iPad, Android, and Surface: The fight for the soul of the tablet

The iPad's unique value proposition may be ending, and a new generation of laptops could displace it

iPad, Android, and Surface: The fight for the soul of the tablet
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Android dominates low-end, reader-style tablets, and iPads dominate tablets used to get stuff done (which is why they hugely dominate in businesses). But then there are those PC tablets running Windows 10 -- Microsoft's Surface Pro and Surface Book. Are those tablets? Or laptops with detachable keyboards? Or does that not even matter as a distinction?

The answers to these questions are not so easy, and the very questions reflect the identity crisis that the tablet is facing.

Simplicity and mobility were the iPad's key value

First, some history: The iPad was the most quickly adopted mass-market technology ever, with several hundred million units sold. Even with iPad sales growth declining for several years now, Apple sells as many iPads a year as Hewlett-Packard does PCs -- and Apple makes 10 times the profit margin as HP does per device. Talk about a success story.

The iPad brought us something new: a self-contained device that could do things like a computer could -- engage with Web pages, work on spreadsheets, record and mix music, handle email, and manage tasks -- in a mobile, lightweight, simple form. I mean mobile, not portable -- you can use an iPad when standing or walking or sitting or lying down. Not so much a laptop, which is portable from one location to another.

Plus, the iPad could things a computer couldn't do at all or couldn't do well, such as track location, be driven with only your fingers, rotate its view, and later be voice-controlled.

The constrained user interface helped make apps and services more accessible because it forced them to be focused -- a major shift from the kitchen-sink trend in PC apps, such as Photoshop, Word, and Outlook. I believe it is no accident that the version of Office developed for the iPad ultimately became the template for the Windows and OS X versions.

The iPad wasn't only an innovation in hardware but software too.

Android tablets -- which copied the iPad's approach -- have struggled by comparison, as nearly all of the Android tablets sold have been cheap, not-very-capable basic devices fine for reading, watching, and surfing. Other than Samsung's nice Galaxy Tab S lineup, Android tablets are to iPads as netbooks were to MacBooks. They make as little profit as PCs (which is why HP has finally stopped making cheap Android tablets), but they sell in the hundreds of millions as an almost disposable product.

The Surface: A tablet that's really a PC

Microsoft and its hardware partners have been selling PC tablets for years, but the device gained sustained interest only recently with the new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book.

These PC tablets aren't like iPad and Android tablets. They run the standard Windows 10 operating system, and without a keyboard attached they become crippled. That's why I've never viewed them as actual tablets but instead as simply laptops with detachable keyboards -- flat laptops, essentially. They're portable, but not mobile.

The case for a PC tablets is, of course, that it runs all Windows applications, so you need only one device with you -- the argument is why carry a laptop (Windows or Mac) plus a tablet (Android or iOS) when you can carry the one PC tablet and use it in both modes?

For now, the Surface Pro and SurfaceBook have more bark than bite -- the new iPad Pro, which has garnered mixed reviews, is predicted to sell more units this quarter than Microsoft has sold PC tablets since the first Surface debuted in 2013.

But some users -- and many IT organizations -- really want the Surface approach to displace the iPad approach precisely because the Surface is a PC that runs full Windows, not a constrained device that runs a different OS with different apps.

Has the iPad's unique value proposition ended?

Theoretically, the PC tablets have the iPad's key values -- mobility and simplicity -- plus the once-unique iPad features like touch UI, screen rotation, location awareness, and voice commands. PC tablets also retain the PC's key values -- the ability to do anything with the software you already have.

By that logic, the iPad and its Android clones should begin to go the way of the netbook.

Apple's oversized iPad Pro and laptop-style enhancements to iOS 9 both give credence to that theory and Apple preparing for it to become reality. Consider how the iPad Pro moves to be more computerlike:

  • Although other newer iPad models can run a split screen, the iPad Pro is designed to run two windows simultaneously -- remember, windowing was a key innovation in the original Mac that made it and the Windows PCs that followed something so much better than a terminal.
  • The iPad Pro assumes you have a keyboard and perhaps a stylus; these are not merely options as they are for the other iPads.
  • The iPad Pro is really too big to be used for any length of time away from a desk, so it's more like a PC tablet in its portability rather than mobility.

Of course, as a tablet becomes more like a laptop, it begs the question of why not use a laptop. Why not make a MacBook that's like the Surface Book? Make the screen a touchscreen, and make it detachable. Or make it like a Surface Pro -- let the iPad run Mac apps; you've already long been able to get keyboard covers for the iPad that are similar to what a Surface Pro requires.

But that means the tablet as its own device disappears, replaced with a laptop variation. If that occurred, it would be sad. Because the other path that Apple and/or Google could take is to find new, meaningful differentiation for the tablet, so it has a legitimate reason to exist as something not a laptop.

That's the identity crisis the tablet faces: To become a laptop or to find a new, unique value proposition to remain a unique computing device. It's not clear how the tablet should evolve to justify its separate existence -- or whether it can.

If it doesn't, then the tablet will be the new BlackBerry: a device that was transformative in its heyday but finally ran its course and was no longer needed.

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