Microsoft is making tablets do what the iPad can't

The biggest tech companies in the world — Apple, Google, and Microsoft — all held big events last month to introduce tons of new tech.

But the biggest takeaway from these events is that Microsoft, not Apple, is guiding the future of the tablet.

Three years ago, this statement would have been impossible to make.

In June 2012, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer introduced the first-generation Surface and Surface Pro tablets, which were the first PCs designed and distributed by Microsoft. Surface Pro, which could run the full version of Windows 8, worked with two detechable keyboards.

But those computers, which started at $US500 and $US1,000, respectively, received meager reviews from critics and didn’t fare much better with customers: The following year, Microsoft reported a writedown of $US900 million due to poor Surface sales.

Meanwhile, Apple’s tablet was on top of the world. A few months before Microsoft unveiled the Surface tablet, Apple had released its third-generation iPad — the first tablet with a Retina display — and its App Store had more than 200,000 native iPad apps across a range of categories. By June, Apple had captured more than 60% of the global tablet market share.

A changing landscape

Three years later, Apple is still the world’s top tablet maker with roughly 25% of the global market share, but iPad sales have been slipping. And last month, Apple unveiled its first iPad Pro — a tablet with an attachable keyboard and even a stylus, which looks eerily similar to Microsoft’s Surface offering. (The addition of the stylus is of particular note, considering Apple’s cofounder Steve Jobs once railed against the use of styluses for touch-optimised devices.)

Even Google last month introduced a tablet that’s similar to Microsoft’s Surface: the Pixel C, an Android tablet with an attachable keyboard (sold separately).

Meanwhile, Microsoft is moving full steam ahead with its Surface line: Last week, the company introduced the Surface Pro 4, which is head and shoulders above its predecessor, as well as its first ever laptop called Surface Book: a high-end laptop that lets you remove the monitor and use it as a standalone tablet.

What’s most interesting about Microsoft’s strategy is the company doesn’t compare the Surface to the iPad; rather, it compares the Surface to Apple’s bestselling Mac lineup. At its Surface event last week, Microsoft compared the Surface Pro 4 to the MacBook Air, and compared the Surface Book to the MacBook Pro.

This is where Microsoft’s tablet strategy differs from other companies: Both Apple and Google make tablets that run mobile operating systems, but Microsoft’s Surface line runs the same operating system you’d find on the company’s desktop PCs. So, while Apple and Google advertise their tablets as hardware for mobile productivity, Microsoft believes its Surface products can be used for every scenario: at a stationary work desk, on the go, or anywhere in between.

Surface also appeals to two groups of people that don’t typically use tablets for work: artists, and businesspeople, particularly in the enterprise. With its unique pen and keyboard, which add great functionality to the tablet, Surface is great for any kind of drawing or illustration, but it’s also good for productivity, since you can still use full versions of Microsoft’s Office apps.

Ipad pro apple penSteve Kovach/Tech InsiderDoes the new iPad Pro look familiar to you?

Microsoft’s tablets are in a great position, but the company still has a ways to go. According to J.D. Power’s tablet satisfaction survey from May, Apple and Samsung are scored “among the best” in the tablet category, while Microsoft is just behind Amazon in customer satisfaction at “about average.” But according to Microsoft SVP Panos Panay, 98% of people using Surface Pro 3 recommend it to their friends and family.

It’s safe to say Apple and Google want a piece of Microsoft’s Surface formula. Though adding a keyboard and a stylus is hardly revolutionary, Microsoft was the first company to go “all-in” on this concept of a tablet that’s capable of laptop activities (when you add a couple of specially-designed accessories — sold separately of course), and it’s worked well at attracting customers.

Microsoft’s new Surface computers arrive at the end of this month, while Apple’s new iPad Pro won’t arrive until November. Considering the popularity of the iPad, it’s likely Apple will maintain its market share lead over other tablet makers. But Microsoft is now turning heads with its own devices, as it innovates in the space that Apple once pioneered just a half-decade ago. As tablets improve and evolve, it will be interesting to see how these companies inspire each other. We look forward to reviewing these rival devices and others like it.

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