The Hidden Surface

This morning a friend received an email from Microsoft announcing the pre-order availability, starting at 9am Oct 16 2012, of their upcoming Surface tablet. However, when attempting to click on the link to “” mentioned in the email it received a 404 error on the Microsoft website. The link seemed to be fixed within the hour, and at least 15 minutes prior to the 9am scheduled pre-order time mentioned in the email. However, this seems indicative of their whole tablet project.

Now, I love to bash Microsoft and have fallen into the Apple fanboy category for much of my life, however, I am interested in technology and well designed products. Google always seems to be on the cusp of having something, but never quite makes the shift from the cool idea into the usable daily. Adobe has a ton of potential that I don’t think they utilize, opting instead for leaning too much on their history and legacy products. And Microsoft seems to be doing much of the same today despite having some great ideas, a smart and hardworking staff, and almost endless capital.

Microsoft is plagued with no focus – their biggest advantage, being the Xbox, seems to not be the driving force within the company. Their other products don’t seem to meld into that. Windows, their product from the early 90’s, is still the King – when in fact is has been dropping public mindshare steadily. You can see the company is trying to grow out of this chaotic period, but they are stumbling

They haven’t seemed to be able to ouster Google from Search or Maps, though Googles business practices are forcing partners to look at Microsoft as an alternative. They were not been able to bump Apple from the iPod and Music market and succumbed to the advancement of the iPhone in the smart phone market – only recently pushing back with Windows Phone 7 which was late to the party and has not made a dent in marketshare. And while they have the Xbox already in the living room, they cannot seem to make inroads into providing a competitor to Apple TV.

Now, almost three years behind in the Tablet space they are trying to gain a foothold that has eluded other Apple competitors. The ideas they are bringing to the tablet are compelling, but they still can’t let go of their past. They cannot, or will not, just push into the future and say follow. Even after Apple has shown that a good product will drag even the enterprise crowd along.

Instead, they leave us with a compatibility layer and a product lineup that is confusing. The new devices look close to the same – but won’t share the same software and won’t share the same feature sets. A legacy Windows world is left available, but is not geared towards touch input – while the new “Metro” Windows 8 style is being introduced to the desktop world where is fails as it IS designed for touch and smaller screens. Of course this new style is built off their Windows Phone 7 designs, however, software is not compatible and devices built only a year ago will not be supported in this update. Drop “Windows” already – move on! It is not the brand you think it is.

To make things worse, Microsoft has run several dog-and-pony shows introducing the new tablet family but has yet to let reporters gain access to the new devices. So, they are now announcing pre-order availability – but for what? Don’t count me in on buying one.

Lots of marketing, lots of hype, but no product is indicative of practices back in the 80’s and 90’s where both IBM and Microsoft would announce and sell a product in order to stave off competitors who were able to get to the market first. The difference then was that MSFT, and IBM in their day, were the big boys on the block – today they are dwarfed by Apple. Very, very few people are going to hold off buying a third generation iPad for a new, unproven, and un-reviewed Surface from Microsoft.

I understand that Microsoft can’t stay quiet, Google and Amazon have both released new tablet devices and Apple is rumored to be releasing an expansion to the iPad family later this month. However, I think the choices, or lack of choices will lead to product confusion in the market and the marketing hype without solid reviews backing it up does not give me much hope in seeing long lines outside the Microsoft branded stores awaiting the product availability.

And all that is actually kind of depressing for me, as I like the ideas the Surface presents. And the newly announced pricing is very competitive – Starting at $499 and topping out at $699 for 64GB w/ Touch Cover. Though I think it is lacking the cellular data plan options and GPS support (also feel the same about the Google Nexus 7).

We will have to just wait and see – which apparently won’t be too much longer as shipping dates appear to be Oct 26th.

Case of the mini iPad

With October 23rd coming up fast and the rumor mills suggesting that Apple is going to be hosting a media event to introduce a new member to the iPad family I thought it was my turn to throw my thoughts out there. The anticipated iPad “mini” (or “air”) is widely regarded as being a 7.85″ screened little brother to the current iPad, an attempt to share in the success of the Kindle and Nexus 7″ tablets.

A change in the name

To me, the most obvious indication that the product family was increasing came with the release of the latest iPad back in March. At the time Apple chose to move away from the naming schemes of the iPhone, and shift back to the naming strategy for the iPod. The iPad would not be referred to as the iPad 3, but just “the new iPad”. Using a number to represent revision is a easy way to allow consumers to value a new product release, however, it breaks down completely if you have more that one product edition – in the case of the iPods; the shuffle, the nano, and the classic. By dropping this from the iPad it allows the iPad family to grow.

