I’ve only really owned one tablet, the original Microsoft Surface RT, and try as I might to integrate it into parts of my life I honestly really can’t figure out where it fits in. Primarily I think this is a function of apps as whilst the Surface is capable in most respects there’s really no killer feature that makes me want to use it for that specific purpose. Indeed this is probably due to my heavy embedding within the Android ecosystem, with all the characteristics that make my phone mine persisted across Google’s cloud. With that in mind when ASUS offered me a review unit of their new Transformer Pad TF103C for a couple weeks to review I was intrigued to see how the experience would compare.
The TF103C is a 10.1″ tablet, sporting a quad core, 64 bit Intel Atom processor that runs at up to 1.86GHz. For a tablet those specs are pretty high end which, considering the included keyboard signals that the TF103C is aimed more towards productivity than simply being a beefy Android tablet. The screen is an IPS display with a 1200 x 800 resolution which is a little on the low side, especially now that retina level displays are fairly commonplace. You can get it with either 8GB or 16GB of internal storage which you can easily upgrade to 64GB via the embedded SDHC slot. It also includes the usual affair of wireless interfaces, connectors and sensors although one feature of note is the full sized USB port on the dock. With a RRP of $429 (with street prices coming in well under that) there’s definitely a lot packed in the TF103C for the price.
As a full unit the TF103C is actually pretty hefty. coming in at a total 1.1KGs although the tablet itself only makes up about half that. The keyboard dock doesn’t contain an additional battery or anything else that you’d think would make it so heavy, especially considering other chiclet style keyboards come in at about half that. Considering my full ultrabook weighs in at about 1.5KGs it does take away some of the appeal of having a device like this, at least from my perspective. That being said I’m not exactly the biggest tablet user, so the use of two different form factors is lost on me somewhat.
When used in docked form the TF103C is actually quite capable, especially when you attach a mouse to the dock’s USB port. I had wondered how Android would fair when used in a more traditional desktop way and it actually works quite well, mostly since the web versions of your typical productivity applications have evolved a lot in the past couple years. The keyboard is probably a little on the small side for people with larger hands but it was definitely usable for quick tasks or replying to email. It falls a little short if you’re going to use it on your lap however due to the fact that the screen can’t be tilted back past a certain point. It’s still usable but it’s a much better experience when used on a desk.
The quad core Intel Atom powering the TF103C is extremely capable, as evidenced by the fact that everything on it runs without a stutter or hiccup. I threw a few of the more intensive games I could find at it and never noticed any slowdown, commendable for a tablet in this price range. When you’re using such performance however the battery life does take quite a hit, knocking the rated 9.5 hours of run time to less than 4. That being said it managed to stay charged for about a week when it was idle making it quite usable as a casual computing device.
All in all I was impressed with the capabilities the TF103C displayed, even if I couldn’t really see it replacing any one of the devices I have currently. There’s a few missed opportunities, like integrating a battery into the keyboard and allowing the screen to tilt more, however overall it’s a very capable device for the asking price. I could definitely see it having a place on the coffee table as something to be used when needed with the added keyboard dock capability coming in handy for more grunty work. It might not end up replacing the device you have now but if you’re looking for a decent tablet that can also be productive then you wouldn’t go wrong with the TF103C.
A review unit was provided to The Refined Geek for 2 weeks for reviewing purposes.
Smartphones and laptops have always been a pain in the side of any enterprise admin. They almost always find themselves into the IT environment via a decidedly non-IT driven process, usually when an executive gets a new toy that he’d like his corporate email on. However the tools to support these devices have improved drastically allowing IT to provide the basic services (it’s almost always only email) and then be done with it. For the most part people see the delineation pretty clearly: smartphones and tablets are for mobile working and your desktop or laptop is for when you need to do actual work. I’ve honestly never seen a need for a device that crosses the boundaries between these two worlds although after reading this piece of dribble it seems that some C-level execs think there’s demand for such a device.
