How Bill Gates Predicted the iPad Pro
Should a tablet do everything your laptop does? Microsoft always said yes. Apple disagreed. Until now.
In early 2001, Bill Gates summoned me to Redmond, Washington to view a product that he touted as the future of computing. It would be called the Microsoft Tablet. Its DNA lay in Alan Kay’s legendary 1960’s Dynabook concept, a magic slab of screen and silicon that was never built. Microsoft had even hired Kay’s key co-workers at Xerox PARC, Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker, to help birth this new device. I was impressed with the team and the idea. Gates himself felt he understood why tablets had not taken off to date:
“They didn’t work, basically,” he said. “The hardware wasn’t good enough, the software wasn’t good enough, the batteries weren’t good enough, there was no wireless network.”
But what really startled me was Gates’ assertion that the tablet was not destined as a new product category, but something that would do everything a laptop would. All laptops, he told me, were destined to become tablets.
The Microsoft Tablet, released in 2002, did not succeed. Some blamed its reliance on a stylus, which slid on the screen like a sneaker on a hockey rink. Others complained that Windows implementation did not fit well with the tablet format. Basically, though, the hardware wasn’t good enough, the software wasn’t good enough, the batteries weren’t good enough, and the wireless network was not yet pervasive.
In any case, the category went dormant — until 2010, when Apple released the iPad. Apple’s success in part came from reimagining the tablet computer as something distinct from its desktop line. When Steve Jobs demo’ed it, he sat on an easy chair, with no desk or pedestal in sight.
The iPad wouldn’t replace your laptop, but it would be a vital and delightful portal to media and information, powered by Apple’s mobile operating system. Jobs did demo some productivity software, hinting that you could indeed do work on your iPad. But the strength of this new gizmo was that it did not ape a laptop but was its own thing.
The iPad was a hit. Even though its growth has slowed, Apple still sells millions.
The iPad’s success was certainly a factor when Microsoft dove back into tablets in 2010. But despite Apple’s winning strategy of designing the iPad as a media and communications device, Microsoft still stuck to its original philosophy that a tablet should excel at business functions. You would use a Surface instead of a laptop. To make this possible, one of Surface’s innovations was a nifty plastic folding keyboard. After the first version flopped, Microsoft kept improving, and it now seems that the Surface is over the hump. (One sign of this: Dell and HP have agreed to sell Surface devices through their channels, even though they make their own tablet computers.) But sales are still a fraction of iPad numbers.
That’s why on first glance it’s puzzling that Apple has chosen to revitalize its tablet business by introducing a new addition to its tablet family, the iPad Pro. Judging from the evidence of today’s keynote, Apple is embracing the Microsoft philosophy. The iPad Pro has a huge 12.9 inch screen, big as a Whoopee Cushion with the air leaked out. It’s 78 percent bigger than the iPad Air! That’s an interesting direction considering that the company did a lot of chest-beating a couple of years ago while touting the descriptively named iPad Mini. It’s going to be awesome to see movies on that screen. But more to the point, that screen is necessary to most effectively run the business applications that Apple sees people using with the iPad Pro.
To make this happen, users will want to get two Apple accessories sold separately from the iPad, but vital for its use. The first is what the company describes as a Smart Keyboard. It cost $169, and though it has some ingenious aspects (particularly in a zipless connection to the iPad) it looks a lot like the Surface counterpoint. (An alternative is using a full-sized soft keyboard on the screen, but clearly the iPad Pro begs to be used propped up in the Smart Keyboard and ready for touch typing.)
The second is — zounds — a stylus! That’s right, the Apple Pencil, at $99. On the one hand it isn’t fair to compare the Pencil to a traditional stylus, as it has advanced technology that allows for precision drawing. And its design virtuosity enables Jony Ive to gush for a few solid minutes in a video. But it’s still a separate gadget that you can lose in a couch cushion — one of the reasons that Steve Jobs once used to proclaim the stylus as wrongheaded and clunky. (“If you see a stylus, they blew it,” he once said.) But in demos, Apple showed how using its pencil in drawing and productivity applications could make the iPad Pro perform tasks that you couldn’t do on previous iPads.
One handicap Apple has in pursuing its productivity strategy is the lack of a great in-house set of basic business applications. To address this, the company offered a surprising solution: the gold standard of applications software, Microsoft’s Office suite. In a reprise of the “hell freezes over” moment in the 1997 Macworld keynote — the one where Steve Jobs announced an alliance with Microsoft in order to insure continued development of Office for Mac — a Microsoft executive demonstrated a custom version of Office for iPad.
The unresolved question is the one where Gates and Jobs diverged on their answers. Gates argued that tablets would become the norm, replacing the laptop. Jobs found success by creating a media delivery system that could, in a pinch, do some work. The serious stuff, you could do on a Mac.
With the iPad Pro — armed with Surface-like keyboard, stylus, and Microsoft Office — Tim Cook seems to be tilting toward the Redmond doctrine.
I’ll be fascinated to see how this strategy works out. Because when you tally up the cost of an iPad Pro with an Apple smart keyboard, and an Apple Pencil, you’re paying more than you would for 13-inch Macbook Air. Or, for that matter, a Chromebook Pixel. That keyboard better be good.
Still, I can see the logic. Mobile operating systems now rule, as every major version of a desktop OS adopts more of the conventions of their mobile counterparts. So why not do all your cognitive heavy lifting on a mobile device? The hardware is good enough, the software is good enough, the batteries are good enough, and the wireless network is the air we breathe.