The Tablet Wars (Part 1) - Apple iPad, Google Nexus

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Keep taking those pills. With the Surface, Kindle Fire, iPad and iPad Mini battling for supremacy and the Google Nexus among the others trying to muscle in, choosing which tablet to buy is proving to be a major headache.

Apple iPad

Description: Apple iPad

·         9.7” screen

·         2048x1536 resolution

·         10 hours battery life

·         Wi-fi

·         HD front and back cameras

·         From $499

There have been times when Microsoft has been seen as something of a joke. It’s sad, given the illustrious history of this company, which has done a great deal for computers, but it appears to be struggling to regain its edge.

This has been seen, to a large degree, in the failure of Microsoft to come up with a tablet computer that truly captures the imagination. It first gave it a go in 1999 when it assigned a couple of experts from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to work on what became known as the Microsoft Tablet PC. Ultimately, it was ahead of its time. Too heavy and lacking in specific apps, consumers saw it as a gimmick.

It was not until Apple unveiled the iPad that attitudes changed. By this point Microsoft’s Bill Gates was convinced that netbooks were the way forward and although his opinion did not waiver (“you know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard - in other words a netbook - will be the mainstream on that,” he said in 2010), the iPad nevertheless flew off the shelves.

That, combined with the continued popularity of the Kindle, the Kindle Fire’s amazing take-up in America, rumours that Apple would make a smaller iPad, the Google Nexus and other assorted Android tablets, ensured Microsoft could not sit it out for too long. Just as Microsoft criticised the iPod before going on to launch the Zune, it went on to produce a tablet of its own: the Surface.

Launched on 26th October, it retails for between $499 and $699, which is the same price as the cheapest third-generation iPad, putting the two firms into a head-to-head battle. Some would say such a thing is a ridiculous. Apple’s device is established and well catered for. It has hundreds of thousands of apps and consumers can buy it safe in the knowledge that it has a degree off future proofing.

The Surface comes as Apple releases the iPad Mini at a lower price. It comes as Amazon releases the Kindle Fire in the UK. On the face of it, Microsoft looks set to be the laughing stock again: too late, over-priced, offering a Windows interface. An old, reliable but rather uncool gadget.

However, not everyone likes Apple. Not everyone buys into the yearly updates and mass hysteria of a new product from the company. It helps that the Surface is a great device. It takes a little getting used to unless you have a Windows Phone, so it’s not as intuitive as an iPad, but it’s of a higher spec and it has 32GB rather than the 16GB of the iPad.

Microsoft has also been splashing out. Although it -again rather ill-advisedly – looks to push two major products at the very same time, combining the Surface roll-out with Windows 8, Microsoft has spent $400m on an advertising push, and part of that shows off the unique selling point of Surface. You can snap a keyboard to this tablet, which kind of goes back to Gates’ conviction that netbooks are still important and giving buyers the best of both worlds. It looks good and it feels fine. The war is very much on.

When Microsoft unveiled the Surface in June, it was to a great reception. There were no guffaws, little criticism and the positive comments came in droves. People liked the fact the iPad had a rubber cover that doubles as a keyboard and they liked the fact the iPad had a rival that, on the face of it, is better equipped than the BlackBerry Playbook and goes way over what the Kindle Fire and Google Nexus offer.


Google Nexus

Description: Google Nexus

·         7” screen

·         1280x800 display

·         10 hour battery life

·         From $199

·         Wi-Fi

·         HD Front facing camera

According to Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, the Surface is an entertainment device in the mould of the iPad, but it is unashamedly aimed at people who also don’t want to give up the full-service capabilities of their PCs, such as word processing and business tools like Microsoft Office. To that end, it’s pitched not against the iPad Mini, the Nexus, the Kindle Fire and all the other smaller tablets but at the big daddy of them all.

It’s also a bold move for Microsoft which, after 37 years of operation, has gone all out and produced its own computer rather than let a third party like Dell do that side of the business. Gone are the days when Microsoft concentrates purely on the software. Like the Xbox 360 and the likes of Zune before it, it is trying to match Apple by controlling more of the end product. It’s a lesson learned that will stand it in better stead in the future.

In June, Francisco Jeronimo, mobile devices research manager at market research firm IDC, said, “The main focus has been on the hardware and specs only. I was expecting to hear from Microsoft about how the Surface delivers an integrated experience with the PC, what additional services or features are available and how the Microsoft ecosystem is growing to be a real alternative to the iPad and Android tablets.”

We have heard little since then about why we should go for the Surface. Microsoft has to explain why this device will change people’s experience with a tablet. Sure it has a USB port and it has a snap-on cover that doubles as a keyboard and that gets over the RSI tendencies and lack of connectivity of the iPad, but will it be enough? Will the Surface, far from being a rival to the iPad, actually go head-to-head against laptops? Probably not. People who want a laptop will buy a laptop and those who want a tablet will buy a tablet. The Surface is a half-way house in this respect.

So we come to the crux of things. There are four new products - the Surface, Kindle Fire, fourth-generation iPad and iPad Mini - and much dust will be thrown before things begin to settle down. The iPad’s refresh with its new Lightning connector and better processor has thrown Microsoft a bit of curve ball, but this isn’t purely the Redmond giant’s battle. Everyone is wanting a slice of a pie baked by Apple and they’ll continue to cook up new specs until they achieve it.

The fact is people want something of quality. The Kindle Fire has impacted on the market, but it cannot be said with 100% conviction that it has eaten away at sales of the iPad and neither has the Nexus dented them too much. The fact Apple has produced a smaller version of its popular device shows that these tinier tablets are having an effect, but given the price of the iPad and the market share it has, people are not shying away, even in a time of recession, from making luxury purchases.

Microsoft’s Surface will therefore be entering a market that should not be beyond it. The main problem it will face, however, is that of marketing. It will be very difficult for Microsoft to get over the message that people should choose a Surface over the iPad. It needs to explain the consumer experience, and the way Apple has done that is by leaping off the back of the popular iPhone and by allowing consumers the chance to play around with their devices in cool and modern stores.

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