iPad vs Surface is the wrong comparison. Or is it?

It is believed that Surface team made a mistake in 2012 comparing their new device to an iPad. The comparison was obvious, however. Microsoft presented Surface RT (ARM based, without backwards compatibility with desktop apps) and Surface Pro (x86 PC machine in tablet form factor) to compete with Apple and Google on promising and fast-growing tablet market.

Four years later we know exactly what happened. Surface RT had performance issues and (too) little touch-friendly apps. Don’t get me wrong. It was a great device (I still own one). Convenient kickstand, clever touch cover keyboard, premium design plus secure and easy to maintain OS. It just was not enough to beat devices with much more matured iOS and Android operating systems. One can find many other causes of Surface RT failure, but in my opinion, the most important one is — it just wasn’t better than the competition at virtually anything important. The “productivity” aspect (free desktop Office, open file system) is not how you sell consumer-focused product.

Surface Pro was a different story. It can be considered a full PC with x86 chip and Windows (8) Pro operating system. An obvious problem occurred, however. 13.5mm thick, 920g, 3h of battery life, no WWAN connectivity, insecure and troublesome runtime (Win32), poor quality and quantity of touch apps — that’s clearly not the best tablet experience. It was not the best laptop either. One-angle kickstand made it difficult to use Surface Pro on your laps. Touchpad on the Type Cover keyboard was terrible, to put it mildly. Tiny 10.6" (16:9) screen didn’t make power users happy.

Second generation of these devices haven’t solved the most important issues. Surface 2 was just slightly faster, had better screen and two-angle kickstand. Surface Pro 2 due to new Intel chip got better battery life, two-angle kickstand and some other small improvements — nothing spectacular. iPad was still a much better tablet than Surface 2 while both casual and power users found MacBook Air much more comfortable to use due to terrific battery life, great touchpad and “lappability” (I’m looking at you, Panos Panay!). Surface line has been generating financial loses every quarter and media started to openly discuss the possibility of discontinuation of this product. Until…

Surface Pro 3

Surface Mini was cancelled just weeks before its planned premiere, but the true star of the Surface event — Surface Pro 3 blew people’s minds. Core i5/i7 device closed in a 9mm/800g body with terrific 12" (3:2) screen, better touchpad, and bendable keyboard for better stability during lap use. And it’s not only my opinion. Financial and sells results speak by themselves. Surface line has become profitable since then creating next billion dollar business inside Microsoft.

For perspective — Azure, “the future of Microsoft”, is not yet there in terms of revenue even in 2016. And the most important thing — Surface Pro line was positioned as MacBook Air rival, not the iPad’s. Because SP3 is a (powerful) PC. This comparison is right from the marketing point of view. Both devices have x86 chips and run desktop operating systems. Of course SP3 is more versatile because of touch apps and pen input, but due to weak mobile apps Windows ecosystem, it’s still a laptop-first device.

iPad Pro

In late 2015 Apple announced iPad Pro. A huge, 12.9" tablet with Surface-like “type cover” and pen(cil) support. And the hardware was great. Thin, relatively light, great battery life, with no active cooling. A9X chip’s graphic performance surprised many. In a lot of benchmarks it beat new MacBook 12" with Intel Core M chip. Apple couldn’t avoid Surface comparisons in all the tech reviews of their new product. These devices look very similar side by side. Tablet that converts to laptop due to keyboard cover. And a pen. Of course there are a subtle differences, but in general — everyone have to agree that Apple was late to hybrid (2 in 1) market and it made them to move fast. To copy.

Hardware design is probably where similarities end, however. iPad Pro is custom ARM, Surface — standard x86. iPad is tablet-first, while Surface is laptop-first. iPad has mobile OS, while Surface is based on legacy desktop Windows with Win32 apps. Even hardware parity is not as close as many may think. Optional Apple Pencil is aimed at artists and designers, whereas bundled Surface Pen should be considered as OS-wide input method (like mouse). These are two totally different approaches, so comparing these devices feature by feature is a little bit naive. And unfair. iPad is struggling with some “productivity” aspects, while Surface still needs mobile apps and more secure/predictable runtime environment. But does it mean that we should not compare them?

Even system apps are not ready for landscape mode

“Yes, it’s an unfair comparison, but it’s a relevant one”

I strongly recommend to read a Benedict Evans article titled In praise of unfairness. Most relevant quotes can be find below:

(…)of course smartphone sales are bigger than PCs, but [comparison is] unfair — the phone market is just much bigger than the PC market (and the devices are replaced every ~2 years where PCs are replaced every ~5 years).
These objections were quite correct — the comparison is unfair. But it’s also relevant. Mobile is now around half of all time spent online in developed markets and will be the dominant global consumer computing platform of the next decade or two.

Yes, objections about comparing iPads and Surface devices are valid. If you do it feature by feature, it’s often apple (sic!) to oranges. It’s just unfair. But it is also relevant. At the end of the day, one should not care about hardware, OS, chip architecture. Devices are tools to have your work done. And the way we work is changing. HW and SW should disappear in our workflow. It’s rather safe to assume that mobile OS paradigm (another must-read from Steven Sinofsky) is winning in this regard.

Surface selling point stressed in official ads is the ability to run x86 (Win32) software. But is it really an advantage? And for how long? Of course a lot of big corporations value backward compatibility on both hardware and software. That’s why we have VGA ports, Ethernet connectors and other “legacy” stuff in business laptops. That’s why Surface Pro 4 has USB-A port instead of future-proof USB-C. That’s why they still use Windows 7 (or recently upgraded to!), a seven year old operating system. But again — for how long? How long x86 software will be relevant? Relevant to regular office worker. To a salesman. Freelancer. Artist. Musician.

Most people agree that iPad software is not ready for its prime in terms of desk usage (with keyboard). There are still many glitches, bugs and inconveniences — like support for landscape mode, oversimplified clipboard or between-app communication. But it’s just software. That’s not a hardware limitation. Nor kernel/runtime limitation. I can’t see a problem with the iPad Pro that can’t be solved by OS or app update.

Surface Pro is in a different position. Desktop apps will be less and less relevant, focusing on narrower group of professional programmers, admins, graphic designers, etc. All basic office tasks will be possible to perform on iOS or Android tablets and hopefully Windows tablets with UWP apps. Win32 compatibility will be (already is?) a burden for Surface line, not the advantage. Burden because of security, maintainability, power management, connectivity and user interfaces. So what’s the future of Surface line? How Microsoft wants to position is in few years? These questions remains open and I can find a clear answer. It will all depends on what is the future of Windows and Universal Windows Platform. And as a Windows user, I wish them all the best.

It is perfectly natural to compare PC vs smartphones when you think about starting new business, platforms you target or making decisions about your everyday workflow. It’s natural and relevant despite the fact that it can’t be compared directly, feature by feature. iPad Pro vs Surface is even more natural, yet unfair comparison. But it’s the one you should make.