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

June 21, 2012

I was amused to see under the “FoxNews.com 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Basically, the writer rips Microsoft for working from an “outdated model of being the Great Copier” of other company’s mobile technology.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 BloombergBusinessweek.com 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. 

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