While the iPad is certainly the standard for tablets, two new releases over the past couple of weeks may lift the bar for the essentially non-existent competition for everyone but the nerdiest of users.
Microsoft Surface – Leveraging the upcoming release of Windows 8 with its interface that works with desktop and tablets, Microsoft made a relatively big splash with its “Jobs-like” reveal of the soon to be released Microsoft tablet. While some will deride Microsoft Surface as the Zune of tablets, there is some potential behind Surface. While much of the Surface tablet is speculative at present (price, release, user experience) Microsoft does have some things going for it.
Magnetic Cover with Keyboard – iPads are not optimal for data entry and entry intensive uses. While there are a number of bluetooth keyboard options, most of them mar the sleek look and profile of the iPad. If the keyboard included with the Surface tablet works well, it overcomes a missing element on the iPad without sacrificing the look and simplicity of the unit.
Windows 8 – While iOS receives well deserved attention for its simplicity and ease of use, the OS has not changed a great deal in years. Those who haven’t seen the look and feel of Windows 8 or seen a recent Windows Phone OS will be impressed. In my opinion, the dynamic, configurable tile based interface leapfrogs the iOS interface in both ease of use and looks. Another small item that might be useful in a tablet from a retail perspective is NFC capability. Windows Phone 8 has NFC enabled and that may provide a way for retailers to get past dongle after dongle issue for payments in Windows 8 if that functionality can be ported to Surface. It would certainly help here in Canada where EMV readers for tablets are hard to find thus far.
Display Size – It isn’t a massive difference, but the Surface unit has a 10.6 screen with a 16:9 ratio. It’s slightly bigger than the iPad which is helpful for using the iPad as a shared screen. Most video is wide format now, so it could display more full screen for demos in a retail environment.
Productivity Applications - While Apple came at tablets from the mobile side, Microsoft comes it from a desktop perspective. Microsoft Office apps are much more feature laden and better for most business than Pages, Numbers and Keynote. Much as Apple has some incredible templates and wonderful toys (using iPhone as remote for Keynote), they lack the depth of features that Office has. If Microsoft ports Office to Surface with full functionality, they will be much more useful in a business environment and have a broader following in business. Whether this is useful in a retail environment will depend on the application.
Surface may not have the cache of iPad. Surface may not be the tablet the customers at Starbucks are using, but it may well represent the evolution of the computer at work. From a retail perspective it provides another potential low cost option with a slightly larger beautiful screen. The ability to add data entry without sacrificing usability and portability for client based solutions will help with some applications as well. Add the ubiquity of Windows as a platform in retail in North America, and Surface could find a foothold in retail applications. There are lots of details to shake out, but don’t discount it without investigation.
Google Nexus – Google also announced a new tablet recently. One of many interesting releases from Google this week, the new tablet is made by Asus. Much different from the iPad and Surface, the new Nexus tablet is a much smaller and low cost unit.
Priced at $199, the unit seems a more fitting competitor to the Kindle Fire. Like the Fire, it is more of a paper back sized device purpose built to consume media – read books and magazines, watch video, play simple games and browse the Internet. Like the Kindle Fire, the Nexus is closely tied to a content ecosystem in Google Play. Nexus leverages the latest version of Android for Tablets - Jelly Bean.
While not as feature laden as the iPad and Surface, tablets like this will continue to drive expectations of low cost devices that can be harnessed for many uses. This relatively sophisticated technology is being driven closer and closer to a $0 item used as a loss leader to drive consumption of media, lowering the desire for consumers to pay without clear benefits.
The impact of this device on retailers is more on increased competition for the likes of Amazon, Kobo, and Kindle for electronic media. It would be surprising to see these devices used in a retail environment as a selling or transactional tool, but that could all change tomorrow.