Microsoft Surface, the keyboard, and the big question tablets can't escape

Microsoft Surface, the keyboard, and the big question tablets can't escape

Summary: Most tablets are used for consuming content, not creating it — and while adding a keyboard fixes some of that, it brings with it even more challenges.


The way Microsoft's Surface tablet is being packaged is a little noticed detail — but it's a key one to the product's success.

It's offered in three packages — a 64GB Surface with Black Touch Cover (the combined keyboard and cover) for £559; 32GB with Black Touch Cover for £479; and a 32GB tablet without Touch Cover for £399.

Surface tablet
The keyboard could be crucial to the Surface tablet's success.

While having two of the three options come with a keyboard is hardly a ringing endorsement of the touch-centric UI Microsoft is pushing, the keyboard's inclusion is likely to be vital to the broader success of Surface.

Here's why: to my mind, tablets are still content consumption devices, rather than content creation devices — which will limit their attractiveness to many users.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes has a different take on this, and believes that the keyboard's presence is a mistake. While I understand his argument, I see the inclusion of the keyboard as symptomatic of the broader problem with tablets when it comes to productivity. The question they can't escape is this: can anyone actually work on a tablet without a keyboard?

Consumption vs creation

Fundamentally I'm not convinced that tablets are used for content creation. Most tablets are being used to consume, not create. And my sense is also that in business, right now, most tablets are being used by workers that don't actually create content.

Most tablets are being used to consume, not create

They're either being used by executives who are far too grand to ever type more than the odd note, or sales staff who just want to deliver presentations using a flashy new piece of hardware.

I don't know of many workers who will choose a tablet for data entry, or writing a report. You can, of course, type on a tablet screen if you have to — I could retype War and Peace on my iPhone if I really had to — but it's not a particularly satisfying experience.

However, Microsoft needs to tap the biggest possible market with Surface. It needs to appeal to the business as well as consumer markets — the content creators as well as the consumers — and position it as both a device that can replace a PC, as well as an additional piece of hardware to use alongside it.

A call to the sceptics

The keyboard can help Microsoft tackle both areas. With Surface RT, the inclusion of a keyboard means Microsoft can appeal to those who aren't sure they want a tablet, as well as those who do. The keyboard will let Microsoft push an angle of 'why buy a tablet and a laptop when Surface is both?' to consumers, a call to the late-adopting, tablet-sceptic mass market.

And when Surface Pro arrives, the keyboard will be at least as big (and probably a bigger) selling point for businesses. Enterprises have been wary of tablets because they are just an additional cost — nobody is going to give up their laptop as their primary computing device in favour of a tablet. But with a keyboard, the decision to ditch the notebook for a slate becomes a whole lot easier.

The problem is that tablets are such a new form factor in terms of popularity, that much remains unknown about how far the broader market (not the tech enthusiasts) will take to it, and how they'll use it. That's why we're seeing so much experimentation with sizes and add-ons like keyboards.

Having the Touch Cover makes the Surface a more attractive package for businesses and consumers alike.

There's just one problem, though — a tablet with a keyboard starts to look an awful lot like a laptop. Maybe that buying decision didn't just become so easy after all...

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility

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  • It does not look like a laptop

    "a tablet with a keyboard starts to look an awful lot like a laptop"

    I have an iPad with a Logitech Zagg keyboard / case. Does that mean that my iPad looks like a laptop? Of course not. I would say I use my iPad 80% of the time without the keyboard "connected" (wireless keyboard). How often can I use a laptop with the keyboard "connected"? Exactly, 0% of the time. So 80% of the time, my iPad is not at all like a laptop. I can hold my iPad in my hand and tap tap tap on the screen with the other. That isn't at all like a laptop. That choice isn't available in a laptop.

    I want to carry around 1 device with me (well, 2 but let's ignore the smartphone for the time being). I don't want to carry a tablet for the 80% of the time that I consume data AND a laptop for the 20% of the time I want to create data. That makes no sense. That's why I bought the keyboard for my iPad. It has turned out to be a huge disappointement because iOS sucks for content creation and because the keyboard is a frankenstein solution, a bandaid, an afterthought in the iOS ecosystem.

    I pre-ordered a Surface RT because while I believe the iPad without keyboard is going to be about equivalent to the Surface without keyboard (I'm being nice to the iPad, even here I think the iPad loses) it is undeniable that the Surface + keyboard is leaps and bounds better than the iPad + keyboard. It simply can't be any worse. Nothing could.

    So why don't I just buy a laptop? Because 80% of the time, I won't need to use the keyboard. So why don't I just stick with my iPad? Because 20% of the time, I want to smash my iPad into little bits, that's how bad it is for content creation. So why don't I just buy a Surface RT which will work perfectly 100% of the time? Oh yeah, I did.
    • Logitech Zagg

      Funny you made that error. There is no "Zagg" case made by Logitech. Logitech and Zagg are two companies that compete.

