The Tablet Wars

Features David Crookes Dec 3, 2012

Surface, Kindle Fire, iPad, iPad Mini, or Google Nexus? Choosing which tablet to buy is proving to be a major headache

There have been times when Microsoft has been seen as something of a joke. It’s sad, given the illustrious history of this company, which has done a great deal for computers, but it appears to be struggling to regain its edge.

This has been seen, to a large degree, in the failure of Microsoft to come up with a tablet computer that truly captures the imagination. It first gave it a go in 1999 when it assigned a couple of experts from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center to work on what became known as the Microsoft Tablet PC. Ultimately, it was ahead of its time. Too heavy and lacking in specific apps, consumers saw it as a gimmick.

It was not until Apple unveiled the iPad that attitudes changed. By this point Microsoft’s Bill Gates was convinced that netbooks were the way forward and although his opinion did not waiver (“you know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard - in other words a netbook - will be the mainstream on that,” he said in 2010), the iPad nevertheless flew off the shelves.

That, combined with the continued popularity of the Kindle, the Kindle Fire’s amazing take-up in America, rumours that Apple would make a smaller iPad, the Google Nexus and other assorted Android tablets, ensured Microsoft could not sit it out for too long. Just as Microsoft criticised the iPod before going on to launch the Zune, it went on to produce a tablet of its own: the Surface.

Say hello to the Surface

Launched on 26th October, it retails for between £399 and £559, which is the same price as the cheapest third-generation iPad, putting the two firms into a head-to-head battle. Some would say such a thing is a ridiculous. Apple’s device is established and well catered for. It has hundreds of thousands of apps and consumers can buy it safe in the knowledge that it has a degree off future proofing.

The Surface comes as Apple releases the iPad Mini at a lower price. It comes as Amazon releases the Kindle Fire in the UK. On the face of it, Microsoft looks set to be the laughing stock again: too late, over-priced, offering a Windows interface. An old, reliable but rather uncool gadget.

However, not everyone likes Apple. Not everyone buys into the yearly updates and mass hysteria of a new product from the company. It helps that the Surface is a great device. It takes a little getting used to unless you have a Windows Phone, so it’s not as intuitive as an iPad, but it’s of a higher spec and it has 32GB rather than the 16GB of the iPad.

Microsoft has also been splashing out. Although it - again rather ill-advisedly - looks to push two major products at the very same time, combining the Surface roll-out with Windows 8, Microsoft has spent $400m on an advertising push, and part of that shows off the unique selling point of Surface. You can snap a keyboard to this tablet, which kind of goes back to Gates’ conviction that netbooks are still important and giving buyers the best of both worlds. It looks good and it feels fine. The war is very much on.

When Microsoft unveiled the Surface in June, it was to a great reception. There were no guffaws, little criticism and the positive comments came in droves. People liked the fact the Surface had a rubber cover that doubles as a keyboard and they liked the fact the iPad had a rival that, on the face of it, is better equipped than the BlackBerry Playbook and goes way over what the Kindle Fire and Google Nexus offer.

According to Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer, the Surface is an entertainment device in the mould of the iPad, but it is unashamedly aimed at people who also don’t want to give up the full-service capabilities of their PCs, such as word processing and business tools like Microsoft Office. To that end, it’s pitched not against the iPad Mini, the Nexus, the Kindle Fire and all the other smaller tablets but at the big daddy of them all.

Making waves

It’s also a bold move for Microsoft which, after 37 years of operation, has gone all out and produced its own computer rather than let a third party like Dell do that side of the business. Gone are the days when Microsoft concentrates purely on the software. Like the Xbox 360 and the likes of Zune before it, it is trying to match Apple by controlling more of the end product. It’s a lesson learned that will stand it in better stead in the future.

The fact is people want something of quality. The Kindle Fire has impacted on the market, but it cannot be said with 100% conviction that it has eaten away at sales of the iPad and neither has the Nexus dented them too much. The fact Apple has produced a smaller version of its popular device shows that these tinier tablets are having an effect, but given the price of the iPad and the market share it has, people are not shying away, even in a time of recession, from making luxury purchases.

Microsoft’s Surface will therefore be entering a market that should not be beyond it. The main problem it will face, however, is that of marketing. It will be very difficult for Microsoft to get over the message that people should choose a Surface over the iPad. It needs to explain the consumer experience, and the way Apple has done that is by leaping off the back of the popular iPhone and by allowing consumers the chance to play around with their devices in cool and modern stores.

