Apple and Microsoft Race to Rethink the Tablet

| Analysis

The Apple iPad started out with a bang, but has started to run out of gas. Microsoft's Surface tablets never did get off to a good start, but now Microsoft has a new, emerging strategy. Which company will get the future tablet right the fastest?

iPad Pro. Image credit: Apple

The Two OS Dilemma

Once upon a time, Microsoft had a fairly decent Windows operating system that was good enough to secure the company's foothold in the consumer and business space. It was Windows 95, and it caused no end of headache for Apple. It was probably a factor in driving Apple to near bankruptcy in the mid-1990s. (Another was Apple's own incompetence without Steve Jobs at the helm.)

Lke MacOS 8 and 9, Windows 95 was, unfortunately, based on an insufficiently modern architecture. Recognizing this, Microsoft developed a brand new Windows OS called Windows NT. It was based on a more modern underlying architecture that could carry the company forward. Along the way, Microsoft struggled mightily to merge these two OSes in technology and appeal, culminating in Windows 2000 and then XP.

Job done for the time being.

I remember how Apple's vision of a single OS with the emergence of Mac OS X (called that back then) was in great contrast to Microsoft's struggles merging two OSes. Apple enthusiasts were amused to put it politely.

Fast Forward to the Tablet

In the time leading up to the release of the original iPad, Apple had a tough decision to make. Install Mac OS X on an iPad as is, with all its power hungry glory, or fork the OS into iOS, basically a lower complexity OS X with Cocoa Touch folded in. It made perfect sense because, as we know, Steve Jobs and other Apple executives knew very well that people don't like to reach their arms out to touch a Macintosh display, desktop or notebook. It doesn't work like it does with a tablet in our lap.

And so, it came to pass that branching out iOS for a low power iPad and its 10 hour battery life made perfect sense. I recall that the iOS in the first iPad was so stripped down, it didn't even have an NTP client, so its clock would drift horrendously. ("What Time is it? Your iPad May Not be Sure")

This chart from Apple's 9 Sep 15 event tells an unintended story.

In the short term, however, given the state-of-the-art in hardware, app development and user expectations, iOS was perfect. All people needed was to be able to check their email, browse, shop, check the weather, watch Netflix, play some games, and so on. iOS delivered what the iPad user needed most in 2011.

Meanwhile Microsoft, under Steve Ballmer, struggled with a vision for a competing tablet. One dead end was the Surface RT, a tablet with a variant of Windows running on a low power ARM processor. Because it couldn't run x86 binaries, was dog slow, and the version of Office supplied was limited, it flopped.

The Surface Pro fared better technically because it was a full-blown PC and ran all the standard x86 Windows apps. But it was awkward, hot and expensive. Windows 8.x was half-baked as well. Microsoft lost money on the Surface Pro and successors.

Keeping the Faith

Sometimes a company's vision of the future depends on how keenly it can extrapolate hardware technology and how that evolution can be expected to overcome current limitations and compromises.

For example, Microsoft stayed with the single OS vision until it could get a decent version of Windows (Windows 10) running on better hardware, the Surface Pro 4 Initial perceptions have been favorable.

Surface Pro 4. Image credit: Microsoft.

On Apple's side of the fence, the company realized (I suspect) that iOS, supremely tuned to the iPhone, was holding back the iPad. After all, the home screen on an iPhone, which works so well, seems just silly these days on a 9.7 or 12.9-inch display. And so Apple realized that to support larger, more productive iPads, iOS would have to include new capabilities, Split View multitasking displays, picture-in-picture, Slide Over and better stylus support.

But has Apple gone far enough? Is it reasonable to pour more resources into iOS to differentiate the iPad version from the iPhone? Will we have to wait for better, faster hardware before Apple can really reinvigorate iOS for the iPad? And still maintain decent battery life?

Will Microsoft's vision of one OS for all its devices pay off precisely because the company was late to the tablet game and could afford to leverage the latest hardware? By that, I mean that Apple was likely forced into iOS because of the limited hardware of 2009-2010. Microsoft didn't have that problem, turning a terrible snafu into its advantage.

The bottom line is that as the power of the tablet CPUs and GPUs grows by leaps and bounds, new kinds of thinking are enabled. Microsoft's bet on a single OS is what Apple customers have been fantasizing (or grumbling) about for some time: iOS-ification. So far Apple, Tim Cook, has steadfastly maintained that each kind of machine, the tablet and the laptop, is unique, appeals to different needs and requires its own OS. Recall Tim Cook's famous (or infamous) statement about the euphemistic toaster-fridge. ""You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not going be pleasing to the user." That initial technological stand in 2012 may end up being a convenmient deception in 2016.

Time and hardware technology could change everything. For now, each company, Microsoft and Apple, is struggling to find the ignition point for the future tablet. How it will turn out is anyone's guess. Apple will probably figure it out sooner because of its amazing developer tools, relentless dedication to leaving the past behind and a tradition of competing with itself. Even so, Microsoft is no longer in a hopeless situation and is starting to form a solid vision of the tablet's future as well.