      Do you actually own an iPad, or you just read too much and wishfully hope all the best for Microsoft?

      Life is short, btw.
      • Back under the bridge with you troll

        Do you know anything about the iPad? That's the embarrassing thing for you: you accuse me of not having an iPad and yet I clearly know more about the device than you do.
        • You are correct

          Indeed, Zagg happen to sell the Logitech keyboard case.
          I stand corrected.

          Btw, there are no bridges around, so I will rather continue sitting in my chair.
          • danbi: that was a cool reply

            My hat's off to you, many here would never admit to being wrong.

            Kudos to you danbi, I admire you for that post.

          • Pot, meet kettle

          • Crazy People

            You're really going to fight in the comments? What's the worst you can do to each other? Caps-lock each other to death? Just saying.
        • Wow

          Jeff Kibuule
        • re: "Back under the bridge with you troll"

          Why, are you getting lonely there all by yourself?

          Whether he is correct in his assertion or not, I can't believe you have the gall to accuse someone else of being a troll! Hypocrisy to the power of 10.
      • Yes

        There are cases sold by Zagg made by Logitech for the iPad.
      • Don't talk to this MS PR troll...

        It looks suspicious that he first praises the iPad: "I can hold my iPad in my hand and tap tap tap on the screen with the other. " and then uses the common tactic of a marketeer which uses the familiar to introduce the unfamiliar.

        The fact that in the end, he overstates that he is happy with his new choice, reinforces the notion that the idea exposed is correct.

        And this is precisely the problem with MS. They think they have the "truth" for everybody, but rather they are just notching solutions that are looking for problems.

        Take me for example. I own a laptop and have a desktop for my family. My girlfriend also has a laptop. My associate has a Asus Transformer Prime, which is kinda of a FrankenSurface.

        On her othodontic class, the teacher recommended they buy an iPad to read all the eBooks from the class. We are going to go shopping next month for a pair of tablets. Why? I can't stand reading the internet on my laptop. Once there, I think we'll have the option of buying two iPads, one Surface and one iPad or two Surfaces.

        Let's look at the alternatives (and I'm not even adding the iPad mini, nor the Amazon Kindle HD nor the Nexus 7):

        + Two iPads. Proven eBooks app, plenty of games and a good browser. We both have laptops no need for a keyboard really.

        + One iPad and One Surface (with Keyboard): She'll get the iPad and I'll get the Surface. Why? Cause I won't waste my time explaining her how to use a crippled Windows, with a crippled keyboard with a new Interface she won't find it on her Windows 7 laptop. Office? Yeah right, she's having problems using Office 2013 on her laptop, why would I care to see her fail if she already has a laptop. Me. I could test stuff on the Surface, but then again it willl cost 100 or 200 bucks more (cause I know I can use an iPad with 16 Gb but using Windows with 32 Gb is a risk). In the end it could be a very expensive toy just like the Playbook my brother bought at full price (back to that point later)

        + Two Surfaces: out of the question. too many damn risks, even if I bought her a Surface sans keyboard and mine was a 64 Gb with keyboard.

        As you can see, MS is in a tight spot, at least today. Add the iPad mini or the Amazon Kindle HD and it gets worse, since we could even think of buying an iPad 3 for her and an iPad 2 for me for 1 grand (two surfaces will cost $1200). If the iPad mini gets in the 299 mark, then it's a no brainer.

        TLDR, ain't an excuse. My two cents.
        • BTW...

          Read the comments from the supposedly troll.... he seems like a nice guy, maybe too I'm incorrect.

          Sorry for the misinterpretation as my post is designed not to point any fingers at anyone, but rather show the hard choice of electing Surface, at least at first given the Xoom, PlayBook and TouchPad fiascos.
        • Why blame others...

          Why blame MS when your wife is a retard !!!
    • Good explanation

      @toddbottom3 thanks - that's a really elegant explanation of the good and the bad of using a tablet: makes me even more convinced that the Surface keyboard is a smart move.
      • That was good, thanks for the laugh

        Go with the Surface if that is what you want but don't pretend it has anything to do with bottomfeeder3 and his post. If you are familiar with him you know that he will twist anything to be pro MS and anti Apple even if he has to flat out lie about it. A prime example of his bias is in that post in which he goes on about how bad the iPad with keyboard is but without ever even touching the Surface he knows that it will be better but in his own words perfectly 100% of the time.
    • Whatever works

      I honestly don't understand the animosity towards the iPad by some MS zealots (nor the animosity towards MS by some Apple fanboys). Whatever works should be embraced, no matter who makes it.

      But this idea that the iPad cannot be used to create with a keyboard is a joke. I am a writer, and I could never write directly on my desktop or latptop - the form factor didn't allow me to go directly from my ideas to the device. So for years I wrote on paper and then typed it into the desktop or laptop.

