iPad vs. Microsoft Tablet: Microsoft Mistakes and the Future PC

Thursday Jun 3rd 2010 by Rob Enderle
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Understanding why Apple succeeded where Microsoft has so far failed reveals some interesting truths about consumers’ and businesses’ willingness to change.

At the All Things Digital (D8) conference this week, Steve Jobs eluded to a touch screen monitor/PC he was bringing to market and also made reference to blending the iPad and iPhone into a single line. Of the two statements, the first is more telling because it goes to the core of one of the reasons the Microsoft Tablet computer wasn’t successful, and it creates a better foundation for the kind of change Bill Gates imagined but Microsoft failed to drive. Let’s talk about both things.

Microsoft’s Tablet and the initial Failure of the Slate Design

Around a decade ago Microsoft introduced the tablet computer. A lot of us predicted that it would form the basis of PCs to come, that pen and touch would supplement the mouse, touchpad, and keyboard and that future PCs would be defined by all three interfaces.

However, the Tablet PC never really made it out of vertical markets, it didn’t define the next generation of PCs, and it wasn’t until the iPhone and then the iPad that touch screen monitors seemed to get the interest of the masses.

Microsoft made three mistakes. Let’s take each in turn. All are based on not understanding that people resist change and need to be dragged into doing something different. Microsoft isn’t alone in missing this -- IBM has made this same mistake and it was one of a number of reasons OS/2 failed. And Apple itself made this mistake with the predecessor to the iPad, the Newton.

The first mistake was to allow the proliferation of clam-shell tablet computers with keyboards. This was a mistake because users weren’t forced to use the tablet function in the computer and gravitated back to the readily available keyboard and touchpad. This form factor became the most popular, but since the tablet capability was rarely used they were simply heavier and more expensive laptops that often had a hinge that was either over-engineered or prone to failure. Most folks who used them went back to regular laptops for their next PC purchase.

The second mistake was to not change the user interface to adapt to the new input method. Even if you used Touch or a Stylus the Windows UI was designed for a mouse and was awkward for touch. This mistake carried over into the Windows Mobile platform and was one of the reasons the platform wasn’t as successful as Apple’s. This is being corrected with Windows Phone 7 but by not changing the interface people weren’t attracted to the new input method and gravitated back to old form factors.

The third mistake -- and the one Steve Jobs indicated he is moving to correct -- is that the user experience didn’t gravitate to monitors, so even if you got used to it, if you used a large monitor with your Tablet you had to go back to using a mouse or touchpad and keyboard. So you didn’t reinforce the new input method and it was less likely to become a habit. The end result was that that Tablet didn’t take off.

How Apple Approached the Problem

Apple first introduced touch in a cell phone in a market where they weren’t currently active. If you wanted an iPhone you had to use touch, there was no keyboard or mouse to fall back on.

Even so, initial volumes were a fraction of what they became and many folks who used Blackberries still preferred, and still prefer, a keyboard. Showcasing the problem didn’t go away, it was simply a weaker problem with this class of device. They passed this to the iPod, which had no interface; this increased the breadth of people using touch. They waited until they had a large enough group comfortable with touch before introducing it into a larger device that also did not have an included keyboard and was difficult to use with a mouse. People do use keyboards with the iPad but they virtually all use touch instead of a mouse to navigate.

Apple was training people in steps to use the new interface. The UI was designed for touch first for the iPhone and iPod Touch and then for the iPad. Rather than trying to convert the PC interface as Microsoft had tried and failed on two devices, Apple started over and the new interface is ugly with a mouse but intuitive with touch.

This makes learning to use the new tool more fun. And you could with the iPhone, and can with the iPad, see users demonstrating and showcasing this interface to future perspective iPhone and iPad users. Against the backdrop of PC sales, numbers are still small for both devices but they are growing by millions and few can credibly argue that Apple will fail.

Finally, and most recently, Apple has hinted at building touch into a monitor/Mac, completing the process so that touch can migrate across their line. They will have plowed the field with iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad and should have a large core of people now willing to move to touch for larger devices. This should give them a foundation to migrate the Mac to the new hardware and software user interfaces.

Wrapping Up: Lessons Learned

By moving in steps, initially picking platforms where mice simply didn’t work, and designing to the goal they wanted rather than trying to retrofit products that were designed for other interfaces, Apple has been successful where Microsoft was not.

The big difference between the two firms is that Apple seems to inherently get what it takes to move people to a new idea. We don’t like change and have to be driven, tricked, incented, and encouraged to make that change.

Just tossing something new and different in front of us doesn’t result in the desired reaction, we are more likely to run from than embrace something really different. By staging this, people have not seen the differences in the iPad as frightening but interesting because they already accepted those changes in the iPhone and iPod Touch. Had those products not come first, Apple’s success -- even with the user interface -- might have mirrored Microsoft’s.

While the future is far from certain, the lesson that should be learned here is that to drive change into a user group you have to understand what it takes to change how people do things and design a strategy to address our unwillingness to move. The idea of the iPad came before the iPhone but, based on what Jobs said at the All Things D conference, the iPhone had to come first to plow the field. Apple did that and is successful, Microsoft didn’t and wasn’t. This goes a long way to explaining why some think Apple is the new Microsoft. Something to think about.

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