Game on.

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“Is it reasonable to pour more resources into iOS to differentiate the iPad version from the iPhone?”

And this is exactly why Apple’s long-term plan is questionable.

Initial skepticism about the iPad was that “its just a big iPhone”. It was seen as a bad thing when that was exactly what it should be. But as the iPad “evolved” (or more accurately, needed a new gimmick) then we’re seeing each newer iPad release trying to differentiate itself from the iPhone.

iPad gets Multitouch Gestures, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Sidebar, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Split Screen, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets stylus, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Smart Connector keyboard, iPhone doesnt

Only a year or two ago then some of these ideas would be considered “unnatural” yet here we are with the iPad Pro built with a keyboard slot and designed for desktop use. And as much as people have scoffed keyboards, stylus and multitasking on iPads, we’re only a Mouse away from finally admitting “um… this iPad is nothing more than a crippled laptop”.

[Okay, i made my point but I’ll continue ranting] :D

The true history of the iPad is that it was born out of compromise. The mobile, battery friendly chips of the original iPad couldn’t possibly run a traditional OS the way todays A9 could. So by the time we hit A10, A11 and beyond then it only furthers the fact that these chips are far more powerful than the OS it comes with and we’ll be forced to wonder why we’re running such powerful and efficient processors on a 13” screen that can only do two things at once.

I’m not saying the iPad was a mistake, but it never should’ve been anything more than a CHEAP consumer grade consumption device. And the real future should be an Apple chip running OS X on a touchscreen convertible.

John Martellaro


...and we’ll be forced to wonder why we’re running such powerful and efficient processors on a 13” screen that can only do two things at once

I liked your observations. Thanks for sharing.


First of all, I don’t think Apple is trying to differentiate iPad iOS from iPhone iOS. What they’ve done is acknowledged that devices with different resources are capable of doing other things. Any increase in a specific resource (screen size, processing power, more memory, larger battery) enables new use cases and enhanced user interaction. The larger screen of the iPhone Plus enabled it to support the horizontal sidebar view. Slide Over and Picture-in-Picture are only available on devices with an A7 or higher (processing power). And Split View is only available on the latest iPad models (memory).

Second, all of Apple’s platforms run off the same core code base. Apple has a single “Core Operating System” group that develops all the core OS (under the hood) features that are used in all their products. As I stated above, what changes from one platform to the other are the resources available and how the user interacts with the device.

And finally, Apple doesn’t need a unified OS for running the same apps on different devices. All they need is to allow developers to build a single app that can run across whatever platform they choose.


Rather than being able to run the same app on multiple platforms, I’d rather a scaleable OS. One that starts with the phone, to tablet to laptop/desktop, and one where the apps all join in on this. Microsoft’s Continuum is a good start, but really, so far, I think that only Ubuntu has (or had, rather) this idea as a starting point. This is a dream I’ve had since my Newton/Palm days. Look up the OQO sometime. It was an idea way ahead of its time, and without the OS-level support that something like this really requires. But that was when I got the dream of a scalable OS, and I’ve been waiting for it ever since. I had hopes, at one point, of Apple doing this, but now it seems that Microsoft is actually trying it—to some extent. I don’t think the hardware is quite there yet, for Windows or OSX do do it, but Linux sure could… in theory…

And I keep dreaming.


As @mjtomlin pointed out, Apple uses one OS core for iOS and OS X. They are already working on the technologies necessary to run bits of OS X on an iPad or bits of iOS on a Mac. They have the new slim binary idea so a single iOS app can be recompiled for different chips. It probably would be technically possible to run an OS X interface on an iPad when you plug it into a larger monitor, because that’s just the Cocoa / Aqua graphics stack and the Finder app but the OS underneath it is the same.

What I think they are doing is converging on usage as well as hardware capabilities. We had to start with a limited tablet not just because the hardware wasn’t fast enough in 2010 but also because we didn’t know how real users would use a tablet. What different interactions does it bring? Different ways and places to work and relax? A convertible touch screen notebook with a stylus wouldn’t have been the right user experience. (There was an after-market option to convert a MacBook into exactly such a device. Maybe not “convertible” since I think it completely eliminated the keyboard. But it was a fat tablet running full OS X.) The end game is to see how much like a StarTrek PADD tablet we get, or how different, through natural evolution in our understanding of how touchable mobile computing works in a real environment.

Shameer Mulji 1

Since the September Apple keynote, we’ve gotten a pretty glimpse into Apple’s philosophy regarding their product lineup / roadmap;

“The iPad Pro is the clearest expression of our vision of the future of personal computing.” - Tim Cook

And the following from an interview with Phil Schiller;

“Schiller, in fact, has a grand philosophical theory of the Apple product line that puts all products on a continuum. Ideally, you should be using the smallest possible gadget to do as much as possible before going to the next largest gizmo in line.”