      Then I bought an iPad and a keyboard (a Logitech one - I don't really know which one, but it is full-sized). The form factor difference was dramatic for me. I just recently finished a 100,000+ word textbook and wrote the entire first draft on my iPad (using the keyboard). I had to make some formatting edits on my desktop, but that was minimal. So to say that an iPad doesn't work well with a keyboard is a silly accusation - it is just the ravings of a MS zealot who wants to find something wrong with an Apple product (and as an aside, I hope the MS Surface is great, since competition is good for customers).

      Oh, and I wrote this comment on my iPad using my keyboard.
      • Can you provide more of an explanation?

        "But this idea that the iPad cannot be used to create with a keyboard is a joke."

        It can be, but it is a painful process. I know from personal experience. No one is saying the iPad CAN'T be used with a keyboard, just like no one can say that a grocery getter CAN'T be used to move 1,000lbs of dirt, only that it these tools are very poorly designed for those tasks. When Apple built the iPad, it is paintfully obvious they never expected it to be used for anything productive. The ground up design was for the iPad to be used only for viewing images and text. The keyboard was an afterthought.

        But here is where I am asking for more of an explanation:
        "for years I wrote on paper and then typed it into the desktop or laptop."

        This I understand. I have a note taking app for my iPad (Notes Plus, best one I've found so far) and I can either type or "draw" my notes. There is something about handwriting a note that is far more natural than typing a note. Not sure what it is but I totally understand your workflow to write spontaneous ideas on paper and then transcribe later. But here is what I don't understand:
        "wrote the entire first draft on my iPad (using the keyboard)"

        What is the PRACTICAL difference between using a full size keyboard to type 100,000 words on the iPad and using a full size keyboard to type 100,000 words on a desktop? The tablet form factor is nice for creative types because any time an idea hits, they can pull it out and record that idea. However, you claim to be using a full size keyboard ("a Logitech one - I don't really know which one, but it is full-sized") so I would be surprised to hear that when spontaneous ideas hit, you pulled out your iPad, pulled out your full size keyboard, found yourself a desk, and started typing. Maybe you did but that would be odd to hear. That is the opposite of spontaneous.

        To suggest that typing on a full size keyboard on the iPad is a replacement for your old process of handwriting notes and then transcribing them with a full size keyboard on a PC simply doesn't pass the sniff test, at least not without more of an explanation.
        • Why the confusion?

          You said it yourself, the tablet is more appropriate for recording your spontaneous words.

          The iPad cases are usually hard enough to sustain the iPad even in your lap, unlike the Surface design with the kickstand, that actually requires flat surface and sufficient space in order to be used. This is a serious limitation of the Surface design -- but eventually, there will be third party cases like those for the iPad that remedy it.

          By the way, today one would not even need a tablet for this kind of work. You could use one of the many "smart pens" and write your words directly on paper with real ink, with the pen either remembering what you wrote internally, or transmitting it in real-time to your phone/tablet for immediate re-editing. This usage is even better than using a stylus to write directly into an application like OneNote.

          In any case, what works for one, might not work for others. I haven't found any love for external keyboards with the iPad. Tried several.. didn't like one. I don't think the fact the Surface has "better keyboard" is any compelling to me either, for exactly that reason: I just don't enter text more than posts like this and e-mail on the tablet. But I know people who do. For them a keyboard might be improving productivity.

          Keyboards are not an afterthought for the iPad, it's simply that keyboards are niche peripheral for an tablet.
          • You are wrong and I have the proof

            "The iPad cases are usually hard enough to sustain the iPad even in your lap, unlike the Surface design with the kickstand, that actually requires flat surface and sufficient space in order to be used."


            So that whole meme can stop now.

            "the tablet is more appropriate for recording your spontaneous words."

            I agree that tablets are better for this, I said as much. What I didn't understand, and what I asked for clarification on, was that the OP wasn't talking about using a tablet to handwrite quick spontaneous notes, he was talking about using a full size keyboard to type out 100,000 words on the iPad and that this was somehow better than using a full size keyboard to type out 100,000 words on a laptop. I'm merely asking him to describe how it is better. Typing out 100,000 words on a full size keyboard is NOT spontaneous just because your keyboard is connected to a tablet.
          • Come on toddy

            Huge number of people have tried the iPad with keyboard and know what works and what does not.

            How many have tried the Surface with it's brilliant keyboard? I know of no one. What about you?

            Whom do we trust?

            I won't be surprised if you change your tune once your Surface RT arrives.

            The iPad is instant-on.
            Most laptops are not. Having to wait for your laptop to boot, eventually going via few "OK" questions and seeing that antivirus etc runs, then firing your word processor and start typing.
            Isn't this alone enough?

            Besides, a full size keyboard/case for the iPad requires less space than even the Surface keyboard, and much less space than an typical desktop keyboard.