface believed to be strengths, and to potentially “one up” the Surface.
The long lead time between announcement and release of the Surface (particularly since it doesn’t have a hard ship date) means that it can also get lost in the noise that is the mobile computing industry. That, however, is a topic for a different discussion. Needless to say, any excitement that people feel about the device today can easily be lost as time flows past.
The Surface will also be arriving right around the time the real rumours about the next iPad are starting to heat up, and that could put a damper on Surface sales as a result. Even Apple was a victim of its own success, with regards to the rumour mill, as iPhone 4 sales were impacted up until the release of the iPhone 4S. This same phenomenon could put a crimp in Surface sales right when the device is hitting the streets.
Another fly in the ointment could be the rumoured release of a smaller iPad this September. Of course, that is pure speculation. Steve Jobs had publicly derided the idea of a smaller iPad, but that could have simply been disinformation (he also dismissed the idea of an Apple smartphone and the idea of a TV set-top device before eventually announcing both). A smaller form-factor iPad could tilt the tablet landscape again, and Microsoft may find they have to develop an answer to it in short order to stay relevant.
It Does Have Potential
The Surface certainly does have potential. Whether that potential translates into actual success has still to be proven. This isn’t the first time that a device was expected to be a “something-killer”, only to fall flat on its face. But it could also be one of those watershed moments, when we see the changing of the guard. If nothing else, it should be interesting to see how this develops.