I don’t think he could be more wrong if he tried.
The article starts off with some good points about why tablet sales are down (the market has been saturated, much like netbooks were) and why PC sales are up (XP’s end of life, although that’s only part of it) and then posits the idea of creating “super tablets” in order to reignite the market. Such a device would be somewhere in between an iPad and a laptop, sporting a bigger screen, functional keyboard and upgraded internals but keeping the same standardized operating system. According to the author such a device would bridge the productivity gap that currently divides tablets from other PCs giving users the best of both worlds. The rest of the article makes mention of a whole bunch of things that I’ll get into debunking later but the main thrust of it is that some kind of souped up tablet is the perfect device for corporate IT.
For starters the notion that PCs are hard to manage in comparison to tablets or smartphones is nothing short of total horseshit. The author makes a point that ServiceNow, which provides some incident management software, is worth $8 billion as some kind of proof that PCs break often and are hard to manage. What that fails to grasp is that ServiceNow is actually an IT Service Management company that also has Software/Platform as a Service offerings and thus are more akin to a company like Salesforce than simply an incident management company. This then leads onto the idea that the mobile section is somehow cheaper to run that its PC counterpart which is not the case in many circumstances. He also makes the assertion that desktop virtualization is expensive when in most cases it makes heavy use of investments that IT has already made in both server and desktop infrastructure.
In fact the whole article smacks of someone who seems cheerfully ignorant of the fact that the product that he’s peddling is pretty much an ultrabook with a couple of minor differences. One of the prime reasons people like tablets is their portability and the second you increase the screen size and whack a “proper” keyboard on that you’ve essentially given them a laptop. His argument is then that you need the specifications of a laptop with Android or iOS on it but I fail to see how extra power is going to make those platforms any more useful than they are today. Indeed if all you’re doing is word processing an Internet browsing then the current iteration of Android laptops does the job just fine.
Sometimes when there’s an apparent gap in the market there’s a reason for it and in the case of “super tablets” it’s because when you take what’s good about the two platforms it bridges you end up with a device that has none of the benefits of either. This idea probably arises from the incorrect notion that PCs are incredibly unreliable and hard to manage when, in actuality, that’s so far from reality it’s almost comical. Instead the delineations between tablets and laptops are based on well defined usability guidelines that both consumers and enterprise IT staff have come to appreciate. It’s like looking at a nail and a screw and thinking that combining them into a super nail will somehow give you the benefits of both when realistically they’re for different purposes and the sooner you realise that the better you’ll be at hammering and screwing.
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.
Just like any new tech gadget I’ve been ogling tablets for quite some time. Now I’m sure there will be a few who are quick to point out that I said long ago that an ultrabook fills the same niche, at least for me, but that didn’t stop me from lusting after them for one reason or another. I’d held off on buying one for a long time though as the price for something I would only have a couple uses for was far too high, even if I was going to use it for game reviews, so for a long time I simply wondered at what could be. Well whilst I was at TechEd North America the opportunity to snag a Windows Surface RT came up for the low price of $99 and I, being able to ignore the fiscal conservative in me and relent into my tech lust, happily handed over my credit card so I could take one home with me.
It’s quite a solid device with a noticeable amount of heft in it despite its rather slim figure. Of particular note is the built in kick stand which allows you to sit the Surface upright, something which I’ve heard others wish for with their tablets. It’s clear that the Surface as been designed to be used primarily in landscape mode which is in opposition to most other tablets that utilize the portrait view. For someone like me who’s been a laptop user for a long time this didn’t bother me too much but I can see how it’d be somewhat irritating if you were coming from another platform as it’d be just another thing you’d have to get used to. Other than that it seems to be your pretty standard tablet affair with a few tweaks to give it a more PC feel.
