Bill Gates was on Charlie Rose recently and could not hide his giddiness over the forthcoming Microsoft Surface Tablet, going so far as to say now Apple will be chasing Microsoft. From a man who knows what game changing technology is all about I guess we should pay heed to what he says. That being said the comment just did not seem to sit right with me. In fact as much as I have enjoyed Bill’s clarity of the future through the years I wonder of late if he is not really that connected with the state of consumer technology. Don’t get me wrong I believe that the work the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation will actually be more valuable for mankind in the long run than the PC revolution that Bill Gates helped pioneer. The efforts around eradicating diseases like malaria and making birth control available for the third world(which would not only help with population control but help slow the pace of AIDS) our vitally important to the human race. But back to te surface tablet, I guess Bill I am just not seeing or hearing it yet. There are a lot of great things to take notice, but is it a great leap ahead? Lets have a closer look.
Bill Gates has always been big on the tablet device as one of the next big things in the computing industry. This goes all the way back to the days of Pen for Windows, back in the early nineties. Around that time Apple had its own flavor of tab;let computing the Newton. They were to be honest, not good. But given where we were in the industry it was the kind of effort which could only make the industry and the products better as time moved on. When the next decade came around Microsoft tried again with a much better effort, with what was called the Windows Tablet. What got Microsoft in trouble and caused its lack of success was the device itself, though slick-looking at the time, was kind of cumbersome. All the things we take for granted in todays tablet just were not that good in the turn of the century tablet. Good battery life? Not. Did I use One Note to take all my meeting notes? I tried but if your conversation got side tracked then the tablet went into sleep mode ut caused me to have to log back in, only to have the conversation revert back to casual mode and then..well you get the point. Handwriting recognition? Turns out it was never that important.
Apple’s iPad changed the dynamic. The big thing touch screen. Unlike earlier attempts it was not really a business device, but a consumer device. That was a big change from the previous attempts. That was also a big reason Microsoft’s earlier attempts failed. Since the late nineties Microsoft had moved away from its consumer roots to the point that the belief was that cutting edge innovation occurred in the enterprise. Enterprises viewed the tablet, which could easily be swizzled and turned into a laptop as just another hardware expense. With the iPad all of a sudden it seemed like everyone had one. Unlike the earlier tablets, which as far as I cold tell were for taking notes in a meeting, the iPad was fun.
Even though he had left Microsoft around the time of the release of the iPad I can only imagine it riled Bill Gates a little to see Steve Jobs get credit for creating the market when during my 18 years at Microsoft Bill Gates had always been personally involved in trying to sculpt the tablet market space with Microsoft software. Only to discover it was not a stylus pen people wanted it was their finger. First Apple introduced the mouse and then the finger, the pointing finger, just to be clear to those who might be thinking of another finger. I can see Bill would be super excited that Microsoft could come back with what is perceived in his eyes to be a better product and a revolutionary keyboard.
The issue of hardware will also be interesting. Initial reviews of eth device is Microsoft has done a good job engineering a very cool device. The key test of how good will be when they hit the market. When consumers can start banging away at the device in day-to-day use. My experience with any device I have ever had is it is not the first few months that count, but how is it performing after four to six months. My first Toshiba tablet was cool the first month but after some time together we began to loathe one another. My iPad 2 after over a year is still running very well and my kids and wife have used it a lot. It has been well-tested.
My one word of caution is Bill’s track record of knowing and understanding what users want has not been good of late. Bill is really good at seeing the bigger picture of what technology can provide the industry, but when it came to the details of how to make and manufacture those game changing technologies, Steve Jobs was king. This was evident when he was reviewing Microsoft tablet designs, such as the Courier, but seemed fixated on the email client for the device as opposed to what was the optimal; user experience both from functionality and style. Unlike Steve Jobs who had his jeans and black turtle neck, Bill never has had a sense of style.
Which brings us back to the Surface Tablet. The device looks cool, it’s in multiple colors, it leverages the new metro interface, it has a magnetic keyboard to flip and attach to the device. It may even be better than the iPad. However that is not enough. As far as I can tell from what I have read this is a cool device, but it is not break through technology. It will not reshape the tablet industry and it is still dependent on getting developers to focus on Windows 8 devices and stopping the developer momentum that Apple and Google have created. We still do not have a ship[ date, but speculation is that it is coming this fall. More importantly we do not have a price, which is one of those little things that can make or break the product. In my view it needs to be below the iPad and slightly above the Kindle. It would be interesting if Microsoft leverage all it’s cash and came out really aggressive in the market place with a $99 tablet, but I do not see that happening. That would appear desperate.
Finally I think for Bill Gates, even though he is not involved in day to day Microsoft operations, it would be a validation of his vision for a Microsoft leading tablet. After all he had dreamed of this for decades only to watch Apple walk away with the market. Even worse Google has been very successful. All the while the industries leading software company has stood on the sidelines biding its time, waiting for its chance. It is now or never for Microsoft in the tablet space.
Good Night and Good Luck
Hans Henrik Hoffmann July 20, 2012