Why A Keyboard Is The Only Way To Beat Apple

The killer (or be killed) feature of the new Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is its keyboard. The tablet itself is a wonderful device. It's got a great body and a (seemingly) fast processor, but input is everything.

At the Surface launch yesterday, the auditorium was packed with tech press and lots of MacBook Airs, but there was nary an iPad to be seen. And that's because you can't really type on an iPad. If Microsoft has made something you can truly type on, that's something we're going to see at events like this in the future.

Here is the state of the tablet computer market: there is no reason to buy anything other than an iPad. OK, if you're slicing very thinly, you can make a case for the Kindle Fire as a cheap-ish media consumption device. But that's about it. The iPad on the other hand is clearly a creative device. But when it comes to inputting text, it's just not very useful. In retrospect, all that consumption-only crap that was being bandied about when the iPad launched was kind of right in its own wrong way.

Do you remember when people used to complain about software keyboards, like the ones on the iPhone and iPad? The prevailing wisdom, when the iPhone launched, maintained that physical keyboards were so much better than softkeys that the mere presence of physical keys offered a compelling reason to not buy an iPhone. That was stupid. Everyone who bought into that logic lost sight of one very important thing: even the very best mobile keyboards were awful.

The iPad and iPhone turned out to be good enough at input, and the operating system and phenominal app ecosystem made up for the rest. That's still true. The iPad, even the newest one, is far from perfect, but it's better than every other tablet on the market. But what was true then is also true now — you just can't type as quickly on it as you can on a real, physical keyboard. My brand new third-generation iPad doesn't do text input any better than my first-generation iPad did. And when it comes to Android, the situation is even worse.

What the Blackberry fans argued years ago turned out to be kind of true: softkeys aren't very good for typing. But when it comes to the iPad, physical keyboards aren't much better. I know, because like a child that just can't learn, I keep buying them too.

I've bought three and tested several others. The reason you do not see normal people using iPad-accessory keyboards is because they are all horrible. Standalone keyboards are too much of a device disconnect, while combination case/keyboards are ugly, bulky and often don't work very well. This is an entry point for Microsoft.

There was a security guard at the Microsoft event who pointed at my Macbook Air and asked me, "Is it true that once you go Mac you never go back?" Like most every other journalist at the Surface launch, I was on a Macbook Air. It's not a conspiracy; there's a simple explanation: journalists have to type lots of words in places that aren't our office, and the Macbook Air is best for that because it's incredibly portable but still powerful and easy to type on. I do go back, but for me Windows has become a desktop OS, because the Macbook Air so completely owns portable computing.

But you know what? I'd love to start thinking of it as cumbersome and clunky. I'd love to be able to slim down even further. There's an outside shot that a Surface for Windows RT could do that, but it all depends on how well the keyboard works, which is still a big unknown.

Microsoft made a big deal over the Surface TouchCover, with its built-in keyboard and the kickstand that collapses away, and it's easy to see why. The TouchCover is so thin, and it flips back and forth so easily that you won't really think of it as a keyboard. It's a fold-over sleeve, but it's a sleeve you can touch-type on, with a self-contained stand, too. It's something you can put in your lap and get things done.

Maybe. If it works.

Microsoft wouldn't really let us put it to the test.

At the Surface release, I saw an impressive demo but didn't really go hands-on with it. My guess is that my total in-my-mitts time with the various tablets was somewhere between one and two minutes (which, in fairness to Microsoft, was more than I got with the first iPhone or iPad when they were announced) and got no time at all using the keyboard — its killer feature.

The Surface tablets that we got to examine were turned on, but they didn't have SmartCovers attached, and the Surfaces with SmartCovers weren't booted up. Microsoft was covering something, alright.

I hope that it works as well as promised, even though I'm sceptical that it will, simply because I wasn't given the opportunity to see it for myself when there was clearly an opportunity for that. Because if Microsoft can solve input with its super-slim, touch-typing keyboard and case, then it will have pushed the tablet market forwards again, and that's always a good thing.


Comments

    I don't think it will be long before Apple launches one such keyboard for iPad, maybe something better. Speculation.

      I doubt it will be that easy. This is a result of all those years of MS Research experimenting with different mice, and having the freedom to come up with things that will never go to market. Maybe by holidays next year

      even if it did, the issue with this setup that microsoft is promoting is that it must be a table use only

      can you picture yourself wobbling this on your lap with a kickstand? just wont happen - so there will still be plenty of macbook airs at microsofts launch events

        The kickstand's for table use. Tablet form factor comes in when you don't have a table to prop on. I'd imagine there's will be heaps of writing recognition software that will be developed so you can use a stylus.