The specifications of it are pretty decent boasting a WXGA (1366 x 768) 16:9 screen powered by a NVIDIA Tegra3 with 2GB RAM behind it. I’ve got the 64GB model which reports 53GB available and 42GB free which was something of a contentious point for many as they weren’t getting what they paid for (although at $99 I wasn’t going to complain). It’s enough that when using it I never noticed any stutter or slow down even when I was playing some of the more graphically intense games on it. I didn’t really try any heavy productivity stuff on it because I much prefer my desktop for work of that nature but I get the feeling it could handle 90% of the tasks I could throw at it. The battery life also appears to be relatively decent although I have had a couple times where it mysteriously came up on 0 charge although that might have been due to my fiddling with the power settings (more on why I did that later).
Since I’ve been a Windows 8 user for a while the RT interface on the Surface wasn’t much of a shock to me although I was a little miffed that I couldn’t run some of my chosen applications, even in desktop mode, notably Google Chrome. That being said applications that have been designed for the Metro interface are usually pretty good, indeed the OneNote app and Cocktail Flow are good examples of this, however the variety of applications available is unfortunately low. This is made up for a little by the fact that the browser on the Surface is far more usable than the one on Windows Phone 7 enabling many of the web apps to work fine. I hope for Microsoft’s sake this changes soon as the dearth of applications on the Surface really limits its appeal.
The keyboard that came with the Surface gets a special mention because of just how horrid it is. Whilst it does a good job of being a protective cover, one that does have a rather satisfying click as the magnets snap in, it’s absolutely horrendous as an input device, akin to typing on a furry piece of cardboard. Since there’s no feedback it’s quite hard to type fast on it and worse still it seems to miss key presses every so often. Probably the worst part about it is that if your surface locks itself with it attached and then you remove it you will then have no way to unlock your device until you re-attach it, even if you’ve set a PIN code up. I’ve heard that the touch cover is a lot better but since it was going for $100 at the time I wasn’t too keen on purchasing it.
The Surface does do a good job of filling the particular niche I had for it, which was mainly watching videos and using it to remote into my servers, but past that I haven’t found myself using it that much. Indeed the problem seems to be that the Surface, at least the non-pro version, is stuck halfway between being a true tablet and a laptop as many of its features are still computer-centric. This means that potential customers on either side of the equation will probably feel like they’re missing something which I think is one of the main reasons that the Surface has struggled to get much market share. The Pro seems to be much closer to being a laptop, enough so that the people I talked to at TechEd seemed pretty happy with their purchase. Whether that translates into Microsoft refocusing their strategy with the Surface remains to be seen, however.
The Surface is a decent little device, having the capabilities you’ve come to expect from a tablet whilst still having that Microsoft Windows feel about it. It’s let down by the lack of applications and dissonance it suffers from being stuck between the PC and tablet worlds, something that can’t be easily remedied by a software fix. The touch cover is also quite atrocious and should be avoided at all costs, even if you’re just going to use it as a cover. For the price I got it for I think it was worth the money however getting it at retail is another story and unless you’re running a completely Microsoft house already I’d struggle to recommend it over an ultrabook or similarly portable computing device.
I don’t know what it is about holidays or trips away but I seem to spend the first half dreading everything about the place I’m in and then once I’m past the halfway point I seem to yearn for it not to end. This trip is no different as I wasn’t too crash hot on the whole idea but late yesterday I felt like I hit a turning point. My article that I dreamed up went down a treat and today the vague layout I had given myself helped to focus me on the important points of the sessions I was attending. Now I feel like the little amount of time I have left here isn’t enough and I curse my former self for being so impudent.
Most of today was fairly uneventful as I had managed to choose a few sessions that had significant overlap with each other. This is despite them claiming that “no one else has seen this content yet” so I ended up spending an undue amount of time on Reddit just waiting for it to finish so I could move onto the next one. Thankfully I had 2 sessions that were really quite awesome, especially the Azure Internals one done by Mark Russinovich who’s fast becoming my favorite presenter for everything Microsoft. I’m less worried about what I’m going to see tomorrow since I can do a reflective post about everything and I expect the chances of me finding out anything amazing on the last day are slim to nil.
