A New Tablet Landscape

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The technology space has been uncommonly active lately, with three of the biggest players announcing their tablet strategies for the next year.

This is important stuff, because, as appears to be increasingly clear, the tablet is the next generation form factor for mainstream computing. True, many people don’t recognize that yet, but I think nobody can argue that Apple, Microsoft and Google all believe so.

Over the past few weeks, each of these companies has held a major event to demonstrate their tablet plans. Of course, there was nothing surprising coming out of Apple; they’re the ones to beat. But Microsoft and Google each have published their vision of the future of computing, and the distinctions between their visions are fascinating.

Apple’s Tablet Strategy

Apple is a remarkably consistent company. Their visions arrive in product form in a state of very high quality, and that state is iterated upon till it gleams. The iPad is no exception: each successive model is improved by subtle innovations. So it’s easy to forget, perhaps, how disruptive the iPad’s value proposition actually is.

Their June 11 Keynote at WWDC marks a continuation of a long-set strategy. To Apple, a tablet is a more-natural device for humans to touch and interact with. With an iPad, you can do anything you can do on a normal Mac.

Of course, even two years later, there should be an enormous asterisk beside that last sentence; it simply isn’t true. But I think we’ve seen enough from Apple, and its amazing third party developer ecosystem, to realize that it’s only a matter of time. While some people still beat the “iPad is only for consumption” drum, we truly are beyond that, with terrific software that can match and beat what’s available on a traditional PC.

Apple is dedicated to the iPad-as-new-PC trope; they are themselves the creators of some of the most ambitious software for the device. Garageband was really the first example that made us sit up and take notice, but they’ve followed it up with Pages, Numbers, Keynote, iMovie and iPhoto. These are all very powerful apps that, while not necessarily providing all the features of their Mac counterparts, show clearly that the iPad is more than just a reading device.

To summarize Apple’s position: a tablet is a new kind of PC, more elegant and human than what we had before.

Microsoft’s Tablet Strategy

Microsoft is in a very difficult position. While still the kind of the heap in the PC world, the company is now realizing they are being left behind in the most important new markets. Since businesses — the core of their revenue-generating customers — move slowly, Microsoft can afford to languish for a time in their role as supplier of traditional mouse-and-keyboard-driven operating systems and crufty office software. And from what we can observe from the outside, it seems clear Microsoft has an internal struggle going on, between those looking to protect its crown jewels, and those who are trying to drag the company into the future.

Their June 19 Surface Event betrays both elements inside the company. On the one hand, we see the audacious, forward-thinking Microsoft, present in its elegant, simple (perhaps too simple?) new Metro-style operating system, Windows 8. On the other, we see the same, play-it-safe, backwards-compatible Microsoft in their “new” compatible operating system, Windows 8.

Huh?

While other have spoken more eloquently about Microsoft’s inability to make up its mind about what, exactly, Windows 8 is, it’s clear that same dichotomy exists in their new Surface tablet PC.

Windows 8 will come in two flavours: a full-fledged “Professional” edition, and a low-powered version specifically for ARM-based tablets, dubbed “Windows RT”. The former will include both the Metro version of Windows and the traditional desktop and applications. The latter will only come with Metro.

One of the biggest unknowns today is whether any substantial applications will come to Metro, and make Windows RT something that people can use for more than reading books and checking the weather. Microsoft has told us that Office — their flagship suite consisting of Word, Excel and Powerpoint — will be coming to Metro. And we have a screenshot to prove it.

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But that screenshot actually makes me think that the old guard at Microsoft is winning. This software may run on Metro, but it seems to show little of the kind of thinking that went into Metro’s design strategy. It looks like nothing so much as a traditional Windows app transported to Touch Land.

The Surface hardware is no different. The company’s decision to ship both an ARM-powered, Widnows RT-only tablet, and an Intel-powered, Windows 8 Professional version, speaks volumes of their uncertainty. But I’ll go a step further: of the warring factions inside Microsoft, it’s the traditional side that’s clearly winning. For who would want to buy something that Microsoft themselves will have us think of as a “toy” tablet, while they offer a “professional” version that offers “no compromises”?

To summarize Microsoft’s position: We think you want a PC in a smaller form factor. Just like we did 12 years ago. And it comes with a stylus, to prove that we blew it.

Google’s Tablet Strategy

Oh Google. You used to be so wonderful: a company based on idealism, and of doing truly great work. But then you blundered into mobile operating systems, and made enemies out of everyone in the industry. You copied Apple’s ideas almost bit-for-bit, and gave it away for free, creating a mobile ecosystem virtually overnight.

But it’s a pyrhhic victory, isn’t it? Because Google makes its money on mobile traffic, not the sales of handsets or software licenses. And Apple is the single largest driver of Internet traffic in mobile. So here’s a company that has alienated its future, in a way. While the company has its fans, I can’t help but feel like Google is more divisive than any other company in tech today.

The company’s Day One Google IO Keynote on June 28 demonstrated the company’s newest tablet plans, along with a raft of other initiatives (Incidentally, “the raft” itself is interesting; how can any company, even one of Google’s size, effectively focus on so many different products, and expect them to be any good?).

The Nexus 7 tablet, which Google announced in conjunction with the next version of Android, 4.1 “Jelly Bean”, is a bold statement about what Google believes to be the future of tablet computing.

And frankly, it’s a tad depressing.

Rather than go after Apple, it seems Google has gone after Amazon, who last year launched the fairly flawed Kindle Fire. That device, like the Nexus 7, is primarily an inexpensive vending machine for various media. To my mind, Amazon’s Kindle Fire is a much more compelling device, owing to Amazon’s much broader media offering: movies, books, music. Google’s Play marketplace, on the other hand, feels more like a flea market than a fully-stocked library. I hope for their sake that the situation will improve.

So why is that depressing? Because Google’s vision for tablet computing is one of passive consumption. It’s exactly what people criticize the iPad for: it’s a sit-back device, and you can’t do anything useful with it.

There is one ray of hope: the notion that the Nexus 7 is a Trojan Horse. While lots of people may end up buying one of these $199 7-inch tablets for the media, they are also getting a very powerful, fully capable operating system. If enough people have a Nexus 7, we may yet see developers bring interesting apps to the device. But given the economics of the Android platform, I don’t see that happening at anywhere near the pace that we’re seeing on iOS.

To summarize Google’s position: The future of computing is a vending machine for media. And the more pageviews we can get, the better.

Who Dares Wins

From here, it seems that we have a three-horse race for the future of computing: Apple, Microsoft and Google each bring their own operating systems and hardware to market; the final two are sprinting to catch up to a model they see as the only possible way forward — the one originated by Apple.

But you can’t deny that they have very different visions for how that market will shape up.

I don’t like Google’s approach. It’s reductive, over-simplified and insulting to the future of computer users.

I think Microsoft has legs, but they need to get their messaging together. The way things sit now, their Intel-based tablet is going to “win”, but they’ll lose the future at the same time.

Which leaves us with Apple, the only company with the audacity to change the future. They started this conversation, and I’m more convinced than ever, after surveying the responses from the competition, that they’ll be the ones to finish it.