Tale of Two Tablets – Incrementalism Versus a ‘Whole New Thing’

by Jim Lyons | 8/7/13
Over the last several weeks, two contenders for leadership in the tablet computer wars have revealed key metrics that give us an interesting glimpse into where the world of mobile workflow may be headed. And based on the numbers, the fortunes of the Microsoft Surface and Apple iPad appear to be on significantly different trajectories.

Of course, the Apple iPad more or less invented the category of tablet computers with its introduction in 2010. Its fast sales pace right out of the gate was impressive, and new models (including the smaller and cheaper iPad Mini) have fueled tremendous growth, even though the recently completed quarter (the third of Apple’s fiscal year) revealed a decline to below 15 million units compared to 17 million quarterly units a year ago and a peak over 20 million in the first quarter of 2013. The iPad’s success as one of the fastest-selling products of all time is undisputed, with the cyclical ups and downs dependent upon surges around new product intros (that 20 million quarter, for instance, coincides with the iPad Mini’s release, and Apple has released nothing new in the category since). And Apple achieved this all with the backdrop of an ever-increasing number of competitors – notably Amazon’s Fire, Google’s (and Asus’) Nexus 7, and Samsung’s Galaxy.

Going back just a year, Microsoft introduced its Surface tablet for shipment later that year. Through one lens, it seemed to be the tablet computer that filled needs unmet by the iPad and others, touting more laptop-like features including slots for USB peripherals and SD cards, a high-functioning physical keyboard and immediate built-in printing capability (that feature on the iPad took awhile). I sized up the Surface’s prospects, especially in the printing and imaging realm, in another post I wrote (see: “How does Microsoft’s new tablet relate to Printing and Imaging?”) and considered Microsoft’s prospects versus the iPad’s and other tablets’. A tablet like Surface with a closer match-up, feature by feature, with laptops could be just what the category needed to bring mobile workflow ever more into the mainstream.

As it turns out, though, it seems the iPad and its Android wannabes are winning this fight by offering more of a “whole new thing” and bringing mobile workflow along with them. As part of its quarterly results (also in July), Microsoft reported a $900 million inventory write-down of the slow-moving Surface – and this after considerable price reductions. Several good analyses offered explanations; one by ZDNet’s Mary Jo Foley explored Microsoft’s clearly (in retrospect) overly optimistic forecasts for the Surface (see: “Microsoft’s $900 million Surface RT write-down: How did this happen?”), and another by The New York Times’ Nick Bilton compared the Surface and iPad more bluntly: “Why the Surface RT Failed and the iPad Did Not.” In the latter analysis, Bilton stated (and I agree) that the Surface, by emulating the products it is designed to replace, turns the virtue of its flexible connections and options into a negative, while the world seeks something less complicated and far easier to use “by an order of magnitude,” as we used to say in the tech business.

So mobile workflow, as accessed and controlled by iPads and Android tablets at an ever-increasing rate, will look different than what we are accustomed to and what it is replacing, even if the desired outcomes remain basically the same. The majority of the time in the tech industry, steady, incremental product improvements win the day. But this time, it’s the rarer and more drastic “paradigm shift” that’s coming out on top, and workflow solutions are following along with the “whole new thing” approach leveraged by the popular tablet computers of the day, joining the “less is more” movement.

Jim Lyons


Jim Lyons has been writing, analyzing and blogging about industry developments since 2006. In his monthly Observations column he comments on business and marketing developments in the printing and imaging industry, combining many years of experience with an ever-enthusiastic eye on the future. In the Jim Lyons Observations column on The Imaging Channel, highlights from that blog appear monthly. Lyons is also a faculty member at the University of Phoenix, teaching marketing and economics at its school of business, and writes the “Goin’ Mobile” blog for Workflow online. Follow him on Twitter @jflyons and read more of Jim Lyons Observations at http://www.jimlyonsobservations.com/.