I finally decided to brave the line for a Surface¹ as I knew I’d kick myself if I didn’t take them up on the offer. Like most I was planning to go for the duo, getting one of both to take advantage of the price difference, however thinking about it I have no need for 2 tablets (my wife swears by her Macbook Air and I my Zenbook) but for $99 I figured the RT was cheap enough for those rare times I’ve found myself thinking “Hey a tablet would rock here”. All told I was in the line for about an hour or so when all I would’ve been doing otherwise was surfing the web so it wasn’t time wasted and the short line for lunch afterwards was a nice bonus.
We all managed to catch up for beers and dinner after we’d all finished writing our posts which was bloody fantastic and was most definitely one of the key things that had been missing from this trip. It was also very interesting to hear the journos war stories about the various tech press and the media in general and even better still being able to relate to them as a blogger (and not be ridiculed for it, omg). I did feel a little bad for the other guys though as whilst they we were all talking shop I felt like we might’ve been excluding them a little bit, but thankfully the conversation didn’t circle around journalism for the whole night.
Tomorrow is shaping up to be a pretty excellent day with the sessions stopping early and the big Microsoft piss up happening shortly after. I know we’re all looking to exploit this for all its worth so it should be a good time to get loose with everyone after a hard week’s blogging. Whilst that might preclude doing anything particularly interesting the day after it’ll all be worth it if we enjoy ourselves. I’ll just have to make sure to not get too wrecked as we’ll be shipping out the next day and flying hungover isn’t exactly one of my most favorite things to do.
¹For those not in the know they’re offering them to TechEd attendees at a ridiculous price point, $99 for the RT and $499 for the Pro.
I’ve been using Windows 8 for a good 6 months now and as someone who’s use all previous Windows versions going back to 3.1 it’s easy for me to say that it’s the best of the lot so far. Sure I don’t use the Metro interface a lot but that’s mostly because it’s not designed for the current platform I’m using it on (a PC that doesn’t have a touch interface). Still it seems I can’t go a day where someone, usually an executive from a large OEM, is bashing Windows 8 in one way or another. Considering that nearly everyone I talk to, including people who aren’t that technically inclined, seems to say the direct opposite of what they say I figured it was something worth looking into.
A lot of the criticisms seem to stem from the awkward launch that Windows 8 had. Now I’m not going to try and be an apologist for this as it’s well known that even Microsoft was disappointed with the initial release. For those of us who endured the Vista launch however it’s pretty obvious why this occurred as whenever a new Windows release deviates heavily from the previous one (whether in terms of interface or underlying architecture) the sales are always lackluster as their biggest customers, the enterprise buyers, don’t want to take the risk until all the teething issues have been sorted out. More crucially though is that whilst the launch might have been an all round disappointment it didn’t take long for Windows 8 to gain some significant steam, getting on par with Windows 7 after 90 days.
Several other high profile people have gone on record saying that the Surface is also seeing lackluster sales. This coming not long after many people have called the ultrabook market a failure (which is not unjustified) makes it look like Windows 8 ‘s introduction can’t have any impact on what looks like a declining PC market. Now I’m not going to argue against those numbers however if you look at past Windows releases, take 7 for instance which was released in Q4 of 2009, you’ll see that whilst there was a small boost (which wasn’t out of line with current trend growths) the previous quarter it was back to where it was before. What this means is that while you’d expect people to be buying a new computer in order to get the latest version of Windows many in fact don’t. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise as the system requirements between Vista, Windows 7 and Windows 8 aren’t that great and indeed any PC bought during the time that these operating systems has been available would be more than capable of running them. Indeed many computers have reached the level of good enough half a decade ago for the vast majority of the population so the lackluster growth isn’t surprising, nor is it anything to worry about in my point of view.
