Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tablet Wars

No, not anything to do with the war on drugs.

One thing Apple does well is secret. The 23 October iPad mini launch was widely leaked, though the originally rumoured date earlier in October passed uneventfully. What did take everyone by surprise was a major overhaul of the full-sized iPad. There had been some rumours of an iMac update; I don’t recall seeing any rumours of a Mac mini update.

All of this of course was designed to upstage the Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface launch scheduled for 26 October.

It remains to be seen whether people really want something closer to a full computer in this form factor. Once you add a mouse or trackpad, you can’t hold it in your hand any more, and stylus-based devices have been around more than 10 years and never sold in big numbers. The kick stand is not a great design feature, because it implies the need for a firm surface, reducing again the scenarios when you can use it comfortably. Currently this space is owned by Apple and Android variants (Kindle Fire, Samsung) and Microsoft does not have the app base to take them on. If you are going to buy one of these as a notebook alternative, why not get a notebook?

I bought an iPad mainly because it gave me the option to take something much lighter to a conference, where I need to read email and give a presentation. When I have that option, it works pretty well for me. If I need a real computer, I bring that instead, so I don’t need to compromise on issues like keyboard quality and a poor alternative to a mouse or track pad.

It will be great if Microsoft can bring new competition to this space, but I have my doubts (and an early review is not too promising). An important thing to understand what business a company is really in. Although most people focus on Apple’s hardware and the question of what value it really represents, Apple’s real competitive edge is in a huge bank of credit card numbers. If they wanted to switch their business model tomorrow to slim margins on hardware and making most of their money from their app and iTunes stores, they could. Microsoft on the other hand has built a business out of high-margin software. How can they turn that around overnight?

Check this out: current total app count in Windows 8 RTM Store = 4,284 (mostly free); compare with iOS total available apps: 694,566 and current number of Android apps in the market: 548,200.

The real big killer number is Apple has (at last count I’ve found) 435-million credit card numbers. Only Amazon is in likely to be in this league: a much higher fraction of of Android customers only download free stuff.

As for the new Windows look of huge fat, flat icons, if it works as badly as the Ubuntu Unity interface (some say worse), meh.

Back to Apple’s announcements: I’ll hold off judgment on whether the iPad mini is too expensive for the market (vs. more expensive than I’d like it to be). The overhaul of the bigger iPad is unexpected, and an indication that Apple is not willing to let Microsoft steal any territory back from them. The Surface RT (ARM processor, not able to run most Windows software) is the target. The Surface Pro will have to take its chances selling against Ultrabooks that are a little heavier and work better as a full computer. The ultra-thin iMac is an engineering marvel; my 2009 27" iMac has just had to go in for repairs because of a recall on its 1TB drive; had Apple designed it to be easy to repair as well as to look good, they could have couriered the drive to me rather than requiring that I send the whole machine in to repair.

Looking great is important, but if you end up with a Lamborghini that needs a specialist technician with special tools to service, even if it only costs as much to buy as a BMW, you have a practicality problem. So I am genuinely disappointed that no one is seriously competitive with Apple in the things it does best: providing a seamless end-to-end experience centred on the user.
This article lists Microsoft's lessons from the Zune fiasco. Did they learn? I have my doubts. Microsoft's development model, cemented by the success of Windows 95 at a time when Apple was floundering, is to get at least two iterations wrong: design refinement on the back of customers. With Apple on top form, I'm not placing any bets on the once good old strategy.

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