Surface envy? Seven features of Microsoft's new tablet that iPad users might wish they had

by Doug Drinkwater

June 19 2012

The new Surface Tablets will be available later this fall.
The new Surface Tablets will be available later this fall.

Microsoft's Surface tablet is drawing raves for its sleek design and innovative features like the Touch Cover for typing.

iPad users still have have plenty of bragging rights including the Retina display and the seeming infinite variety of apps they have have to choose from. But the Surface is shaping up as the first credible challenger to Apple's market-leading tablet.

Here are seven Surface features that could make even an iPad user envious.

Consumer/business models

Let’s face it; the iPad is a fantastic tool that appeals to a wide variety of users. You can get an iPad with 16GB, 32GB or 64GB of storage, and there's a lower cost model (the $399 iPad 2) if the newest iPad is bit beyond your budget, but essentially an iPad is an iPad.

Windows Surface is going to offer more expansion and connectivity options and separate consumer and business/professional models. There’s an ARM-powered Windows RT version with 32GB or 64GB of storage, but also an Intel Ivy-powered Pro version for data-hungry business users that offers either 64GB or 128GB of storage.

Full-sized USB ports

Remember when the first iPad was launched, and the furor around the lack of any sort of USB connection? Well, that may have died down since then, but the inclusion of a full-sized USB connection is a real feather in Microsoft’s cap.

Apple may have got around the USB problem with iCloud and third-party mobile cloud apps like Dropbox and Box, but the inclusion of a full-sized USB port (USB 2.0 for the Surface and the faster USB 3.0 for the Surface Pro) as well as a Mini DisplayPort connection makes this much more attractive to business folk for saving and collaborating on work.

A smarter keyboard case

Microsoft's innovative Touch Cover case is a nice freebie.  

The case attaches to the Surface magnetically and essentially doubles up as a multi-touch keyboard with trackpad. Microsoft says the 12mm-thick case is made out of VaporMG, a strong yet light magnesium, while the keyboard’s integrated accelerometers cleverly tell the tablet that the keyboard is no longer required when the keyboard is folded back over the Surface.

iPad users can of course buy third party keyboard/cases, but they're an extra. 

The kickstand

It’s not the biggest or best feature of the Windows Surface tablet, but the attached magnesium kickstand will be useful, certainly for watching videos or for business and sales  folks  presenting to clients.  

A precise tablet stylus

‘A precise tablet stylus’ isn’t probably a term you would’ve heard too often before, but it could be if Microsoft delivers the good with its stylus for the Pro Surface tablet.

The firm says that the stylus accessory will help users annotate documents or fill in forms, and says the stylus will be able to ignore other touch-input from users’ hands when held close to the screen. The company also says that there will be a palm block to prevent your palm touching the screen when using the stylus which has certainly been something of a pain when using a stylus with select iPad applications.

As with the keyboard and kickstand, we haven't tested the stylus yet, but this could certainly be a strong selling point for the Surface if Microsoft gets it right.

Stronger WiFi?

It hasn't got a lot of mention, but Windows chief Steve Sinofsky said that the Microsoft Surface will have 2x2 MIMO antennas to give it the strongest WiFi capability of any tablet on the market. That claim can't be tested as of yet, but is potentially a big point in the Surface's favor when you consider the many iPad users who have experienced WiFi problems.

Office for Windows 8

Microsoft has already confirmed that Microsoft Office will be included with the Surface (as well as all other Windows RT tablets) for free. 

Reports and rumors of ‘Office for iPad’ have come and gone in waves recently, and we don't really know if the product is ready or not. But the betting here is that Microsoft wants to be sure Windows 8 has first tablet dibs ahead of the iPad.

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  • bfrench
    2 years 4 months ago

    Doug, thanks for the response points - each meritous as well. My clarifications:

    " ... Just because Apple didn't go with USB doesn't mean iPad users don't want it ;)"

    And just because users want it, it doesn't mean IT should give it to them. ;-)

    "... providing its in the same price range as the iPad, some buyers will definitely see the Touch Cover as a USP, especially as it's included in the price."

    Discussed at length by people far more savvy than me - most have concluded that it will come in at a higher price tag - some say likely 20% higher. But even at that premium, direct enterprise buyers will pay and by definition, it's not one of those things that iPad users crave when they have access to products such as TouchFire.

    " ... I am not sure you can accuse Microsoft of being 'silly' for holding back Office for the iPad."

    In my comment, I wasn't accusing Microsoft for being silly. I was asserting that your point that it's a feature iPad users might wish they had, is flawed for two key reasons - (i) iPad users already have the feature in spades (i.e., Office document support via QuickOffice, Office (squared), and Documents ToGo), and (ii) they will likely have the genuine version (at the latest) on or about the same date that Surface customers get it.

    It's unlikely Microsoft will earn any profits on Surface, but Surface will help them defend and earn significant revenues and profits from the Office technology stack. The [mobile] competitor for Office is not Apple; it's Google. That said, it makes little sense to allow the *true* competitor to languish in a market without competitive pressure. Ergo, the premise that they are holding back to await the arrival of Surface is a silly notion. I suspect they are holding it back because it simply isn't ready. And lastly, I must assume that the Ivy Bridge (Windows 8) version of Surface will run Office 12 right out of the box. The iOS and RT versions are a very different compiler architecture, so one must ask - what benefit do they get from lock-stepping these completely different platforms with the Windows 8 version?