I think the reason for the backlash is due to two reasons, both of which the blame does actually lie with Microsoft. The first is a bit of speculation on my part as I think Microsoft promised a boost in PC sales to the various OEMs in order to get them on board early with Windows 8. This is pretty much par for course when you’re working with OEMs on a new and risky product as otherwise they’ll be waiting until the product catches on before they throw their hat in the ring. Now whilst Microsoft could probably handle Windows 8 not getting a lot of OEM support for a while it would have been likely that Windows 8 wouldn’t have caught up to 7’s sales in the first 90 day period, severely stunting its future growth. Whilst they wouldn’t have a Vista level disaster on their hands it would’ve been much worse than what they’re dealing with now.
Secondly I get the feeling that many of the OEMs aren’t too enthused about the Surface and I don’t blame them. I said a while back that Microsoft needed to keep their product in the premium range in order to not piss off their partners and they’ve done that to some extent however with the exorbitant license cost for OEMs it’s incredibly hard for them to make a comparable tablet for the same cost as the low end Surface RT. This has no doubt generated a bit of animosity towards Microsoft with many OEM executives bashing Surface at every chance they get despite it selling out almost immediately upon release. Whether Microsoft can repair this relationship remains to be seen however as the platform’s long term survivability will be made or broken by their OEMs, just like it has been in the past.
Microsoft took a risk with Windows 8 and by most accounts it appears to be paying off for them, unlike their previous experience with Vista. It might not be the saving grace of the PC industry nor might it be a runaway success in the tablet market however Microsoft is not a company that plays the short term game. Windows 8 is the beginning of a new direction for them and by all accounts it’s creating a solid foundation with which Microsoft can further build on. Future Microsoft releases will then be able to deliver even more capabilities on more platforms than any other ecosystem. This isn’t the first time they’ve been on the back foot and then managed to managed to dominate a market long after it has established itself (Xbox anyone?) and I’d be really surprised if they failed this time around.
I’ve been using Windows 8 as my main system for the better part of 2 months now and, whilst I’ll leave the in-depth impressions for the proper review, I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. Sure I wasn’t particularly happy with the way things were laid out initially but for the most part if you just blunder along like its Windows 7 you’re not going to struggle with it for very long. I might not use any of the modern styled applications, they don’t feel like they’re particularly well suited to the mouse/keyboard scenario if I’m honest, but everything else about it works as expected. Of course whilst Microsoft has already sold 40 million licenses of Windows 8 most people are focusing on Windows RT, care of the Surface tablet.
For the technically inclined the differences between the two are pretty stark and we’ve known for a long time that the Surface is essentially Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. The lines are a little bit more blurry between Surface/RT and the full version of Windows 8, thanks to the Modern Styled UI being shared between them, but the lack of a desktop made it pretty clear where the delineation lay. It seems however that there’s a feeling among some the bigger media outlets that Windows 8 is suffering from an identity crisis of sorts which has been perplexing me all morning:
What we’re seeing, I think, is Microsoft dancing around an uncomfortable reality: Windows RT just doesn’t have much to offer, so it’s hard to explain how it’s different from Windows 8 without making it look inferior.
The only distinct advantage for Windows RT is its support for “connected standby,” a power-saving mode that lets the device keep an eye on e-mail and other apps while it’s not in use. It’s a nice feature to have, but on its own it’s a tough sell compared to Windows 8′s wider software support. (UPDATE: As Eddie Yasi points out in the comments, the Atom-based chips that Windows 8 tablets are using, codenamed Clover Trail, support connected standby as well.)
The main thrust of the article, and another one it linked to, is that there’s been no real information from Microsoft about the differences between the fully fledged version of Windows 8 and its RT cousin. I’ll be fair to the article and not use anything past its publication date but for anyone so inclined I wrote about the differences between the two platforms well over a year ago and I was kind of late to the party on it too. Indeed the vast majority of the tech press surrounding the Surface release understood these differences quite clearly and it appears that both Time and The Verge were both being willingly ignorant simply to get a story.
