What Google’s New Tablet Tells Us, on The Surface

“You can’t stop the future; You can’t rewind the past; The only way to learn the secret … is to press play. ” — Jay Asher

The Google Nexus 7 tablet is the product of a very different vision than the Microsoft Surface. The Nexus 7 is a consumer product for content consumption. The MS Surface is a perpetuation of Windows and content creation in a Windows environment. Which one will survive?


When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, it was clearly the byproduct of an inspiration that there have come to be two distinct activities associated with personal computing equipment. There is what we call the consumption activities (browsing, shopping, music, movies and games, for example) and the creation part (writing, graphics, web design, coding, for example.)

Along the way, for historical and technical reasons, the classic desktop PC and Mac (and Linux) systems were designed to do both. But with the advent of the advanced graphics hardware, new software technologies and household broadband, these activities became separated for the average consumer.

For Apple, it made sense to factor those activities and instill the most popular activities into a tablet. As a result, one can argue that the set of activities associated with consumption and the underlying design of a tablet (no keyboard, touch screen, gestures) are integrated. Together, they constitute the gestalt of a true tablet.

The companies that understand that gestalt are Apple, Amazon Barnes & Noble and Google, to name a few. Microsoft is missing from my list.

New iPad


Another important gestalt related to tablets is that in order to be a consumption device, they must be backed by an ecosystem of content. As Google’s Andy Rubin observed, according to AllThingsD “Rubin admits that he was upset a year ago that Android tablets just weren’t selling. After looking into some of the reasons, Rubin learned that while hardware really matters on phones, consumers are buying into a content ecosystem with tablets. Or, in Google’s case, not buying into an ecosystem.”

In other words, consumers buy a tablet, not based on phone contracts or CPU technical specifications, but rather what they can do with the tablet: shopping, browsing, music, books, videos and games.

That understanding dictates the design of the tablet’s hardware. For example, tablets are social animals, so they have to have front facing video cameras. They have to play 1080p movies smoothly. They need the classic sensors (accelerometer, gyro) to play games.

That factoring of activities means that the vast majority of customers will be satisfied with a tablet. In turn, they carry that set of activities into the workplace. Most people in the workplace are browsing, reading e-mail, reading documents, and communicating. An exception is the creation of written or presentation documents. And that, ta-dum, is why Apple shipped the original iPad with iWork apps.

Only a small percentage of workers are using the full capabilities of a classic PC to do their work. Proof of that comes from the fact that, in the glory days of Windows, when Apple was nearly broke, major companies still bought Macs for the graphics department.

Windows Forever

Microsoft, inspired by Apple, at first seemed interested in the concept of a tablet. There was that famous concept video of the Courier. Ultimately, the Courier was cancelled because it didn’t support and perpetuate the Windows ecosystem. J(ames) Allard and Robbie Bach lost their crusade (and departed) and Steven Sinofsky won.

The result was a two year pause while Microsoft regrouped and came to realize that a stab at postponing the Post-PC era was to develop a tablet that supported Windows and Windows apps, and wrap the product in the guise of content creation. That was evident in the Steve Ballmer’s, Steven Sinofsky’s and Michael Anguilo’s introduction to the Surface. To paraphrase, the focus is on “what we know.” Personal, technical and business software for creation. Steven Sinofsky said, the Surface is “a tablet that’s a great PC.” Steve Ballmer concluded with, the “Surface is a PC. The Surface is a tablet.”


Image Credit: Microsoft

Well, not quite. The Surface certainly seems to be a nice PC, but by the above definition of factoring your activities, it’s not a true tablet, defined above. In fact, Ben Bejarin has opined on Twitter that the Surface may really be classified as a “sub-Ultrabook.” And as we well know from the convergence issue that Tim Cook made famous, it may well also be a toaster-fridge. But a true tablet? Nope.

Microsoft very much needs to perpetuate Windows in a Post-PC era. To do that, they must wrap Windows in the clothing of a faux-tablet for its inheritance. It’s a kind of evolutionary Lysenkoism.

While that notion looks like it will go over well in business, astute businesses have already deduced that providing a full-blown Windows system, despite its advances in security, to everyday employees is an administration nightmare best left in the past. Simple, inexpensive ARM-based tablets provide most employees with what they need. For heavy duty work, some desktop PCs or Macs (the “pickup trucks” as Steve Jobs called them) are adequate.

So while some IT managers who were deeply involved with Microsoft may try to force the Surface on employees, tablet-inspired staff, accustomed to iPhones and BYOD, are likely to resist.

Google Gets it

Compare that strategy to Google, a company that gets what people want. The Nexus 7 is beautiful. It’s lightweight and easy to hold. It taps into Google Play. It’s very personal and immediate, without the trappings of an OS designed to run Photoshop. Amazon showed the way last Christmas and pried open a hole in Apple’s defenses with a 7-inch content consumption tablet backed by a vast ecosystem of content. It will leverage the success of Android phones.

Google doesn’t have a vast ecosystem of content with Google Play, but they’re going to attempt to build one. And they’re following Amazon through the ever widening hole in Apple’s defenses with the 7-inch, $199 armament.

Nexus 7

Nexus 7. Image Credit: Google

The vision of Google (and Apple and Amazon) couldn’t be in greater contrast to that of Microsoft. Tablets are a new lifeform. They will grow and mature if left to evolve naturally. In special cases, when content needs to be created, it will be created with enhanced tools on a tablet or perhaps with something like a MacBook Pro with a Retina display. Or an Ultrabook.

Google’s design decision aligns with Apple and Amazon and repudiates Microsoft’s cloak of supposed originality.

That Pesky Thing: the Future

While there may be a small market for the Surface, the Post-PC era seems to me to be a euphemism for the end of Windows as a mainstream product and the beginning of Windows as a niche, specialty product. No matter how hard Microsoft tries, it won’t be able stem the tide of the tablets in business and the consumer marketplace. That, in turn will dictate business decisions that will be unfavorable to Microsoft.

The meteoric rise of Android to one million activations per day (with iOS not far behind) strongly suggests that Android and iOS are will be the dominant OSes of the future.

By the summer of 2013, when sales data reality sets  in, thirty-eight months after the iPad shipped, I predict the Surface will be where Windows Phone is now. Single digit market share, fighting for 4th place.