In June, Francisco Jeronimo, mobile devices research manager at market research firm IDC, said, “The main focus has been on the hardware and specs only. I was expecting to hear from Microsoft about how the Surface delivers an integrated experience with the PC, what additional services or features are available and how the Microsoft ecosystem is growing to be a real alternative to the iPad and Android tablets.”

Which tablet should you choose?

We have heard little since then about why we should go for the Surface. Microsoft has to explain why this device will change people’s experience with a tablet. Sure it has a USB port and it has a snap-on cover that doubles as a keyboard and that gets over the RSI tendencies and lack of connectivity of the iPad, but will it be enough? Will the Surface, far from being a rival to the iPad, actually go head-to-head against laptops? Probably not. People who want a laptop will buy a laptop and those who want a tablet will buy a tablet. The Surface is a half-way house in this respect.

So we come to the crux of things. There are four new products - the Surface, Kindle Fire, fourth-generation iPad and iPad Mini - and much dust will be thrown before things begin to settle down. The iPad’s refresh with its new Lightning connector and better processor has thrown Microsoft a bit of curve ball, but this isn’t purely the Redmond giant’s battle. Everyone is wanting a slice of a pie baked by Apple and they’ll continue to cook up new specs until they achieve it.

What of the Kindle Fire, then? Amazon’s much-heralded tablet has finally made its way outside of its launch territory of America. It can be bought for just £129 for the standard version or £159 for HD. In America, there is an 8.9” version of the Kindle HD costing $299, which is around half the price of the comparable iPad but this isn’t coming to the UK. Amazon has said that it does not intend the Kindle Fire to be a competitor to the iPad and you can take it from that that it won’t be competing against the Nexus or iPad Mini either.

That’s because the Kindle Fire - which is said to be sold at a loss - is more of a consumer device. In delivering magazines, newspapers, books, films and music via Amazon’s enviable service, it dispenses with features such as a back camera, although it does have a front facing one as well as stereo speakers and an HDMI port in the HD models, the latter allowing for the tablet to connect to a television. The touch-screen is laminated, which reduces sun glare. The Kindle has two wi-fi antennas and multiple-input and multiple-output radio wave technology. Yet it’s not aimed at being a portable, powerful handheld computer and it’s not supposed to be something that you massively expand with apps, although more than 50,000 are available. The main idea is that you use it to consume content from Amazon. It’s what the iPhone was to some degree when it was launched.

Hard competition

“I’m very impressed with the Kindle Fire on a number of fronts,” says Rob Enderle, principal technology analyst at the Enderle Group. “Unlike most others who seem to be trying to compete with Apple on Apple’s terms (almost never successful), Amazon is trying to change the game and force Apple to compete on Amazon’s terms by moving to a services focused revenue model. It isn’t the hardware, as good as it is, that is the magic of this, it is the depth of the services and the result is a compelling comparatively inexpensive package of hardware/software/services that on paper provides a substantially better value that Apple may find it nearly impossible to match.”

This means that the Kindle Fire is more of a stand-alone tablet - a good second buy perhaps or something for those who don’t want the power of the Nexus 7 or iPad. But it will have an impact? It has taken 22% of the market in America, so the pounds spent on the Kindle Fire may be fewer pounds spent on the other tablets.

“It will most likely remove much of the demand for the Android products because they are vastly more exposed to this because their fan base and customer loyalty is far smaller and weaker,” Enderle argues. “This may be game over for Android tablets, which is interesting given Google should have been able to get where Amazon is first but that would mean paying the OEMs to use Android not just providing it for free. In the end while this showcases that Apple’s model may now be out of date, it may also showcase that Google’s model, at least for tablets, never was really competitive.”

Apple is continuing to plod along, dominating the market. There have been disappointments. The iPhone update showed little spark, providing little more than a faster processor and a slightly larger screen and annoying many with a poor maps app and a new connector, which is now becoming standard across the iOS device range.

For a consumer base looking for great things after the iPhone 4, the 4S and 5 have hardly been major leaps and it has left many disappointed. The iPad, however, continues to surprise. Apple’s device dominates like nothing else and the iPad Mini is going to consolidate that position for some time. Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for marketing, was quick to criticise the Nexus 7 tablet, pointing to its plastic build quality and noting that the Mini’s screen has 29.6 inches of screen space, compared to 21.9 inches for the Nexus tablet.