Granted The Verge has something of a point that the retail representatives didn’t know the product but then again why were you asking in depth technical questions of a low wage retail worker? Most people who are looking for a Surface/iPad like device aren’t going to want to know if their legacy applications will run on it because, to them, they’re not the same thing. You could argue that the customer might have seen the Modern UI at home and then assumed that the Surface was exactly the same but I’d struggle to find someone who had installed Windows 8 this early in the piece and wasn’t aware that the Surface was a completely different beast.
Indeed the quote paragraphs above imply that Jared Newman (writer of the Time article) isn’t aware that the RT framework, the thing that powers the Modern UI, is the glue that will join all of Microsoft’s ecosystem together. Not only does it underpin Windows 8 but it’s also the framework for Windows Phone 8 and (I am speculating here but the writing is on the wall) the upcoming Xbox. What Windows RT devices offer you is the same experience that you’ll be able to get anywhere else Microsoft ecosystem but on low power devices. Newman makes the point that they could very well run them on Atom processors however anyone who’s actually used one can tell you that their performance is not up to scratch with their i3/5/7 line and is barely usable for desktop applications. They’re comparable in the low power space, meaning they would have made a decent replacement for ARM, but considering that 95% of the world’s portable devices run on the ARM it makes much more sense to go with the dominant platform rather than using something that’s guaranteed to give a sub-par experience.
I don’t like doing these kinds of take down posts, it usually feels like I’m shouting at a brick wall, but when there’s a fundamental lack of understanding or wilful ignorance of the facts I feel compelled to say something. The Windows8/RT distinctions are clear and, should you do even a small amount of research, the motives for doing so are also obvious. Thankfully most of the tech press was immune to this (although TechCrunch got swept up in this as well, tsk tsk) so there’s only a few bad apples that needed cleaning up.
Do you know anyone who actually uses a laptop on their lap? The name would imply that the intended use case for a laptop is for something that could ostensibly be used anywhere that you could find yourself a seat although the primary use for most laptops seems to be as a desktop replacement rather than a dedicated mobile computing experience. I know that was the case for me with many of the work issued laptops that I was given (they were primarily only used at work) and their form factors usually didn’t lend themselves to being used well as their namesake implies. After reviewing the ASUS Zenbook UX32V this week I remembered how similar my experiences sounded to those who’d bought a tablet and that got me wondering about the larger portable computing market.
You see whilst I was pretty sour on the tablet idea for a long time I have to admit there were situations where I’d find myself thinking that it’d be great to have one in order to do something. Granted these situations were pretty niche for me, usually when I was lounging in front of the TV and wanted to look something up (with my PC being not 3 meters from me) but never the less it kept me looking into them. Then after getting the Zenbook I found myself doing those exact, presumably tablet optimized tasks, on said device. It was a bit of a strange thing to happen to me as it’s not like I didn’t have a laptop lying around the house before but there was something about the form factor and extremely fast boot time of the Zenbook that transformed it from just being another laptop to a truly portable device I could use anywhere.
In fact thinking back I can remember many of my friends who purchased a MacBook Air said very similar things and their reaction to the iPad was one of questioning the value they’d get out of it. Taking this idea further it would seem that whilst there’s a case to be made for having a laptop and some kind of tablet around should you get the right kind of laptop, namely an ultrabook, you’ll end up usurping all the uses cases you’d have for a tablet. Granted there are still some situations where a tablet might be better (I can think of 1 and only 1 for myself, previewing photographs before I finish shooting) but for people like me it’s hard to warrant a purchase based around that. For many other people however, those who were craving a good portable computing experience, the tablet filled the niche long before the ultrabook ever had a chance to make its case.
Keen observers will note that whilst I might be making my argument around the ultrabook designation there was actually a market sector that was dedicated to the small, highly portable market long before the ultrabooks became viable: the netbooks. Indeed this is correct and whilst many will say that the iPad is what killed the netbook sector (I strongly disagree on that) it was fare more likely that after the initial hype cycle companies started focusing on higher margin products, like the ultrabooks, and thus the market shifted towards them. Indeed when the computing power in a tablet can match or exceed that of a netbook most people will probably go with the former, especially if the user experience is better.