        Was thinking the exact same thing.
        +1

          I think there will actually be alot more ultrabooks which are worthwhile in the upcoming months. You may even see them outrun the apple market on lightweight computing.

            Nah, don't agree (with the writing recognition). Writing is slower than typing on the whole. Unless you know shorthand (dying art). If you think further ahead, the next iOS has (pretty advanced - yet to be experienced) speech recognition. I expect Apple won't bother with a physical keyboard at all.

              Hmm... can you imagine a room full of journalists, all dictating their articles the their tablets? I'd pay good money to see that.. lol

        Why would it need to be wobbly? It will have three contact points - the kick stand will straddle your thighs (don't be dirty), with the keyboard in your lap. The kickstand could easily turn out to make it more stable than an ultrabook, which has a tendency to slip off your pants unless you sit with your knees raised. I imagine the kickstand will tend to dig in and stay put. And if the Touch Cover turns out to be too floppy to use in your lap, you can always sacrifice another mm and get a Type Cover.

          Lol.. so much that could be taken for innuendo there.. straddle your thighs, slip off your pants, sit with your knees raised, too floppy to use in your lap (theres something there)...

      Apple doesn't need a hardware keyboard, it's got the best software keyboard of any touch device, you snap a Smart Cover on, curl it up and start typing. I've never seen the point to having more clutter than is needed infront of your device. Plus the iPad has the Keyboard dock which fits this purpose.

      Who would seriously look at the Surface and go "Oh yeah that thing and the cover keyboard will replace my desktop". Seriously not going to happen.. It's cheaper to go out, buy an iPad, access more useful applications and deal with the software keyboard.

    Will the SmartCover really help replace the ease of typing on a MacBook Air or other ultra portable - on your lap? Is the cover flexible or rigid? It must weigh less than the body which surely would make it tip over if you are trying to use it on your lap. I can't see the kickstand working in that scenario. Interesting work from Microsoft, it's great to see innovation from these guys.

      That's what I was thinking. It seems like it would work on a table but not work on your lap, the kick stand wouldn't have the same effect as using a normal laptop does.

      The smart cover itself is rigid. But don't know how you would work on your lap, unless you have the tablet lying flat on your lap, which would suck I think. I think 3rd party peripherals would probably be needed to fix that solution. Or a good old A4 sized book, and place your tablet with the kickstand on that. lol

    Is it really?
    Are you seriously going to prop the silly little kickstand up on your knees while at a product launch?
    I agree that the Keyboard is the "killer- app" for the Surface, but I still see the Ultrabook style laptop winning out for the majority of situations..
    What happens when someone makes a slimline, 2005 style tablet PC(the ones with a screen that rotates 180 degrees)? Then you have;
    a proper keyboard
    a proper laptop, and
    a proper touchscreen tablet
    The Surface misses out on proper laptop status, cause you can't use it on your lap!

      Lenovo Yoga :--P it's on my shortlist too.

      Spot on mate. This does not provide a competitor in the ultrabook space at all. It's just an iPad with a slightly better keyboard/case set up. As soon as Apple or a third party releases a similar accessory for the iPad, there goes this 'revolutionary' selling point.

    Mmm, interesting they didn't allow anyone to type on it. I really would love to feel that keyboard before buying the Macbook Air. I agree with the comments above... How on earth could you type with that in your lap. I'm so glad they made this though. A certain step forward.

    "The iPad on the other hand is clearly a creative device."
    ...huh? It's great for media consumption, like the Kindle Fire, but I'd hardly call it "clearly creative".

    In any case, I disagree that either the Touch Cover or the Type Cover will be any good for doing work with the device on your lap. The 20° tilt of the kickstand is the wrong angle for a lap; and the Touch/Type Covers definitely can't support the weight of the Surface by themselves.

    The keyboard covers are the colourful standouts that makes people think "why didn't Apple do that?" - but they do not turn it into a netbook like the ASUS Transformer range (BTW, anybody else excited to see WinRT on a Transformer Prime??).

    Win7 Ultrabooks are nowadays easily the equal of MBA for serious lap-based and mobile work, especially with the $15 Win8 upgrade promo. Surface converges ultrabook with tablet in a way that can make the device something that you use for just about everything.