    One of the core reasons that so few companies have been able to match Apple in the tablet wars is making the mistake that it is a hardware-centric competition. Time and time again, companies seem to experience this amnesia and must relearn the lessen. It's important to recognize the competitive axis. Statements like this pique my interest...

    "... but why rush out to give the competition an advantage? No need."

    Apple is not [today], nor likely ever will be a competitor for tools that create and edit enterprise Office document formats - you're wel aware how poorly iWork fares in the enterprise. And Microsoft, nor likely Apple for that matter, will ever earn significant [material] profits on their respective hardware tablets. It's my interpretation of these market attributes that along the Microsoft Office axis, Apple is a potentially significant and probable partner, not a competitor. I cannot imagine a scenario where Microsoft would not want to dominate the enterprise mobile topography with its suite of Office tools. If it launched Office for iPad today, it could say almost overnight, that Office was being evaluated in 93% of Fortune 500 companies. Does the opportunity to dominate mobile Office enterprise adoption outweigh the need to give it to a small fraction of the market, who on launch day of the Surface tablet will test the hardware before giving much consideration to the software apps it can run? If Balmer is thinking this way, it's indeed silly as well. ;-)

  • Doug
    2 years 4 months ago
    Interesting points, Bill. 1) I'd agree that USB is not without it's security concerns, but as mentioned above it does also offer great connectivity to outside devices. And there are ways of securing data on flash drives. Just because Apple didn't go with USB doesn't mean iPad users don't want it ;) 2) Tough call on the keyboard case, because as you say, the Surface price is TBC. That said, providing its in the same price range as the iPad, some buyers will definitely see the Touch Cover as a USP, especially as it's included in the price. 3) I am not sure you can accuse Microsoft of being 'silly' for holding back Office for the iPad. Microsoft apparently has already developed the app, but why rush out to give the competition an advantage? No need. 4) interesting point on the stylus, I'll guess we will have to wait and see. 5) definitely agree also that fragmentation might be an issue for SMBs and enterprise, not sure the everyday consumer will be too bothered though.
  • bfrench
    2 years 4 months ago

    Doug, nice roundup of candidate features that Apple has intentionally kept out of iPad.

    Some additional comments...

    USB Port - Isn't this likely to increase security issues in a mobile context? I can understand why this might be useful for many consumers, but I get the sense that Surface will be primarily targeted at enterprise, a security-centric segment of tablet buyers. As such, this may be more of a disadvantage especially on the Ivy Bridge model which will be of greatest interest to enterprise buyers.

    Integrated Keyboard Case - This is certainly a smart idea, but to suggest that because it's an "extra" cost for iPad owners to have such a capability, is a hollow benefit given that all reports indicate Surface will likely cost more than an iPad to begin with.

    Office for Windows 8 - Two things strike me as reasons this should not have made your short list. (i) iPad [business] users have been delightfully creating and engaging in collaboration with Office documents since mid-2010 (QuickOffice for example, has provided this functionality for about twenty bucks). (ii) To suggest that Surface should have the genuine Microsoft Office before iPad seems unreasonable given that Microsoft is on a mission to defend its Office domination at the mobile level. With the recent acquisition of QuickOffice [by Google] and Microsoft's intent to put a silver spike into Android's enterprise hopes, one might surmise that Microsoft would do anything to ensure its Office turf is held. Holding back such a release from iOS just to say that their own tablet had it first, seems silly. And given that rumors suggest the Ivy Bridge chipset for Surface may [further] delay the release of this tablet, the argument just doesn't to add up.

    Precision Stylus - This sounds great on paper [pun fully intended]. But I have to ask about this statement -- "there will be a palm block to prevent your palm touching the screen when using the stylus". If the stylus is integrated, does this comment suggest the Windows 8 OS and touch interface is incapable of disabling input when the stylus is in your hand? This seems less like an advancement in stylus technology and more like a red flag to me.

    Consumer and Business Models - I think this will work against the Surface more than for it. Consider that the vast majority of iPads found their way into business use by virtue of the consumerization movement. Two different models adds a layer of complexity to the buying process. Imagine you're an exec with a small company. You wander into one of the soon-to-be created Microsoft retails stores and you encounter a sales person who likely won't understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8. To this person, the Surface will look almost indistinguishable. I predict Microsoft sales floor staff will struggle to articulate the key areas that will be equally difficult for buyers to suss out. The different models may both run Windows, but they will be [most] useful in far narrower realms than the iPad (and iOS). And even if the buyer chooses the consumerized model, it basically erodes any chance of introducing it into a corporate network with grace and viable application support. Ergo, the consumer model of Surface won't successfully transition into a non-consumer role as well as iPad has proven it can do.

    Even so... I like Surface; I think it has a strong value proposition in enterprise. But it will likely only find traction through direct enterprise sales. And I believe it will perform well in that realm, so that's good for competition, and good for businesses who have serious investments in the Microsoft technology stack.

  • Tom Wolfer
    2 years 4 months ago

    The most important Microsoft Surface Tablet differentiating feature is easy: that fact that it will be a platform for MS Office software apps (eg. Excel, Word) which remain the standard consumer and office productivity software.

  • ccoc
    2 years 4 months ago

    Maybe - so far it's all demoware - I'd want to see ithe product independently reviewed. Who knows when the Surface Pro will ship and what Apple's response will be by then.I agree that for some professionals focused on Windows productivity apps - this "hybrid" PC could make sense. But, I'm not convinced that the consumer model has enough going for it to be a serious iPad competitor. The company that should be more concerned is Google.

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