My point among all this is that for me, and I believe many others, the use case for a tablet are more than aptly covered off by an ultrabook. Sure it’s hard to compare them as the form factors, operating systems and available applications are worlds apart from each other but I really have found myself wondering why I’d need a tablet now that I can use my Zenbook in practically every other situation. It could very well be that I’m too in love with physical keyboards and the possibility of playing my PC games anywhere to realise the extra value that I might derive from a tablet but apart from being a digital photograph portfolio I can’t see much use for one any more.
I wasn’t going to write about Apple’s latest release in the iPad Mini and iPad 4 mostly because there wasn’t really anything to write about. The iPad 4 was a bit of a shock considering that the 3 is barely 6 months old and was a pretty significant upgrade over its predecessor so you wouldn’t really think it needed a refresh this early on. The iPad Mini was widely rumoured for a very long time, so much so that blogging about it would feel like I was coming incredibly late to a party that I didn’t really care about in the first place. Thinking about it more though the iPad Mini represents a lot more than just Apple releasing yet another iOS product, it’s a sign of how Apple is no longer in control of the market they created.
Steve Jobs famously said that a tablet smaller than the iPad wouldn’t make any sense as it’d be too small to compete with regular tablets and too big to compete with smart phones. With Apple’s relatively long development cycle its likely that he was aware of the iPad Mini development but I don’t think the idea for its creation came from him. It was easy for him to make judgements from atop the massive tower of iPad sales that he was sitting on at the time however I don’t think he expected them to be as successful as they were. None of them can match the iPad for total numbers sold yet but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a niche area that Apple was failing to exploit.
It all started with the Kindle Fire just over a year ago. The tablet was squarely aimed at a particular market, one that didn’t want to spend a lot on a tablet device and was happy to accept a lower end device in return. This proved to be wildly popular and as of this month Amazon has shipped over 7 million of the devices putting it second only the iPad itself in terms of sales. This in turn drew other companies to the small tablet form factor with the most notable recent addition being the Google Nexus 7 which as of writing has already sold an estimated 3 million units world wide. Apple can’t have been ignorant of this and saw that there was a rather large niche that they weren’t exploiting, hence the release of the iPad Mini.
For a company that’s been making and dominating markets for a decade now the iPad Mini then represents the first product Apple’s created as a reaction to market forces. Whilst we can always point to technology companies that did what did before they entered the market they’re usually no where near as successful. With the small tablet form factor sector however there are multiple companies who have managed to make quite a killing in this particular space prior to Apple entering. You could argue that Apple still owns the tablet space as a whole (and that’s true, to a point) but when it comes to form factors other than those of the traditional iPad Apple has been absent up until this week, and that’s lost money they’ll never recover.
Comparatively it’s a small slice of the overall tablet pie which Apple is still getting the lion’s share of. Even though they might’ve lost 10 million potential sales to a niche market they weren’t filling they still managed to ship 14 million iPads last quarter. Their figures for this quarter might be down on what people were expecting however with the release of the new iPad and the iPad Mini right before the holiday season it’s very likely that they’ll make up that shortfall without too much trouble. Whether that will translate into dominance of the smaller form factor tablet market is up for debate and realistically we’ll only know once next quarter’s results come in.
Whilst I don’t believe this is the beginning of the end for Apple it is the first product to come from them in a long time that, as far as I can tell, is a reaction to the market rather than them attempting to create one. That’s a very different Apple than the one we’re used to seeing and whilst it isn’t necessarily a bad thing (dominating semi-established markets seems to be their bread and butter) it does make you wonder if their focus has shifted away from market creation. I don’t really know enough to answer that but if you were still wondering what Apple under Tim Cook would look like then you might be seeing the beginnings of an answer here. Whether that’s good or not is an exercise I’ll leave for the reader.
