Is Microsoft's Surface an innovative advance or an Apple ripoff?

by David Needle

June 21 2012

Silicon Valley-based veteran tech journalist David Needle is Executive Editor of TabTimes

Among the many controversies surrounding Microsoft’s Surface tablet launch earlier this week, was the question of whether the Redmond giant is once again following Apple’s lead in a desperate game of catchup or actually created something that shows leadership in the tablet arena.

I was amused to see under the “ Fair & Balanced” logo an article titled: “Microsoft’s new tablet: the great copier surfaces again.” 

Basically, the writer rips Microsoft for working from an “outdated model of being the Great Copier” of other company’s mobile technology. 

By contrast, Apple under Steve Jobs is painted as the Great Aggregator, taking the best original ideas and forging them into great consumer products. 

Hmmm .. copying versus aggregation, I’m confused. Is it that Microsoft "only" copies Apple and that's bad, but Apple borrows from everyone, so that's good? 

Then appeared to pile on with an article titled “Why Microsoft's Surface Tablet Shames the PC Industry.” But as you read further into the piece you find the point is not that the Surface is a bad product, rather an indictment of Microsoft’s hardware partners for not coming up with the same kind of innovations already. 

“Both the kickstand and cover-cum-keyboard seem such obvious ideas now that we’ve seen them, yet the great army of PC makers failed to think up anything so clever over the past two years,” said Businessweek. 

So is the Surface a “copy” of the iPad? Microsoft’s provided plenty of ammunition for those that want to make that charge. 

In bringing out its own branded Surface tablet line, Microsoft is conceding (copying?) Apple’s long held belief that the best devices are created when one company controls both the operating software and hardware design. 

The value proposition

But what ultimately matters is not to what extent Microsoft is copying the iPad, but whether it’s bringing anything new to the tablet game that’s of distinct value. 

The short answer is indeed it is, both with the Surface and Windows 8 tablets in general.

When I interviewed user interface guru Don Norman a few months ago, he said that in his opinion Android is far more a copy of Apple’s iOS than what Microsoft’s created. 

“I’m impressed that Microsoft said ‘let’s look at how one works with gestures and not copy Apple’. That’s what’s so brilliant,” said Norman. “The same principles will work on the Windows 8 desktop with a mouse or touch or a stylus. I think people will end using all three.” 

The biggest surprise of the Surface unveiling was Touch Cover, an innovative cover, keyboard combination not available on the iPad. 

Steve Isaac, an ex-Microsoft employee who’s startup, TouchFire, is close to bringing out a niftty screen-top add-on keyboard for the iPad, was impressed by Touch Cover. “They are doing some very cool stuff,” he told me. 

Specs and demos are one thing; we’ll have to wait for the release of Surface to see how well it works in the field and appeals to consumers and business buyers. 

If it’s clunky or doesn’t work as advertised, I’ll be first in line among what’s sure to be a chorus of critics. 

Comparisons to market leader iPad are inevitable and appropriate, but don’t judge Surface for its iPadiness, judge it for whether it’s a device you want to use. 

Silicon Valley-based veteran tech journalist David Needle is Executive Editor of TabTimes

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  • bfrench
    2 years 4 months ago

    Good article David,

    >>> “I’m impressed that Microsoft said ‘let’s look at how one works with gestures and not copy Apple’. That’s what’s so brilliant,” said Norman. <<<

    I'm surprised you didn't take this comment and run with it. It kicks open the door to the most intense aspect of the debate framed in this article.

    Suggesting it's a stroke of "brilliance" that Microsoft decided to not copy Apple is a silly commentary on the debate. With the litigious climate of mobile, Microsoft had no choice but to avoid the known potholes. Labeling this as a reflection of how "innovative" Microsoft has become concerning the Surface, is foolish speak.

    A more intellectual analysis of the innovative process given existing and well-documented touch and form-factor patents, might reveal just how narrow a pathway Microsoft and other tablet-wanna-be makers must navigate to enter the post-PC market.

    It's my view that Surface is a highly constrained and far less innovative product than it might have been were it not for a vast body of prior art created (and owned) by Apple and Google. Stated with less ink - too little, too late.

    Surface looks like a notebook and for good reasons which are based largely within the confines of an intellectual property cluster-you-know-what. And it probably feels a lot like a notebook as well. But we don't really know what it feels like because not a single a reporter at the launch event was allowed to touch one while it was running, a bright red neon-glowing red flag in my book.

    Perhaps [partly] because of all the hardware partner tablet misfires, Microsoft came to the mobile tablet party so late that caviar is long since consumed, the champagne is flat, and the room is littered with passed out vendors who got drunk early on the equivalent of an open-source Sangria.

    Apple, Motorola and a few others got to the party early. Apple, more so than any company, quietly embraced the post-PC idea long before it was coined the post-PC era. Microsoft didn't. And still hasn't, mostly because they can't, but also because they won't.

    That's the story lurking just below the "surface". ;-)

  • Xennex1170
    2 years 5 months ago

    I'd have to say Microsoft's new Surface product is just as 'innovative' as Apple's iPads. Apple had taken what existed to that point in prior devices and ideas and made something that was simple and worked. Microsoft has done the same by taking the current technology (which now includes the iPad) and improved on it. The Surface is no more or less a 'copy' than the iPad is. The technology world moves way to fast for the outdated patent system. I submit that new tech patents last for only a max of 2-3 years which as we can see by Apple, Samsung, and others is more than enough time to protect their idea and make a reasonable profit. It will foster innovation by preventing/reducing the number of patent cases aimed at slowing new product releases. Apple may have a point in protecting its property but it should not be to the detriment of progress. Also the more simple the 'idea' the more difficult it should be to patent. It should be a requirement of the 'simple' idea patent holder to 'prove' that it was not an obvious evolution.

  • Integr8
    2 years 5 months ago

    Microsoft steal's the ideas and technology of others? Old news and how the company has always done business. I can't believe anyone is surprised? Microsoft doesn't have an original product in its portfolio. Snoozer.

  • samirsshah
    2 years 5 months ago

    Innovative advance.

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