Why the iPad is popular and Windows 'tablets' are not

When a tablet tries to be a laptop, people buy a laptop instead -- or a real tablet

It's amazing how stubbornly people will cling to the past, no matter what evidence is right in front of them. Case in point: the newest Microsoft Surface Pro "tablet," for which orders will start being taken next month. This time, it has a big screen -- with a 12-inch diagonal measurement and an old-school 4:3 aspect ratio -- and it's slimmer than the previous models. But it's not really a tablet the way the world uses that term.

Microsoft doesn't get what a tablet is, and neither do some IT shops. Of course, users know exactly what a tablet is: an iPad or one of the Android clones of it. Microsoft is under new, fresher-thinking leadership, so I'm hoping someone in Redmond reads this and gets off the dead-end tablet track it's on.

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The iPad is four years old this year, and in its short life it has taken the world by storm, creating a new class of computing device that has sold well over 200 million units. Everyone is trying to copy it, with many Android tablets and a bunch of Windows tablets all trying to ride the iPad's coattails. Never mind that the iPad itself seems to be running out of gas, and it's unclear whether Apple can refill the tank.

The real issue here isn't the iPad at all. It's the concept of a Windows tablet. Microsoft has been pushing this notion for a decade, long before anyone ever even heard of an iPad. There were tablets running Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7. Now they run Windows 8. Even a touch interface isn't new to the Microsoft tablet world; remember the push for Windows 7 touchscreen tablets neary five years ago? I do, and it wasn't pretty. Today, they run Windows 8 instead and look sleeker.

In other words, the so-called Windows tablet has been a failed concept from the get-go. It would fail today even if there were no iPad.

The biggest problem is Windows. The operating system and its applications are designed to use a keyboard and a mouse at a foundational level. You simply need those devices. Microsoft knows that, of course, which is why it has often bundled pens with its tablets as mouse surrogates and why it has more recently offered the Type Cover snap-on keyboard, an accessory that's optional only in name.

What those accessories leave you with, of course, is a laptop. All Microsoft has done is deconstruct the laptop into several pieces you have to reassemble to work properly. No wonder hardly anyone buys Microsoft's Surface tablets or similar efforts from Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and so on. People just buy laptops. If they need light weight and a thin design, they get an Ultrabook; if they need all that and long battery life and durability, they get a MacBook Air.

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