Netbook as Tablet or Tablet as Netbook: Which Will People Prefer?

BY Tris Hussey

Published 10 Jan 2013

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I have to be honest, I haven’t seen a Microsoft Surface Tablet “in the wild” yet. Granted I also haven’t been wandering the coffee shops and other places I might find one lately, but the times I have been out and about I’ve seen plenty of iPads (very few other tablets though). And short of the very sad looking Microsoft pop up store I saw over the holidays, the Surface Tablet hasn’t hit my tech radar—except online.  Ian Betteridge of Macgasm has seen one in the wild and makes an few interesting points about why Microsoft made this push now. Ian is certainly onto something, I think.

If we step back and think about the last year or so behind us and the year ahead of us there are a few key changes in technology that have such wide-reaching implications that it might not be for another year before we can really understand all the effects. Essentially what matters for this discussion are five main points:

  1. The shear and utter dominance of the tablet space by the iPad.
  2. Tablets (read iPad) have changed how we think about not just using the Internet, but how we use computers as well
  3. BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) isn’t going away, it’s only getting bigger.
  4. Acer and Asus (finally) stopped making netbooks in December 2012, killing off one of the worst ideas we all fell for (myself included, as my Eee PC 901 is being updated to Ubuntu 12.10 right now)—the netbook.
  5. This year it is expected that tablets will outsell laptops.
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Now, let’s consider Ian’s observations and comments from his post:

This week, I was lucky enough to see a creature so rare I was getting to the point where I thought I’d never see one. Yes, sat in a cafe there was someone who I thought only really existed in Steve Ballmer’s fevered imagination: a real, live Microsoft Surface user.

Predictably, they weren’t using it as a tablet. Instead it was sat on the table with its little kick-stand folded out and its keyboard ready, being typed on, just as if it were a regular laptop. Which, I’d argue, is actually closer to what the Surface is good for than the conventional idea of it as a competitor to the likes of the iPad or Android’s finest, the Nexus 10.


The Surface is designed to be a netbook that you can also use occasionally as a tablet. This is the reverse of the approach that Apple has taken, because the iPad is a tablet first and foremost, but can be used like a netbook if you need it to. Apple sought to create an entirely new category of product: Surface is a hybrid designed to get people to dump their netbooks in favour of something familiar, but more modern – and more expensive.

Via: Macgasm

So seeing that netbooks failed to bring the heralded promise of laptops that everyone would just easily tote around and suddenly iPads weren’t just everywhere they were coming to work in droves, Microsoft needed a solution. Fast.

The solution is the Surface Tablet. Not the Surface Tablet RT, which seems like a hobbled device where half of the storage is already full of apps and OS stuff, but the Pro version that is supposed to bridge the gap between desktops, laptops, and tablets. Here’s the risk, Microsoft is betting that by pure IT inertia, people will lovingly accept a Surface Tablet (either because IT tells them too or it looks more familiar to them running Windows) over working with and using an iPad.

Ian hits the nail on the head in his post. Apple created a tablet, that works pretty darn well (I’d say better than in many respects) as a netbook, but it remains a tablet at the core. Whereas Microsoft made something for people who really would rather have something like a netbook or light laptop that lets them touch the screen and do some tablet stuff too.

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I think for a decent segment of the population, a lot of IT people I think, Microsoft made the right bet. Although I’ve read about sys admins using iPads in the server room (Panic’s terminal app Prompt is rather good as are a lot of the remote connection apps and desktop viewers), I think a lot of IT folks will latch onto having their core management apps in a smaller package. This isn’t a slight on the Surface Tablet at all. IT folks, having been one, keep the lights on at most companies. IT needs solid tools to do their job. That’s cool, not mainstream, but cool.

However, I think for the majority of the population, Microsoft bet wrong. I look at just the variety of folks I know with iPads. My mom in her 70s who plays Words with Friends, emails, and uses FaceTime with her grandkids on an iPad 2. That iPad (and the original iPad she had before) never leaves her side. I kid you not, if she’s at home, chances are her iPad is close by. I look at my sisters and my kids how they use tablets. Sure lots of games, lots of YouTube, email…but also always there. Always around for doing something. My wife, I think once she starts using the keyboard folio I have for her,  her MacBook Air isn’t going to appear too often. You already know my story and I know that I’m not an outlier in that respect either. All of these people, and I haven’t even gotten to my friends with iPads, do a lot of “tablet” things first and “netbook/laptop” things second.

I think people do want a device that is a tablet with all the fun and media and games that it does so well that, by the way, is also good at doing “real work” too. It’s the blend of the fun and work that makes the iPad brilliant.

In all the Microsoft Surface Tablet commercials I see, I see people with clickety netbooks with colored plastic keyboards. I don’t see reading, movies, drawing, or photo editing. Tasks the iPad knocks out of the park. I see people typing. And lets face it, except for a very few of us (like me), typing words isn’t really much fun at all.

Microsoft will stem the tide of iPads coming to work and the Surface Tablet will succeed the netbook, but neither of those achievements will make the Surface Tablet a success or what people really want:

A tablet that can be a netbook if you want it to be.

Surface Tablet photo from Flickr by Jeffrey Riehle.