Surface Pro 3 and the latest iPad Air have been out for a while and they have recently been supplemented with the new MacBook and Surface 3. In looking at comparisons, I think most reviewers are missing the point because Surface isn’t just an alternative to the iPad or MacBook; it is an alternative to the MacBook and iPad. One of its core features is that it allows you to leave one of these products at home. So the comparison shouldn’t be to just the MacBook but to the dual use of a MacBook and iPad.
I’ve been carrying a Surface Pro 3 for some time now and it has become clear why most of my peers have swapped out their iPads and MacBook Airs for Surface Pro 3s.
Part of what defines a product is something we call a “Use Case” this defines how a product will be used and it should define how it evolves. In this instance the Use Case is someone that needs both a large tablet and a laptop computer. They can either carry one blended convertible or hybrid device, Intel (News - Alert) calls these 2 in 1s, or carry two products like the full sized iPad and the new MacBook.
The goal is the best blend of battery life, functionality, convenience, lowest complexity, and portability. The two device approach has several advantages, each device is optimized for what it does best and battery life can be the addition of the two devices (in other words with two devices you can run one completely down and still have the other to work with).
The advantages with regard to the single device approach is that you get lower weight, less complexity, and you sustain state. This last point can be important to some; let’s say you want to transfer what you are reading or watching on the laptop to a hand held tablet experience—with the 2 in 1 you just remove or fold back the keyboard. With two devices you’ll have to transfer the entire experience. In addition, if you want 4G Wan Data you need two plans or a portable access point for two devices.
Finally there are cost advantages to the 2-in-1 approach, at least there are now with the Surface and Surface Pro 3. The Surface 3 costs about what an iPad does saving the cost of the MacBook and the Surface Pro 3 costs a little less than the new MacBook saving the cost of the iPad.
So the iPad and MacBook are better optimized and have collectively far better battery life, while the Surface products are between $500 and $1,000 cheaper, retain state, are lighter, and far less complex.
iPad Pro and the end of MacOS
The iPad Pro is expected to approach the Surface concept in that it is a 12” class device that is designed to function as both a laptop like device and a tablet. However here we run into Apple’s (News - Alert) problem, which is the same problem that Microsoft had previously with Surface RT. And that is Apps. The business apps they’ll probably want this product to run are currently mostly on the MacBook operating system and not on iOS, and a lot of these are likely legacy apps. They don’t have the massive problem here that Microsoft (News - Alert) (News - Alert) does but this problem will mostly impact Apple accounts, and pissing off companies that have been loyal Apple users is never a good idea.
Also running ARM (News - Alert) (News - Alert) against x86 for a business based product should give the x86 product an advantage which could force Apple to move to x86 for their iPad Pro but that would bifurcate iOS and we just saw Microsoft fail at this. Now I expect they will get around this by virtualizing many apps (both Apple and Windows) on IBM’s SoftLayer (News - Alert) (News - Alert) service and there now is a version of Microsoft Office that runs native on iOS. But to work right they’ll need both good bandwidth and low latency which is getting better, but isn’t yet reliable in most hotels or any airplanes. That should change by the end of the decade but until then, particularly on airplanes, we’ll be living off of local apps. Still I think most would be fine with Office and the existing pool of iOS applications and a 4G service to get around hotel throttling.
But, in the end, the iPad Pro will be an iOS based laptop/tablet hybrid that doesn’t run the Mac OS, and for existing MacBook users that could be a problem that might force them to make the same kind of decision that Microsoft did but likely favoring ARM over x86 because that is where iOS runs now. In short, the iPad Pro should mean the eventual end of the Mac OS, a process that folks have been speculating about for some time.
Wrapping Up: Choices
We don’t yet have the full Apple/IBM (News - Alert) solution for the iPad Pro and it is virtually impossible to make a recommendation until we know for sure what the two companies will be providing. It will be much more of an alternative to Surface, but on iOS rather than Mac OS the legacy support solution could be as ugly as it was on the old Surface RT product. Apple still leads on apps, at least on the iOS, and those apps drift solidly into business where Windows still remains king.
Interestingly I find even with the Surface I still carry a small tablet to read with, though as my phone gets larger I expect I’ll be dropping it in favor of the phone over time. The product you’ll prefer will likely have to do with the apps you run (and where they run), your dependencies on Apple, IBM, and/or Microsoft and just how mobile you are.
I think the long term competitive advantages will be on apps (local + cloud), preserving state, battery life, and connectivity and that eventually we’ll end up with two linked devices, a phone and a tablet/notebook hybrid. Whoever eventually does all of that best will win the market. With the same OS on Notebooks, Tablets, and Phones at the end of the year Microsoft appears to be farther down that eventual path, with the exception of apps, at the moment making me wonder if Apple is aware they are looking at another Windows 95 event. We’ll know in a few months. Until then change is again in the wind and if you don’t like change this will be an ugly year for you.