There’s no denying the success Apple has enjoyed thanks to their major shift in strategy under Steve Jobs’ reign. Before then they were seen as a direct competitor to Microsoft in almost every way: iMacs vs PCs, MacOS vs Windows and at pretty much every turn they were losing the battle save for a few dedicated niches that kept them afloat. That all changed when they got into the consumer electronics space and began bringing the sacred geek technology to the masses in a package that was highly desirable. There was one aspect of their business that suffered immensely because of this however: their enterprise sector.
Keen readers will note that this isn’t the first time I’ve mentioned Apple’s less than stellar support of the enterprise market and nothing has really changed in the 8 months since I wrote that last post. Apple as a company is almost entirely dedicated to the consumer space with token efforts for enterprise integration thrown in to make it look like their products can play well in the enterprise space. Strangely enough it would seem that this token effort is somehow working to convince developers that Apple (well really iOS) is poised to take over the enterprise space:
In the largest survey of its kind, Appcelerator developers were asked what operating system is best positioned to win the enterprise market. Developers said iOS over Android by a 53% to 38% margin. Last year, in its second quarter survey, the two companies were in a dead heat for the enterprise market, tied at 44%.
In a surprise of sorts, Windows showed some life as 33% said they would be interested in developing apps on the Windows 8 tablet.
Now there is value in gauging developer’s sentiment regarding the various platforms, it gives you some insight into which ones they’d probably prefer to develop for, however that doesn’t really serve as an indicator as to what platform will win a particular market. I’d hazard a guess (one that’s based on previous trends) that the same developers will tell you that iOS is the platform to develop for even though it’s quite clear that Android is winning in the consumer space by a very wide margin. I believe there’s the same level of disjunct between what Appcelerator’s developers are saying and what the true reality is.
For starters any of the foothold that iOS has in the enterprise space is not born of any effort that Apple has made and all of it is to do with non-Apple products. For iOS to really make a dent in the enterprise market it will need some significant buy in from its corporate overlords and whilst there’s been some inroads to this (like with the Enterprise Distribution method for iOS applications) I’m just not seeing anything like that from Apple currently. All of their enterprise offerings are simplistic and token lacking many of the features that are required by enterprises today. They may have mindshare and numbers that will help drive people to create integration between iOS products and other enterprise applications but so does Android, meaning that’s really not an advantage at all.
What gets me is the (I’m paraphrasing) “sort of surprise” that developers were looking to Windows 8 for developing applications. Taken in the enterprise context the only real surprise is why there aren’t more developers looking at the platform as if there’s any platform that has chance at dominating this sector it is in fact Windows 8. There’s no doubting the challenges that the platform faces what with Apple dominating the tablet space that Microsoft is only just looking at getting into seriously but the leverage they have for integrating with all their enterprise applications simply can’t be ignored. They may not have the numbers yet but if developer mindshare is the key factor here then Microsoft wins hands down, but that won’t show up in a survey that doesn’t include Windows developers (Appcelerator’s survey is from its users only and currently does not support Windows Phone).
I’ve had my share of experience with iOS/Android integration with various enterprise applications and for what its worth none of them are really up to the same level as native platform applications are. Sure you can get your email and even VPN back in to a full desktop using your smartphone but that’s nothing that hasn’t been done before. The executives might be pushing hard to get their iPads/toy dujour on the enterprise systems but they won’t penetrate much further until those devices can provide some real value to those outside of the executive arena. Currently the only platform that has any chance of doing that well is Microsoft with Android coming in second.
None of this means that Apple/iOS can’t do well in the enterprise space, just that there are other players in this market far better positioned to do so. Should Apple put some focus on the enterprise market it’s quite likely they could capture some market share away from Microsoft and their other partners but their business models have been moving increasingly away from this sector ever since they first release the iPod over a decade ago. Returning to the enterprise world is not something I expect to see from Apple or its products any time soon and no developer sentiment is going to change that.