iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro: Generating Success From Initial Failure

Both of these new products are similar to earlier designs that weren't very successful.
Posted September 15, 2015
By

Rob Enderle


What is amazing about the Apple iPad Pro is that, from a hardware standpoint, it is basically a netbook once you add the keyboard. The Microsoft Surface Pro, on the other hand, is essentially a convertible Windows tablet.

If we were living a decade ago, the iPad Pro/netbook would be a not-so-funny joke that we wouldn’t buy. But a lot has changed over the last ten to first years. Same with Surface: Windows laptops in the 12” range and Windows convertible tablets would also have seemed like a bad joke ten years ago.

Now here we are in 2015 and both products are viable and attractive, strangely, for similar reasons. There are lessons here n perseverance from Microsoft and in waiting until the technology is ready from Apple that we should remember and learn from.

How could two initially failed designs change the laptop landscape?

Netbook vs. Windows Convertible Tablet

Both products were good ideas badly executed. The netbook was generally a very inexpensive laptop using an early version of Intel Atom or ARM processors that booted and ran a couple applications. Its one “feature” was that it was cheap. But with a tiny screen, mediocre keyboard and an inability to run much in the way of applications, it was largely stillborn.

The 2000-era Windows tablet came in two forms: the slate and the convertible. The slate, which enjoyed some success in vertical markets, was the most focused, while the convertible was supposed to be a laptop that could change into a tablet. The problem was that it had horrid battery life, it was heavy and it was relatively expensive. You paid a premium for what was an inferior experience. After a better initial spike than the netbook had, the design faded into really small shipment numbers similar to netbooks.

Interestingly, both products typically had screens at or below 12". Buyers really didn’t like the idea of either having a lower-resolution cheap 12” screen on netbooks or paying extra to have a smaller high resolution touchscreen on a laptop that could occasionally become a heavy and expensive tablet.

iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro

But the market learned from both products. Apple’s iPad Pro is a netbook without the compromises of a netbook, and the Surface Pro is a convertible Windows tablet without the expense, heavy design or poor battery life.

Because the iPad Pro is coming up from an iPad, the screen looks big and uncompromised to buyers. Because the Surface Pro has a current-generation Intel processor, the battery life and carry weight are acceptable, and the product performs well as either a tablet or a full-fledged laptop computer.

Both products could use some help with their keyboards. The iPad Pro keyboard needs to be lit and should have a touch pad (so it works more like a laptop and you don’t cover the screen with fingerprints), while the Surface Pro keyboard needs to be a bit more robust and could use a bigger/better touchpad.

In use the iPad Pro gets access to all of the iPad apps but won’t run Mac applications that haven’t been ported to it. Microsoft is light on the apps available to iOS and Android but has far more legacy business apps that will run on Windows. Both products have decent browsers, and most recently, both will a version of Microsoft Office.

Thinking back about all the folks I watched struggling and then giving up trying to use the iPad for work and all of us that wanted to love the Windows tablet but ended up hating it, the iPad Pro and Surface Pro are collectively what we wanted all of the time.

However, these product still force an ugly choice.

Ideally we’d like to have all of the tablet apps from the iPad Pro and all of the legacy apps on the Surface Pro on one product. You can get a Windows emulator for the Mac, but there isn’t enough performance headroom to run one on the iPad or iPad Pro. There is plenty of headroom on the Surface Pro to run an emulator, but Apple won’t license one. Instead, Microsoft has created a developers platform, making migrating it brain-dead easy to port iOS and Android apps to, but developers still have to do the work.

Ideas Whose Time Has Come

It is kind of funny how things work out. The idea of a tablet that could morph into a lightweight laptop with great battery life has always been attractive. The netbook was light and inexpensive, but it was also cheaply built and didn’t run much. The Windows convertible notebook was well built and would run a lot of apps, but it was excessively expensive, heavy, and had poor battery life. Both have been replaced with far more capable products in the iPad Pro and the Surface Pro, which are well matched. However, this is the iPad Pro version 1.0 and the Surface Pro 3.0. The < ahref="http://www.pcworld.com/article/2983837/hardware/microsofts-expected-to-reveal-surface-pro-4-flagship-phones-and-more-at-october-6-event.html">Surface Pro 4.0is due shortly, and I expect Apple will make some huge improvements in less than a year with the iPad Pro 2.0.

In any case we move from a couple of lousy choices in the netbook and the Windows convertible to a couple decent products in the iPad Pro and Surface Pro. It's funny how failures can be turned into successes if the vendors just listen to the market and build what folks actually want.

I’d suggest waiting until Surface Pro 4 ships, but then check out both products and pick the one that best fits your needs. If things go as I expect, in a few short years, a future version of one of these products will likely replace the laptop as our preferred work PC. Stranger things have happened.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.






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