““They are all computers,” he says. “Each one is offering computers something unique and each is made with a simple form that is pretty eternal. The job of the watch is to do more and more things on your wrist so that you don’t need to pick up your phone as often. The job of the phone is to do more and more things such that maybe you don’t need your iPad, and it should be always trying and striving to do that. The job of the iPad should be to be so powerful and capable that you never need a notebook. Like, Why do I need a notebook? I can add a keyboard! I can do all these things! The job of the notebook is to make it so you never need a desktop, right? It’s been doing this for a decade. So that leaves the poor desktop at the end of the line, What’s its job?””

The future of personal computing, for Apple, is multi-touch devices supplemented with keyboard & stylus. I don’t think iOS & OSX will merge a la Windows 10 but I do think iOS will get more capable to the point where the majority of users won’t need traditional PC’s.

That’s not to say that I think traditional PC’s will be dead but they’ll be very niche.



“iPad gets Multitouch Gestures, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Sidebar, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Split Screen, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets stylus, iPhone doesn’t
iPad gets Smart Connector keyboard, iPhone doesn’t”

Features 1, 2, 3 & 5 are all driven by a significant disparity in screen size.  All those features make sense for a tablet screen but are kind of ridiculous on a smartphone.

Feature 4 is for pixel level manipulation that is unwieldy with a finger tip.  Pixel level manipulation only happens with heavy duty creative work like photo and video-editing, drawing, CAD, etc. —Tasks that no person in his right mind is going to do on a smartphone-size screen.

So no it’s not about “trying to differentiate” the iPad from the iPhone.  It’s about realizing and capitalizing on the natural differentiation that arises from the difference in screen sizes.

Apple is one of the greatest marketers in corporate history.  But to assume that that is their only talent and that design at Apple is driven primarily by marketing grossly misunderstands the company.

The other mistake people make is to assume that Apple will latch on to a strategy, no matter how bad, until the bitter end.  They are very good at turning on the dime while giving the impression that they didn’t.



Although I read this some time ago, responsibilities have kept me occupied. Just a brief response to both your written thesis and your comments on TDO the other day regarding the same, which were somewhat different in emphasis from your article.

Your argument that Apple, owing to technological limitations when conceiving the iPad, was constrained to one of two visions, a device capable of running OS X or a forked version on a less power hungry processor, is undoubtedly correct; however I don’t believe that was ever Apple’s complete vision. Apple have repeatedly portrayed the device in both consumption and productivity mode on their adverts.

MS, under Ballmer’s tenure, maintained a fundamentally different, over-arching, vision of ‘Windows everywhere’ that drove, and terminated, product offerings. A product either serviced that vision, or it was aborted. It is little wonder then that the Surface Pro was full x86 powered and could run MS’ core suite of Windows and Office, albeit in a quasi tablet form factor (that required a keyboard for accessing core functions).

I think to argue that Apple started with a bang and has run ‘out of gas’ whilst MS has an ‘emerging strategy’, might not simply be overstating Apple’s iPad situation, it implies a duality belied by its own argument. It’s a little like saying two teams are locked in mortal combat on the pitch, in which team A have scored a goal, but may be tiring, whilst team 2 are now beginning to figure out the rules of the game, pity they haven’t practised them.

Apple vision, in my view, reflects their capacity to think long term and play the long game, and a factor that clearly weighs into the long game is Moore’s Law. True, today’s ARM technology might be limited, but with time, and therefore increased capability, would come the capacity to perform at a level equivalent to x86 processors of an older era, in which they will capably run apps used by professionals. Obviously, due that same Moore’s Law, laptops and desktops would continue to increase in capability, but much of that is never tapped by the majority of computer owners. However, even our dated iPhone 5s boasts computational power in excess of suite-sized supercomputers from the 1960s and 1970s. At some point, Apple had to have thought, ARM processors would achieve parity with traditional computers of a certain era and be full-blooded productivity machines - yet retain the form factor of the tablet as a self-contained, fully functional device. Not only would the apps become progressively more capable as the CPU and GPU became for powerful, but the OS itself would be incrementally upgraded.

The vision of starting with an x86 processor powering a desktop OS, shoe-horned into a tablet-like device is a fundamentally different proposition, whose chief constraint remains power management, a gamble which does not necessarily follow Moore’s Law, and user willingness to obligatorily carry supportive implements (keyboard, stylus), another unknown. That the iPad remains an orders-of-magnitude more popular device does not, at this time, validate these as two equally viable visions of equal appeal to consumers or enterprise.

Regarding some of multi-tasking capabilities you argued for on TDO, I see the evolution of these devices, both the iPad and the Surface, as being driven by consumer use in active synergy with third party developer tools, and that device that can best adapt to those emerging uses as the one that will emerge as the device of the future. I believe that iPad Pro will provide an opportunity to quicken the pace of productivity adoption and use case.

In sum, although perhaps on a slower developmental trajectory than the Surface, which uses a CPU with a longer legacy, I believe that the iPad has far more developmental headroom in the long run for both its CPU and OS, and strategically has the greater strategic staying power without massive course correction.

Only time will tell, and both companies have that in spades.

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