Apple are the kings of taking what appears to be failed product ideas and turning them into gold mines. The iPhone took the smartphone market from a niche market of the geeky and technical elite into a worldwide sensation that continues today. The iPad managed to make tablet computing popular, even after both Apple and Microsoft tried to crack the elusive market. However the last few years haven’t seen a repeat of those moments with the last attempt, the Apple Watch, failing to become the sensation many believed it would be. Indeed their latest attempt, the iPad Pro and its host of attachments, feels like simple mimicry more than anything else.
The iPad Pro is a not-quite 13″ device that’s sporting all the features you’d expect in a device of that class. Apple mentions that the new 64bit A9X chip that’s powering it is “desktop class” able to bring a 1.8X CPU performance and 2X graphics performance improvement over the previous iPad Air 2. There’s also the huge display which allows you to run two iPad applications side by side, apparently with no compromises on experience. Alongside the iPad Pro Apple has released two accessories: the smart keyboard, which makes use of the new connector on the side of the iPad, and the Apple Pencil, an active stylus. Whilst all these things would make you think it was a laptop replacement it’s running iOS, meaning it’s still in the same category as its lower powered brethren.
If this is all sounding strangely familiar to you it’s because they’re basically selling an iOS version of the Surface Pro.
Now there’s nothing wrong with copying competitors, all the big players have been doing that for so long that even the courts struggle to agree on who was there first, however the iPad Pro feels like a desperate attempt to capture the Surface Pro’s market. Many analysts lump the Surface and the iPad into the same category however that’s not really the case: the iPad is a tablet and the Surface is a laptop replacement. If you compare the Surface Pro to the Macbook though you can see why Apple created the iPad Pro, their total Mac sales are on the order of $6 billion spread across no less than 7 different hardware lines. Microsoft’s Surface on the other hand has made $1 billion in a quarter from just the Surface alone, a significant chunk of sales that I doubt Apple has managed to make with just the Macbook alone. Thus they bring out a competitor that is almost a blow for blow replica of its main competitor.
However the problem with the iPad Pro isn’t the mimicry, it’s the last step they didn’t take to make the copy complete: putting a desktop OS on it. Whilst it’s clear that Apple’s plan is to eventually unify their whole range of products under the iOS banner not putting the iPad Pro on OSX puts it at a significant disadvantage. Sure the hardware is slightly better than the Surface is but that’s all for naught if you can’t do anything with it. Sure there’s a few apps on there but iOS, and the products that it’s based on, have always been focused on consumption rather than production. OSX on the other hand is an operating system focused on productivity, something that the iPad Pro needs in order to realise its full potential. It’s either that or iOS needs to see some significant rework in order to make the iPad Pro the laptop replacement that the Surface Pro is.
It’s clear that Apple needs to do something in order to re-energize the iPad market, with the sales figures being down both in current quarters and year on year, however I don’t believe that the iPad Pro will do it for them. The new ultra slim Macbook has already cannibalized part of the iPad’s market and this new iPad Pro is going to end up playing in the same space. However for those seeking some form of portable desktop environment in the Apple ecosystem I’m failing to see why you’d choose an iPad Pro over the Macbook. Had they gone with OSX the value proposition would’ve been far more clear however this feels like a token attempt to capture the Surface Pro market and I just don’t think it will work out.
The Surface has always been something of a bastard child for Microsoft. They were somewhat forced into creating a tablet device as everyone saw them losing to Apple in this space (even though Microsoft’s consumer electronics division isn’t one of their main profit centers) and their entry into the market managed to confuse a lot of people. The split between the Pro and RT line was clear enough for those of us in the know however consumers, who often in the face of 2 seemingly identical choices will prefer the cheaper one, were left with devices that didn’t function exactly as they expected. The branding of the Surface then changed slightly so that those seeking the device would likely end up with the Pro model and all would be right with the world. The Surface 3, announced last week, carries on that tradition albeit with a much more extreme approach.
As you’d expect the new Surface is an evolutionary step up in terms of functionality, specifications and, funnily enough, size. You now have the choice of either an Intel i3, i5 or i7, 4GB or 8GB of memory and up to 512GB of SSD storage. The screen has swelled to 12″ in size and now sports a pretty incredible 2160 x 1440 resolution, equal to that of many high end screens you’d typically find on a desktop. These additional features actually come with a reduction in weight from the Surface 2 Pro, down from 900g to a paltry 790g. There are some other minor changes as well like the multi-position kickstand and a changed pen but those are small potatoes compared to the rest of the changes that seem to have aimed the Surface more as a laptop replacement than a tablet that can do laptop things.
