A Question for Surface 2: What Are Tablets For?

For Microsoft, the key question to answer about the new Surface 2 tablet is, “How well does it sell?” But for everyone else, another question might be more interesting and more important, and that question is, “What exactly are tablets for, anyway?”

Some half-forgotten history might be relevant here. For more than a decade, people said that tablets would be the wave of the future. Yet for more than a decade, tablets failed to catch on. A new conventional wisdom emerged that tablets were the monorails of the twenty-first century: impressive at first glance, but serving no purpose that other technology doesn’t serve better: less convenient in the hand than a smartphone, while lacking the capability of laptops. So they would never catch on. Then, along came the Apple iPad, and it turned out that people found a use for tablets after all.

A Tablet for the Workplace?
As Kevin Drum notes in Mother Jones, early specs and reports on Microsoft’s Surface 2 tablet look pretty good. So why, asks Drum (mainly a political blogger, but with a tech background), are so many tech observers dismissing it?

Drum calls particular attention to Will Oremus, writing for Slate, who says, in a nutshell, that Microsoft just doesn’t “get” tablets. Oremus argues that people buy tablets for fun; as media-consumption devices, in the broad sense of “media.” They want entertainment apps, not the Microsoft Office productivity suite. Indeed, only 15 percent of tablet use is for “production activities” such as writing blogs or editing video. To which Drum responds, what’s wrong with a tablet you can use at work?

Apple certainly seems to side with Oremus in this debate. Yes, there are some people out there who are writing novels on their iPads or tablets. But a tablet may be much better suited to consuming content than to creating it. And Apple has made only minimal efforts to appeal to the business market, while Android tablets are, to be honest, basically imitations of the iPad.

For Microsoft, the Next Big Thing?
Microsoft, on the other hand, has always been about business (with the Xbox as a one-off exception). And it is struggling with the decline of PC sales. But the good news is that people are going to use some device for business tasks, or even quasi-business tasks, from running a club to creating content. And, for most of these tasks, an actual keyboard is essential, and so are “productivity apps.” So, there is a substantial market for, if not the Surface 2 at least, something rather like the Surface 2. This market will never be as big as the consumer market, but it has its own needs that consumer-centric products can’t meet.

Microsoft may or may not end up providing what the “productivity tablet” market wants, but no one can blame the Redmond, Wash., company for trying.

Image courtesy of Flickr