7″ tablets are DOA

However, reducing the size of the screen seems to fly in the face of the contention that Steve Jobs put forth back in 2010, “The 7-inch tablets are tweeners: too big to compete with a smartphone, and too small to compete with an iPad, are going to be DOA.” Now at the time some of this was true, but most of it was just marketing – as he had done so often previously (see iPod video playback). [NOTE: whenever Jobs took an aggressive against a particular product feature, you were to _expect_ it in a couple years]

Digging a little deeper into the time period I want to note that Jobs’ theory was not totally without merit within the context of time. The release of the iPad ushered a new wave of computing, a “post-PC” era – but it has not come without a fight. The last few years Apple has constantly fought against a tide of perception that the iPad was for consumption only – couldn’t be used for anything other than reading, watching, or gaming. For the most part Apple has won this fight showing off practical applications in the areas of art, eduction, healthcare, etc. Today you would be hard to find too many areas where the iPad is not being used.

A smaller iPad would have only made the task harder. Take a look at what is reported as most successful 7″ tablet, the Kindle Fire. Its primary intent is to act as a eReader, yes it has other options but the users primarily turn to it to read books. Apps have not yet been made popular and web traffic is far lower than what we see with the iPad. Primarily it is a consumption device, at least until apps start to take advantage of the opportunities available. I propose that a 7″ iPad, back in 2010, would have been viewed as a large iPod more than an entirely new computing environment. So, the 10″ screen made the best product back in 2010 but the world has changed. I don’t think consumers are as stuck with the older perceptions that smaller devices are to be used for consumption only – just no one has done it yet. I believe that the iPad has grown iOS out of a ‘mobile OS’ and onto equal footing with Mac OS and Windows. Now when developing new “desktop” software, the iPad is one of the devices I wonder if I should target. Which is what I think Apple wanted. Now it is time to expand and take in the market previously held by the old PDAs (dare I say Newtons).

So what do I expect

I would expect most of what I am hearing out of the rumor sites. A 7.85″ screen iPad with the new dock connector and data plan options – smaller and lighter, but essentially the iPad. Expect an A5 chip, much like the iPod Touch in an effort to keep heat and costs down and battery life up. I would also expect the base model to be non-retina, also in an attempt to keep costs down.

Base cost I would estimate at $299 – though I think Apple would be smart to push to the $249 if possible. A high-end $349 model is likely expected to make a showing with a retina screen.

The winners here: education. This brings the cost of a personal computer down to something affordable for schools and manageable for students. It also brings enough power to make it useful for the classroom. Though I do think it will be popular across the board.

The name, I like Grubers proposal of the ‘iPad air’ though I don’t think Apple will dilute the “air” brand – keeping that for the MacBooks. The “nano” is used by the iPod family, so count that out. The most obvious is “mini”, though I hope they can do better.

I almost expect an update to the standard iPad, moving it to the new dock connector and possibly upgrading the processor to the newer A6. I have not completely convinced myself of that yet, but it makes sense and it has been almost 9 months since that last release. It could just be a dock connector change, it could be just an introduction of an adapter – but I don’t count out Apple’s desire to break rules to do something they deem right and go for a full product update. I am not sure they want to do a minor update now and another larger update in March ’13 – think they will just combine them – just a choice between now or later.

Where I think Apple missed

Now, I like the idea of the iPad family of products and think a smaller iPad makes a lot of sense, as does the larger iPad. However, I think Apple missed an opportunity with the iPod Touch. As I have mentioned in the past, I don’t think the iPod Touch fits as an “iPod”, today it seems more in line with the iPad (phone without the phone) – and that was what I was expecting. I think the product is really just lacking an optional data plan – WiFi and 4G LTE options. Could be size? Could be heat? Could be battery? — but I do continue expect this at some point soon.

Trims and focuses the iPod lineup again on pure musical devices, and I think simplifies the iPad family to three categories: pocket, mini, note pad.

I can see that they held the iPod announcements with the iPhone to fill that out that presentation – and will let the iPad mini stand in its own spot light. The iPhone is now a mature product and doesn’t need the same attention, which I think was shown this year more so than any previous year – thinking back to the iPod in year 5, we had a complete family line-up to announce.

I expect the transition of the iPod Touch to the iPad family lineup to occur next year. At which time I am also hoping the iPod nano to take on the actual iOS interface with GPS, Maps, and more additional Apple controlled apps – though no App Store. One day this could turn into a iPhone nano?