Apple and Microsoft Need a Love Child: the real future of portable computing

by Dirk Knemeyer

I’m one of the fortunate few who has had the opportunity to use both a Microsoft Surface and an Apple iPad. While both are “magical” and “revolutionary” devices in their own unique and incomplete ways, I’m struck by the fact that both of them remind me of the only Palm device I ever had, back in 2003: a novelty that did some things well but most things poorly, and ultimately left me ignoring it in its charger. While I don’t expect Surface’s and iPad’s to collect a thickening coat of dust like my Palm once did I do think both are similarly flawed, incomplete devices. The device that will truly be “magical” and “revolutionary” will be a combination of the two, taking the best parts of both parents:

From the Microsoft Surface, the truly “magical” and “revolutionary” offspring will inherit…

1. Interaction with physical devices. Interactive surfaces + RFID-embedded objects = juicy delicious goodness. The Surface gives us a glimpse of a world where physical objects, pieces and parts benefit from the record keeping and computational power of, and resonant interaction with, the computer. That’s sweet. On the other hand, the iPad can only interact with people’s fingers. Not bad, but it doesn’t have even close the potential and excitement that the digital world of the Surface promises.

2. Physical size, strength and stability. The Microsoft Surface is a big-ass table. Next to the light and limber iPad it looks like a sad relic of another time. However, one of the beauties of the Surface’s form factor is it is solid. People can push it hard, sit on it, put heavy things on it and that sucker doesn’t budge. It’s nice. Flicking things around the Surface has a great tactile feedback. You can play games and struggle over it and it is not going anywhere. Watching, for example, people playing “Ploid” on the iPad is ridiculous. Yes it’s kind of cool, but the game becomes just as much about pulling the board around Ouija-style than the game itself. Uncool. Additionally, the iPad is really small. The Surface is unquestionably too big, but that large surface is awfully nice. Lots and lots of pixels to design for and enjoy.

3. A more traditional operating system. The iPhone OS sucks. It just does. We accept it because there is nothing better - all due apologies to Android - to power a mobile computing device of its caliber. The applications that can run off the iPhone OS or similar, hobbled architecture will not produce adequate computing experiences. The Surface has a modified version of Vista (cough, cough) and that gives it a lot more juice.

From the iPad, the truly “magical” and “revolutionary” offspring will inherit:

1. Portability. Holding your computer in one hand, effortlessly, and being able to use it from any piece of furniture without a table is pretty rockingly good. The challenge for designers - and I think this transcends the device and will permeate into our furniture, carrying cases, or other adjacent objects in our physical spaces - is: how do you keep it portable but make it so it STAYS IN PLACE, solidly and firmly, even if people are vigorously using it?

2. True direct connection. I need to have mine, you need to have yours, and if we are using the same app our two machines need to become one. The iPad (appears) to do this. The Surface, thanks to it’s laborious form factor and the impracticality of many users having them in the same space, does not. In fairness the Surface does interact with OTHER computing devices placed on top of it but that misses the point: people want to have ONE device that is theirs and is with them and works beautifully with the devices of other people.

3. Apps. If Apple has done one thing more right than anything else over their past decade of redefining the computing industry it is dominating content of every form of media. Out-of-the-box they already have tons of apps, with a ravenous marketplace of developers and entrepreneurs cranking out more as quickly as they can. To the best of my knowledge, years after shipping production versions of the Surface, Microsoft has less custom apps designed for it than Apple had for the iPad on the FIRST DAY! A computing device is only worth as much as the software that runs on it.

And, if we had a milkman contributing some DNA to the final offspring, I would wish for him to impart these as-yet-non-existent features:

1. Better input. Typing on the iPad, in particular, stinks. There are third-party accessories that can make it “OK”, including hooking it up to an actual keyboard attachment. But at some level that misses the point: it puts you right back behind a desk into the old computing paradigm. You might as well be on a desktop or laptop machine. The “magical” and “revolutionary” device will have elegant, usable, ergonomic inputs that people use on the couch, surrounded by people, standing on the train…you get the idea.

2. Fitting better into our existing computing ecosystem. The iPad’s lack of a USB port is a well-documented gaffe. Neither of these devices comfortably fits into the world of our other devices and their peripherals. The future device will: thoughtful, sensible inclusion of ports and flexibility that maximizes the computing experience. we know Apple loves to force us to buy offensively overpriced new peripherals for every different device we have. They are still getting away with it as of now, but people are wising up to it. Just make it easy, kindly.

3. Affordable. This is my only request that is perhaps unfair: while Surface-like devices will never become price competitive with Netbooks, iPads someday will. However, while they proudly advertise the least powerful iPad at an affordable price point, it is only the most expensive available iPad that has specs that make sense as a core computing device. And it is awfully expensive, as much as a laptop that is far more powerful! Sure, prices will come down, but for now I think it is fair to say these need a price point, for the most souped up version possible, of $499 at the absolutely maximum, $299 as a target to really make it mass market. don’t kid yourself: the ubiquity of the iPhone is not because it is so cool, but because you can buy it cheaply with an AT&T contract. The lower sticker price overcomes all kinds of potential purchase objections.

This strange love child I am describing, more or less, will come to pass. But who will deliver it? And when? These are open questions. My money is on Apple, because they figure these things out so well. But…well, ol’ Steve hates to change direction and gets stubborn when people tell him he is wrong. Will he have the humility to evolve the iPad more toward something truly “magical” and “revolutionary”? Only time will tell. Until then, I need to decide if an iPad is in my future. As for a Surface, lovely as they are, that’s just crazy talk!!!

Topics: Design, hardware, Analysis, Blog, microsoft+surface, apple+ipad