Sunday, May 26, 2013

When it Comes to Tablets, Microsoft is Overplaying its Hand

Perhaps inspired by a burning desire to do a "gotcha" over the historic "Mac vs. PC" ads, where a guy who needed a shave pokes fun at a pudgy guy in a suit, or perhaps inspired by the increasingly tiresome, "You have an iPhone? Let me show you this cool feature in my Samsung" ads, Microsoft is taking a potshot at the iPad:

The ad makes three basic criticisms of the iPad:
  1. 1. It has a relatively bland, traditional desktop whereas Windows 8 uses "smart tiles" that continuously update;

  2. 2. It does not multi-task; and

  3. 3. Microsoft has dropped the ball when it comes to writing software for iOS.

It then presents an intentionally misleading price comparison between the iPad and an entry level Windows tablet (with a much lower resolution screen1 and plastic case).

The first two issues are in no small part about power management. I can't tell you the degree to which Apple may incorporate multi-tasking or updating in the next version of iOS, which will include a significant revision of much of the user interface, but history suggests that Apple will continue to favor long battery life over power-draining features that have limited utility. Don't get me wrong - I would like Apple to allow users to have greater choice, even if it means that they will need to recharge their iPads more often. But it's highly misleading to suggest, "Our new mobile OS is really cool" without addressing how that coolness affects battery life and performance.

In terms of iOS not offering Microsoft Excel, well, yeah... Microsoft has delayed producing a version of Office for iOS to the degree that it's difficult to infer any motive but Microsoft's traditional, "Delay upgrading and offer inferior versions of Office for Apple products." Perhaps their next commercial will show some sort of Zune software running on the Windows tablet, with iTunes running on the iPad? My, how turnabout can sting.

Right now I'll admit to having more computers in my house than occupants. One is OS-X, two are Windows 7. And we also have a couple of tablets. The people who claim that tablets are mere toys, or are about to go the way of the Dodo, either haven't used one or aren't paying attention to how they're used. Games aside, a tablet is an incredibly useful tool for consuming online content - checking email, browsing the web, watching streamed or stored video, video conferencing and the like. Responding, "I can do all of that on my desktop or notebook" misses the point - the convenience and portability factor. A few years ago if you went to an airport you would see a lot of people working on notebook computers, trying to scrounge an outlet. These days you see an even larger number of people using tablets to read or otherwise entertain themselves, and notebook users have a lot less competition for those outlets.

But if I'm trying to type or edit a document, work on a spreadsheet, or do any sort of complex or multi-window task, I want to be at my desktop computer with a large monitor and keyboard. It may well be that I would be impressed with the touchscreen UI for Excel. I doubt it, given how unimpressed I am with the touchscreen UI for Windows 8, but Microsoft could surprise me. But what would I do if I actually needed to work on a spreadsheet? I would set down the tablet and use either one of our portable computers or my desktop computer - because they're better designed for that kind of work.

The Samsung ads, in my opinion, have devolved from being cute and funny to, more or less, showing Samsung owners wearing out their own arms by patting themselves on the back.2 Oddly enough, Microsoft seems to understand this, even if they don't actually present a reason to buy a Windows phone other than "It's not an Apple or a Samsung".

The difference is this: If I weigh the pros and cons of the various smartphones available today, I can come up with valid reasons why I might prefer a Samsung over an Apple, or vice versa. If I put the two phones next to each other and run various tasks, I am going to see why I might prefer one over the other.

But if I were to recreate the comparison from Microsoft's commercial at an electronics store, putting the Asus tablet next to an iPad and running various apps, I would not have the experience depicted in the commercial. I would immediately see that the Samsung had an inferior build and display. And from the reviews I've read, I would see the Asus tablet slow down or become momentarily non-responsive when multi-tasking. I might notice that the battery has a significantly lower capacity than that of the iPad, and while crediting advances in CPU technology for its reasonably long battery life nonetheless recognize that the battery life is extended by the use of the much lower-resolution screen. Reviews indicate that I would find the cameras in the ASUS to be of good quality, but that I would likely be displeased by the camera software. And while the tablet might perform better if it weren't running a full version of Windows 8, without that you would have to drop the "And look how well it runs Microsoft software" part of the ad.

I'm reminded of the highly effective commercials Microsoft ran, touting the sub-$1,000 entry price for Windows notebook computers. I'm also reminded of how that series of commercials fizzled out when Apple started offering sub-$1,000 notebooks and Microsoft started touting lower price points - instead of comparing computers of reasonably comparable build and performance, getting into a quality of build and performance that no reasonable consumer would find to be a compelling point of comparison to the Apple product.

If Microsoft's goal is to get buzz, the victory goes to Microsoft - here I am talking about their products. But if its goal is to convince consumers to buy Windows tablets, the commercial seems to oversell the product, creating the potential for customer dissatisfaction at a time when Microsoft needs to build a significant user base for its tablets and risks increasing consumer skepticism of its marketing pitches.
1. The Asus screen offers 1,366 x 768 pixels, for a pixel density of 155 ppi. The iPad offers 2048 x 1536-pixels, for a pixel density of 264 ppi.

2. Commercials I would like to see:
"Why are you and that other guy bumping your phones together?"
"My phone has this awesome feature that allows me to exchange data by bumping it into somebody else's phone, does your phone do that?"
"Um... my phone has email."

"Hey, you're using an iPhone. Wanna see this really cool feature my phone has that yours doesn't have yet? No? You said 'No?' What do you mean, you wouldn't use that feature? What do you mean, 'pro's and con's to every phone'?"

"You waited in line to buy your phone? I got a phone that nobody waits in line for. Wait, that didn't come out the way I wanted."

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