It was not supposed to be this way. With the Surface getting better and the tablet market in seeming decline, Apple’s oversized iPad Pro was seen by many as being cannon fodder for the Surface brigade, not least because of the mixed reviews the former got as compared to the largely positive response to the Surface range. And yet, when IDC released figures for the tablet sales for the last quarter of 2015, the iPad Pro had pretty much outsold the entire Surface range, in spite of being introduced later in the quarter and having a generally higher price tag.
Why did this happen?
We are not privy to the thought process of the consumers but we did discuss the matter with a few of our colleagues and a few retail players (who would not like to be named) and well, we think these six reasons might have played a role in the rather surprising turnaround (we would like to stress the word “think” here – this is not the gospel truth, but just our opinion, arrived at after discussions):
Radical change works better than marginal updates
After a series of largely similar looking iPads, Apple went and did something radically different. Perhaps that was the shot in the arm the tablet segment was looking for, burdened as it was by similarity. Microsoft’s decision to stick to a largely similar format for the Surface might have made it look slightly less ‘exciting.’ “It looked too similar to the Surface Pro 3,” a retailer complained, saying users were not being able to tell the difference between the new Surface and its predecessor – Microsoft’s technological coup in squeezing a larger display into the frame of its predecessor might have had an unwanted design repercussion.
Strange though it may seem when you consider that Apple is considered a ‘niche’ product manufacturer and Microsoft a more mainstream one, Apple made the iPad available to more people than the Surface was. In terms of launch strategy, Apple pretty much threw the kitchen sink at the iPads and iPad Pro, while Microsoft opened a water tap. Even in a market like India, which gets devices months after their international launch (if at all – hey, the first Nexus and iPhone NEVER came here officially), we have had every edition of the iPad reasonably fast. The Surface, however, made its debut here only this year, after having been around for a few years. Talk of missing out on massive potential numbers.
The accessory add-on
This is something almost all the people we talked to commented on. The Apple Pencil and keyboard cover were seen as add-ons to the device, while in the case of the Surface, the keyboard was almost a necessity. Now, neither the iPad Pro nor the Surface devices ship with keyboard covers out of the box, but whereas the iPad Pro without a keyboard is just a larger iPad, the Surface devices are like Windows devices without keyboards. “You HAVE to buy a keyboard with the Surface,” a friend of ours pointed out. “And you do not have to do that with the iPad Pro.” And of course, adding the Type Cover to the Surface drove up its price, which many felt might have driven away consumers. There was also the feeling that the Apple Pencil was better designed for work than the Surface Pen, even though the latter was more fully featured, so bundling the Pen with the Surface Pro did not have the sort of impact people had imagined it would. We don’t know the financials involved in the move, but we think that a trick was missed in not bundling the type keyboard with the Surface.
The OS/ UI edge
The iPad Pro’s iOS UI had the edge over Windows 10 in case of touchscreen use. And once again, we go back to the “notebook vs tablet” issue here – the iPad Pro’s UI was perfect for a tablet, while the Surface was coping with a UI that was designed also for a desktop. Yes, it did bring in benefits like USB support and a file explorer system, but on the flip side, the iPad Pro just seems to work more smoothly and – we are coming to this again – does not seem to be missing a keyboard. “We had a tough time telling people how it was different from a normal notebook with a touchscreen,” a salesperson at a Microsoft retail store in Delhi admitted. Imagine Apple having launched the iPad Pro with a touch version of Mac OS X, and you will get the idea.
The appy advantage
This flows from the OS/UI edge – the iPad Pro simply came with more apps that could work with it than the Surface series did. Yes, the state of affairs at the Windows Store is improving every day but iOS has the lead there for the time being, and once again, there is the little matter of apps working better on the iPad Pro rather than the Surface – we did mention how the on-screen keyboard would not open in MS Word in the Surface when in tablet mode in our Surface Pro 4 Diaries. And well, for many people, the time the Surface takes to switch orientation from portrait to landscape within many apps is itself an annoyance.
The Surface’s positioning
In the early eighties, the Indian cricket team was very confused about the role of a player called Ravi Shastri – yes, he was a great player, but people were not too sure about what his exact role was: was he batsman who can bowl a bit or a bowler who can bat a bit? We get the same feeling with the Surface. Yes, it is a great device. But is it a notebook with touch or a tablet that can type a bit? In our opinion, it is very much the former, but Microsoft’s insistence on labelling it a ‘tablet’ has actually weakened its cause as the OS and UI are not the best for a tablet. We actually think that the Surface would be better off going toe to toe with other notebooks, as it easily one of the best portable Windows devices we have ever used, rather than being projected as a tablet with a Type Cover. Apple on the other hand, cleverly positioned the iPad Pro as a productivity device, differentiating it from the earlier iPads.