News | Microsoft, not Apple, is guiding the future of tablets now

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Apple, Google, and Microsoft all held big events last month to introduce tons of new tech.

But the biggest takeaway from these events was that Microsoft, not Apple, is guiding the future of the tablet.

Three years ago, this statement would have been impossible to make.

In June 2012, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the first-generation Surface and Surface Pro tablets, which were the first PCs designed and distributed by Microsoft. Surface Pro, which could run the full version of Windows 8, worked with two detachable keyboards and a stylus called Pro Pen.

But those computers, which started at $500 and $1,000, respectively, received meager reviews from critics and didn’t fare much better with customers: The following year, Microsoft reported a write down of $900 million due to poor Surface sales.

Meanwhile, Apple’s tablet was on top of the world. A few months before Microsoft unveiled its Surface tablets, Apple had launched its third-generation iPad — the first tablet with a stunning Retina display — and its App Store had more than 200,000 native iPad apps across a range of categories. By June, Apple had captured more than 60% of the global tablet market share.

A changing landscape
Three years later, Apple is still the world’s top tablet maker with roughly 25% of the global market share, but iPad sales have been slipping. So to offset the receding demand for tablets, Apple unveiled its first iPad Pro — a tablet with an attachable keyboard and even a stylus, which looks mighty similar to Microsoft’s Surface Pro. (The addition of the stylus is of particular note, considering Apple’s co-founder Steve Jobs once railed against the use of styluses for touch-optimized devices.)

Even Google last month introduced a tablet that’s similar to Microsoft’s Surface: the Pixel C, an Android tablet with an attachable keyboard (sold separately).

So, just a few years after after Microsoft made a bold bet with the Surface, the makers of both Android and iOS seem to be playing catch-up. It won’t take them long, especially in Apple’s case, but it’s an interesting turnaround considering many critics — including Business Insider’s executive editor Jay Yarow — believed the original Surface would be a total flop.

Meanwhile, Microsoft is moving full steam ahead with its Surface line: Last week, the company introduced the Surface Pro 4, which is head and shoulders above its predecessor, as well as its first ever laptop called Surface Book: a high-end laptop that lets you remove the monitor and use it as a standalone tablet.


What’s most interesting about Microsoft’s strategy is the company doesn’t compare the Surface to the iPad; rather, it compares the Surface to Apple’s bestselling Mac lineup. At its Surface event last week, Microsoft compared the Surface Pro 4 to the MacBook Air, andcompared the Surface Book to the MacBook Pro.

This is where Microsoft’s tablet strategy differs from other companies: Both Apple and Google make tablets that run mobile operating systems, but Microsoft’s Surface line runs the same operating system you’d find on the company’s desktop PCs. So, while Apple and Google advertise their tablets as hardware for mobile productivity, Microsoft believes its Surface products can be used for every scenario: at a stationary work desk, on the go, or anywhere in between. Microsoft wants people to feel confident the Surface can be their primary work computer.

Surface appeals to two groups of people that don’t typically use tablets for work: artists, and businesspeople, particularly in the enterprise. With its unique pen and keyboard, which add great functionality to the tablet, Surface is great for any kind of drawing or illustration, but it’s also good for productivity, since you can still use full versions of Microsoft’s Office apps like Word and Excel. Apple’s own productivity apps aren’t nearly as robust, and they still have issues converting to different formats for desktop computers.


The combination of Windows software and strong hardware puts Microsoft’s tablets in a great position, but the company still has a ways to go.

According to J.D. Power’s tablet satisfaction survey from May, Apple and Samsung are scored “among the best” in the tablet category, while Microsoft is just behind Amazon in customer satisfaction at “about average.” But according to Microsoft SVP Panos Panay, 98% of people using Surface Pro 3 recommend it to their friends and family.

It’s safe to say Apple and Google want a piece of Microsoft’s Surface formula. Though adding a keyboard and a stylus is hardly revolutionary, Microsoft was the first company to go “all-in” on this concept of a tablet that’s capable of laptop activities (when you add a couple of specially-designed accessories — sold separately of course), and it’s worked well at attracting customers.

Microsoft’s new Surface computers arrive at the end of this month, while Apple’s new iPad Pro won’t arrive until November. Considering the popularity of the iPad, it’s likely Apple will maintain its market share lead over other tablet makers. But Microsoft is now turning heads with its own devices, as it innovates in the space that Apple once pioneered just a half-decade ago. As tablets improve and evolve, it will be interesting to see how these companies inspire each other. We look forward to reviewing these rival devices and others like it.

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