    The number of usage scenarios for the Surface Pro is mindboggling, but actually does not threaten the traditional strength of the notebook/netbook/ultrabook: actual productivity on your lap.

    No need to fear, Apple will release a super, wonderful, magical, impossibly thin & revolutionary iKeyboard any day now

    If these keyboard work as advertised (and it's a big IF) can we call it a 'disruptive' technology?

    You cannot possibly type on this (or an iPad, for that matter -- to ward off "bias" or "fanboy" accusations) in an auditorium. Fair enough, some auditoriums -- like lecture halls, which can also be used -- may have those little tuck-away tables that you pull out and rest a writing device (electrical or manual) upon for your days work; but judging by your words Mr. Honan, this particular establishment did not.

    You state in the opening paragraphs of this article that you "can't really type on an iPad." I'll be the first to say that; "Yes, you can." Typing on an iPad is no different to typing on a cellphone. It's harder to do whilst walking, but that's true with every tablet including the Galaxy Tab, iPad, Surface and whatever else has attempted to permeate the market and flopped.

    Also, in response to your jibes on software-based Keyboards over the physical variety that were indeed dominant in the mobile market before the iPhone launch in 2007, let me enlighten you to this; People do not like change.

    The market was forever changed by the iPhone's release. 2007 saw the release of the most revolutionary cellular device since the inception of the mobile phone. It had everything people had been clamouring for since the advent of polyphonic and "realtone" ringtones. It had a Music Player. It had a proper Web Browser. But most of all, it was EASY to use. The Keyboard of course, being new at the time, took some getting used to. But does that really make them "awful?"

    The iPhone isn't the only smartphone that wields a software-based Keyboard. Android, BBOS10 and even Windows Phone 7 (soon, also Windows 8 and WP8). They're clearly popular. They enable cellular devices to become more portable by reducing the physical space demanded by on-device features (such as a physical keyboard) and therefore the thinner, more "buyer-attractive" these devices become, the more they will sell.

    Yes, 3rd Party Keyboards for Tablet devices like the iPad are cumbersome. Yes they don't work properly. Wanna know why? They're made my 3rd parties. Not Apple. Not Microsoft. Not Google.

    The Microsoft TouchCover + Surface will flop. In my opinion, anyway. The same thing happened with the Zune, KIN and even Vista to some extent. People argue that "This is a Windows Device so it won't fail" and they are incorrect. The Zune HD was based on Windows CE, so that was a Windows product that failed. Why would Microsoft bother to completely write a 100% new Operating System, with no ties to Windows whatsoever, when they can adapt their existing OS to suit the mobile device?

    I really can't see anybody sitting in an auditorium with a Surface Tablet, -- especially one without one of those tuck-away tables -- flicking out the kickstand, and opening the Smart Cov....sorry TouchCover and typing notes and/or liveblogging an event for an audience of millions. It's simply too flimsy. The keyboard may be stiff, but attempting to balance a kickstand-supported device on knees or thighs with a keyboard that would function infinitely better on a flat, hard and stable surface is too impractical. The same goes for the lack of people wielding iPads, which you so aptly noticed while attending the surface launch.

    I use my MacBook Air for University. It's light, dead easy to unfold and type on (including resting it on my lap). So, I level with you on the argument that the MacBook Air is THE portable Ultrabook. There certainly isn't one that's easier to type on, carry around and as powerful as that little beauty. No matter how many other Asus, Intel or whatever Ultrabook attempts to launch on the market.

    Also, I believe you made a mistake up there; You reference the Microsoft "TouchCover" then start referring to it as the "SmartCover" below that.

    Just my 0.02c. I really can't see the Surface succeeding.

    Patent patent patent and then sue sue sue.

      I can see Apple already head banging a brick wall over why they didn't think of this earlier. I can guarantee they've probably just updated their magnetic unlock cover for the iPad to incorporate a keyboard. I wouldn't ever 2nd guess Apple. For sure they've seen this and done it.

      Hopefully Microsoft gets in earlier, and wins it with prior art.

    For me the touch controlling of an app is great except when:
    - I need greater precision
    - I need something like a tool tip or mouse over action
    - I want to right mouse click for options (sort of like how a long press does it)
    A keyboard is nice but no deal breaker.

    Horses for courses, typing ths on a ipad using a apple bluetooth keyboard, go figure . I'm curious to know how the MS surface keyboard will go when sitting in a auditorium on your lap typing and juggling.

    I suspect it would be a bit awkward ! same as it would be for an ipad (or any tablet device) with the same keyboard in that situation.

