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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.


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