Apple vs Android

It’s clear Apple knows what its major competitor is. It helps Apple that the quality of the apps on iPad are amazingly high. The vetting process by Apple ensures that they are free from viruses and spyware and there is none of the shovelware that is often seen on Android. The lower levels of piracy on the iPad also works in favour of the consumer. Developers are more likely to put money into iOS products than on other formats, because of the fear that piracy will eat away at their profits. It has been shown time and again that more money is made on iOS devices than on Android and this leads to better quality all round.

This is also true of games, with the iPad having more titles than the Nexus at the moment. However, the whole tablet market is buoyant. Jason Kingsley, chairman of videogame trade body TIGA and the boss of Rebellion, points to the 84% year-on-year rise in iPad sales in the third quarter ending 30th June and the fact Google has halted new orders for the 16GB Nexus 7 after major demand.
“The quality and proliferation of tablet devices provides exciting prospects for studios in the UK,” he says. “For years, we have seen the potential these devices offer for gaming. More crucially, we have seen the fresh markets they open up, taking games to people who may otherwise not consider playing. Tablets and smartphones have the potential to widen the gaming market and turn millions more to gaming.”

What this does is make it difficult to declare a winner. The iPad Mini could eat into sales of the iPad as much as it will inevitably provide direct competition for the Google Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. Of all of the devices, the iPad Mini is the one that is most likely to succeed because the price of £269 and the familiarity of the brand, tied in with the build quality and number of apps will turn heads among those who are only buying other brands because they’re more affordable.

Apple CEO Tim Cook summed it up nicely when he said, “It seems like every day there’s another tablet shipping, but when you look at the ones being used it tells a different story. iPad accounts for 91% of web traffic .... Why is iPad so phenomenally successful? People love their iPads - the big display, the fast fluid responsiveness, the front camera for FaceTime and the rear iSight camera, which takes photos and video, they love that they can connect anywhere they can go, they love iPad’s all-day battery life, and all of the amazing apps that have been optimised for iPad.”

Room for any more?

However, the price of the iPad Mini means there’s still room for others. In the midst of all of this market shifting is Microsoft with its half-way house, but it’s important in this market to come up with something that is different. That is indeed what we have. The Kindle Fire is, as we’ve said, a device that is more about consuming and taking content from Amazon. The Google Nexus is a brilliant, adaptable and feature-packed Android tablet that is a snip at the price. The iPad Mini taps into the high-quality environment of iOS in the same manner as the iPad and the Surface is the true bridge between laptop and tablet, attempting to fudge and offer the best of both worlds. But is Microsoft being too traditional and missing the point?

Indeed, as with all speculation, some are right, some are wrong. Where Apple was scorned for producing a tablet in the first place by those who felt that a phone sorted out those who wanted pocked-sized computing on the go and a laptop was good for heavy duty work (just where would a tablet fit among all of this, they asked?), it has now confused things even further with a Russian doll approach. Will Apple fans buy the lot and decide on which size they feel happiest with at that moment in time or will the iPad Mini come to be seen as the poor man’s iPad?

“Personally, I’m all for iOS and Android,” says Christopher Kassulke, CEO of HandyGames, “and I love both the iPad and the Nexus. I’m happy with both of these. For some it’s a ‘religion’ but for me both are tools that make my life easier. The quality of the iPad and the Nexus are great, but I think that the competition for the iPad Mini will actually be the iPad or the iPhone rather than the Kindle Fire or Nexus. In my opinion, I am sure the biggest ‘loser’ of that discussion is the third platform...”

Which again brings us back to the Surface. Is it going to be like Windows Phone and take a third place spot while the attention continues to be on Android and iOS? Or will Microsoft surprise us all with a marketing drive that is perfect enough for it to make a major in-road? It’s not beyond Microsoft to pull off some more of the magic that saw the Xbox 360 pulling the cooler end of the gaming market aboard the evil ship Microsoft, is it? Only time will tell.

Wait and see

And so we leave things wide open. A tablet war that has many sides, lots of supporters and a major winner in the consumer who chooses the right one. It’s akin to the the Commodore 64-Spectrum-Amstrad CPC wars all over again and we will invite a storm of protest by arguing that the iPad is the C64, the Nexus and Kindle are the disk and cassette versions of the Spectrum, with the Surface similar to the CPC: a great machine but sitting on the outside trying to prove it’s worth a look.

It leaves a final question of which side of the playground you’re arguing from. One thing’s for sure, Steve Jobs was right when he launched the iPad. We didn’t know we needed tablets at the time, but now they’re here, they’re here to stay.