    I'm guessing that the reason the journos are tatting MBA's is because they are more appropriate for the task at hand or on lap. I wonder how many of them don't also have an ipad not far away : ). I hope MS do good, because that will hopefully force more inovation.

    cause phones with keyboards sell so well, and so do all those keyboards for iPad... they DONT sell..

    Two questions however

    a) Do you think that the folio style keyboard above is something you would want to do a lot of typing on? To me it looks nifty, but hardly ideal for long typing sessions.
    b) If you were taking notes in an auditorium, how would you go about typing on the MS tablet if you didn't also have a table? The MBA or any other laptop would surely sit in your lap a lot better than this case + kickstand combination.

    The keyboard looks interesting. I doubt however it will be a replacement for more traditional keyboard if your job is to write for a living. I also think a laptop will work better in some cases, such as when you dont actually have a desk to sit at.

    I don't like all this android bashing on tablets from the author.They're definitely not perfect at all, but even with it's flaws, I find the asus transformer much better for me than the ipad. The only thing i'd like? infinity blade. Otherwise, i've got everything i could ever want, paid a lot less, and i don't have to use the abomination that is itunes. I love me drag and drop and no converting files. Plus, even ignoring the keyboard dock for my tablet, i much much prefer swype (big big plus for android) over the ipad keyboard, so i don't see how android is any way behind apple with keyboards? Am I missing something?

    Tablets need digitizer pen input. The original tablet PCs do this, but they are so bulky. Samsung are nailing this market with the Galaxy Note

    Personally I use my laptop on tables... not on my lap. Hell with most laptops (probably excluding ultrabooks) the ventilation and heat disposal is designed in a way that having it actually on your lap makes the laptop overheat and fries your legs... So the surface seems great to me. Also a laptop on the lap itself is one uncomfortable writing position so tables will always win if they are available.

    Apple doesn't need to make a keyboard for their iPad, that's for the accessory mobs. Although Apple should design both the iPad and iPhone to easily bolt/screw/slide/clip on accessories like keyboards, battery packs, etc. I wish I could slip on a nice portrait keyboard to my iPhone!

    I can't believe that every tech journalist slavering to replace his MacBook air has failed to realize that for equivalent specs, this is actually going to be slightly fatter and slightly heavier. (ivy bridge version with type cover) Want a laptop with a keyboard that comes off that won't stand up without a stand? No - new, shiny, different = better!!!!

    I think the ARM version will be a good competitor for the iPad, but I am not excited about the i5.

    wow microsoft has reveloutionized tablets by adding a keyboard. i don't dont mean to be rude but i already have a small screen and a keyboard. its on the netbook i bought three years ago for $230

    "Here is the state of the tablet computer market: there is no reason to buy anything other than an iPad."

    Seriously? Apple is not the single greatest everything. How about the Asus Transformer Prime?

    "Here is the state of the tablet computer market: there is no reason to buy anything other than an iPad."

    Seriously? Apple is not the single greatest everything. How about the Asus Transformer Prime? It has almost entirely equal or better hardware, is thinner and lighter, longer battery life, has expandable storage by SD and USB host, and it has a great keyboard dock as an option that "Here is the state of the tablet computer market: there is no reason to buy anything other than an iPad."

    Seriously? Apple is not the single greatest everything. How about the Asus Transformer Prime? It has almost entirely equal or better hardware, is thinner and lighter, longer battery life, has expandable storage by SD and USB host, and it has a great keyboard dock as an option.

    in a conference setting you still wont be bringing that to type on. I imagine it would be near impossible to do so from your lap.

    'You can't type on an iPad'.

    Am I the only one who's not so shitty at typing that he can type on these things? It's not ideal, but I can manage it.

      Yeah i don't mind it either. if i have it resting well i can even "touch type". i can touch type on my iphone as well. It's all in the muscle memory rather than the tactile feedback. Having said that, the tactile feedback does improve the experience somewhat.

      How do you go touch-typing? i.e. When you are watching a presentation and typing without looking at the screen? That's where on-screen keyboards fail, because you can't feel that keys, so you need to keep looking at the keyboard while you type. Thumb keyboards might alleviate that to an extent, allowing muscle memory to do a decent job, but thumb typing is possibly not fast enough to keep up with a presentation.

    This comment has been deemed inappropriate and has been deleted.

    I'm curious is journalists would be using their iPads if there was a Swype like input option for them?

    I dare say I can write something faster using Swype than my keyboard.

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