Microsoft is taking the wrong approach to tablets

Credit: Microsoft via webcast

As Microsoft gets set to release its first Surface tablet, and its PC partners get ready to release their own takes on the same concept, there's been a lot of hype from Microsoft about how these computers combine the best of both worlds, tablets and laptops.

As Microsoft Windows chief Steven Sinofsky put it today at Microsoft's Surface launch event, "It's not just a tablet, but it's actually the best tablet that I’ve ever used. It's also not just a laptop, but it's the best laptop I've ever used as well."

But there's no evidence yet that anybody wants such a device.

Tablet manufacturers have been trying to give us keyboards for our tablets for a while now, and they haven't stuck. I saw a device from Asus at CeBIT in March, 2011 that combined a tablet with a little slide out keyboard. Sound familiar?  Why didn't they fly off the shelves? You could argue it's because the wrong company produced them, or because the early version of Android it was based on did not work well for tablets, but I think it's more fundamental than that. The touch-screen tablet has changed the way we interact with devices. People want software that takes advantage of that -- and doesn't force us to use it like a laptop.

At the same time I was covering that CeBIT conference, Apple released the IPad 2 and Steve Jobs made a point that night that it would be a mistake to think about tablets as simply laptops without keyboards. He said these are new kinds of devices where "the hardware and software intertwine."

Apple also sells laptops, so Jobs wasn't simply trying to protect his business. He was stating his design philosophy around tablets. They were a different device and we needed to approach them differently.

Microsoft isn't doing that. Instead, they have chosen the hybrid as a way to leverage their core Windows and Office business.

The Surface is a tablet, but its most noticeable feature -- the thing that makes it stand out from the iPad in product shots -- is the detachable magnetic cover, which doubles as a keypad. Which makes it more like a laptop. Surface RT doesn't run traditional Windows apps (the more expensive Surface Pro will), and Microsoft is putting a ton of effort into convincing developers to build new, lightweight, touch-centric apps. But the one app that you can't get on any other tablet -- Microsoft Office -- still runs in the old desktop mode.

It may be smart for Microsoft to protect and extend their strongest businesses -- and I would go far as to say they had little choice. Yet if Microsoft wanted to be truly bold, they wouldn't be reproducing the laptop experience on a tablet. 

Tablets are so much more than the beige box in a new package. They are lighter, faster and have lightweight apps instead of fat clients. Developers have found creative ways to simplify the interactions to take advantage of the device, the operating system and the input system.

One of my personal favorites is Evernote, which lets me speak a note, take a picture, scan a document, make a video note, and of course type. I can even email a note to myself by forwarding it to a special Evernote address. With add-ons like Penultimate, I could even take notes with a stylus and save them to Evernote. I'm offered a variety of ways to create and add content to the program, only one of which involves typing. 

Microsoft and its fans will rightly point out that Evernote is one of the first apps available for Windows 8, which is great. But it was inspired by the iPhone, the first truly all-touch device (and the precursor to the iPad). The question is would a hybrid like Surface have inspired the same kind of multiple-input app? I doubt it.

I'm not suggesting that laptops are unnecessary. I'm typing this post on one. The Surface will certainly have use cases.

But I believe what we have here is a failure to imagine something beyond the Office fat client. If we want to take tablet computing to the next level, we have to push the limits, not reproduce what came before -- and Microsoft is trying to take advantage of the tablet revolution while ignoring its spirit.

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