Apple and Microsoft Race to Rethink the Tablet

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.