Since I carry a laptop with me for work (a Dell Latitude E6430 if you were wondering) I’m most certainly sensitive to the issues that plague people like me and the Surface Pro has the answer to many of them. Having to lug my work beast around isn’t the most pleasant experience and I’ve long been a champion of moving everyone across to Ultrabooks in order to address many of the concerns. The Surface Pro is essentially an Ultrabook in a tablet form factor which provides the benefits of both in one package. Indeed colleagues of mine who’ve bought a surface for that purpose love them and those who bought the original Surface Pro back at the TechEd fire sale all said similar things after a couple days of use.
The one thing that would seal the deal for me on the Surface as the replacement to my now 2 year old Zenbook would be the inclusion (or at least option to include) a discrete graphics card. Whilst I don’t do it often I do use my (non-work) laptop for gaming and whilst the Intel HD 4400 can play some games decently the majority of them will struggle. However the inclusion of even a basic discrete chip would make the Surface a portable gaming powerhouse and would be the prime choice for when my Zenbook reaches retirement. That’s still a year or two away however so Microsoft may end up getting my money in the end.
What’s really interesting about this announcement is the profound lack of a RT version of the Surface Pro 3. Indeed whilst I didn’t think there was anything to get confused about between the two version it seems a lot of people did and that has led to a lot of disappointed customers. It was obvious that Microsoft was downplaying the RT version when the second one was announced last year but few thought that it would lead to Microsoft outright cancelling the line. Indeed the lack of an accompanying Surface RT would indicate that Microsoft isn’t so keen on that platform, something which doesn’t bode well for the few OEMs that decided to play in that space. On the flip side it could be a great in for them as Microsoft eating up the low end of the market was always going to be a sore spot for their OEMs and Microsoft still seems committed to the idea from a purely technological point of view.
The Surface 3 might not be seeing me pull out the wallet just yet but there’s enough to like about it that I can see many IT departments turning towards it as the platform of choice for their mobile environments. The lack of an RT variant could be construed as Microsoft giving up on the RT idea but I think it’s probably more to do with the confusion around each of the platform’s value propositions. Regardless it seems that Microsoft is committed to the Surface Pro platform, something which was heavily in doubt just under a year ago. It might not be the commercial success that the iPad et al were but it seems the Surface Pro will become a decent revenue generator for Microsoft.
There’s no question that Microsoft’s attempt at the tablet market has been lacklustre. Whilst the hardware they have powering their tablets was decent the nascent Windows Store lacks the diversity of its competitors, something which made the RT version of it even less desirable. This has since resulted in Microsoft writing down $900 million in Surface RT and associated inventory something which many speculated would be the end of the Surface line. However it appears that Microsoft is more committed than ever to the Surface idea and recently announced the Surface 2, an evolutionary improvement over its predecessor.
The new Surface 2 looks pretty much identical to predecessor although it’s a bit slimmer and is also a bit lighter. It retains the in built kick stand but it now has 2 positions instead of one something which I’m will be useful to some. The specifications under the hood have been significantly revamped for both versions of the tablet with the RT (although it’s no longer called that) version sporting a NVIDIA Tegra 4 and the Pro one of the new Haswell i5 chips. Microsoft will also now let you choose how much RAM you get in your Pro model, allowing you to cram up to 8GB in there. The Pro also gets the luxury of larger drive sizes, up to 512GB should you want it (although you’ll be forced to get the 8GB RAM model if you do). Overall I’d say this is pretty much what you’d expect from a generation 2 product and the Pro at least looks like it could be a decent laptop competitor.
Of course the issues that led Microsoft to write down nearly a billion dollars worth of inventory (after attempting to peddle as much of it as they could to TechEd attendees) still exist today and the upgrade to Windows 8.1 won’t do much to solve this. Sure in the time between the initial Surface release and now there’s been a decent amount of applications developed for it but it still pales in comparison. I still think that the Metro interface is pretty decent on a touch screen but Microsoft will really have to do something outrageous to convince everyone that the Surface is worth buying otherwise it’s doomed to repeat its predecessor’s mistakes.
The Pro on the other hand looks like it’d be a pretty great enterprise tablet thanks to its full x86 environment. I know I’d much rather have those in my environment than Android or iPads as they would be much harder to integrate into all the standard management tools. A Surface 2 Pro on the other hand would behave much like any other desktop allowing me to deliver the full experience to anyone who had one. Of course it’s then more of a replacement for a laptop than anything else but I do know a lot of users who would prefer a tablet device rather than the current fleet of laptops they’re given (even the ones who get ultrabooks).
Whilst the Pro looks like a solid upgrade I can’t help but feel that the upgrade to the RT is almost unnecessary given the fact that most of the complaints levelled at it were nothing to do with its performance. Indeed not once have I found myself wanting for speed on my Surface RT, instead I’ve been wanting my favourite apps to come across so that I don’t have to use their web versions which, on Internet Explorer, typically aren’t great. Maybe the ecosystem is mature enough now to tempt some people across but honestly unless they already own one I can’t really see that happening, at least for the RT version. The Pro on the other hand could make some headway into Microsoft’s core enterprise market but even that might not be enough for the Surface division.