In 2012, when Microsoft first unveiled its Surface tablet, the veteran company pitched its first tablet as a new, highly-interactive way to use the company’s patented software.
“Surface is designed to seamlessly transition between consumption and creation, without compromise,” its press materials noted. The company particularly singled out its touch cover keyboard and an integrated kickstand.
The device seemed aimed at bridging the gap between laptops and mobile devices, still often seen as cumbersome to type on beyond a few lines. But the first Surface sold poorly, particularly criticized for the limitations of its operating system, Windows RT, forcing the company to take a $900 million loss in 2013.
With sales of Apple’s iPad Pro, which features a larger 12.9” screen and a new stylus and keyboard, set to begin Wednesday, the question remains: Can a tablet really bridge the gap and make traditional laptops obsolete?
Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has been busy promoting the product’s potential as a replacement to laptops in the minds of consumers, telling the Telegraph recently, “I think if you’re looking at a PC, why would you buy a PC anymore?”
The “iPad Pro is a replacement for a notebook or a desktop for many, many people," he added. "They will start using it and conclude they no longer need to use anything else, other than their phones."
Apple's iPad Pro is particularly aimed at creative professionals, with the company touting its compatibility with a suite of specially-designed Adobe products. Yet some analysts are skeptical.
“In terms of the device itself, I don’t know if there’s anything I personally feel makes consumers want to use these larger devices,” says Tuong Nguyen, an analyst at the market research firm Gartner who covers Apple. “This is kind of in that awkward size between too big to be truly portable or too small to give you that true productivity benefit.”
Early reviews of the iPad Pro seem to be mixed, filled with more comparisons to Microsoft’s tablets — though the company debuted a new, better-received laptop, the Surface Book — than to Apple's traditional hit parade of products like the iPod, the iPhone, or even the original iPad.
The original Surface’s kickstand only had one angle, making it difficult to use on your lap, writes the Verge’s Tom Warren. The iPad Pro’s optional keyboard also only includes one angle, without a place to store the new stylus. But potential issues go beyond hardware, he says:
Apple's iPad Pro ships with a tablet operating system that doesn't have true support for a mouse and keyboard. You won't use a trackpad on the iPad Pro, you'll touch the screen... It's Microsoft's problem in reverse: Microsoft lacks the touch apps to make its Surface Pro a perfect combination of laptop and tablet, and Apple lacks the powerful desktop apps to really take advantage of a stylus and keyboard. Both devices are trying to do similar things, but they're flawed right now.
For artists interested in exploring the iPad’s creative potential, that could be a problem. Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 includes support for full versions of Adobe’s video and photo editing software, notes a review at the UK-based Digital Arts Online. Not so with the iPad Pro, which uses specially designed versions.
“There are brilliant creating tools for sketching, roughing, storyboarding, writing pitches and beginning the retouch process (hello Lightroom Mobile) - but nothing to complete your projects,” the review notes.
It’s difficult to tell whether consumers will really embrace the new iPad’s larger screen – and its increased price, which starts at $799, while a top-tier model costs $1,079.
While Microsoft eventually rebounded with its Surface Pro, which has sold better than the original Surface, analysts note that tablet sales have been falling recently, a possible indicator of a lack of consumer interest. During the last quarter, iPad sales fell 20 percent from the same point last year, reports CNET, while Apple’s laptop and desktop sales have remained steady.
Mr. Nguyen of Gartner says its possible the iPad Pro will serve as inspiration for other tablet makers to work to bring the prices more in line with what a broader group of consumers will likely pay for a larger tablet.
“I think [Apple has] the brand cache to create a market where there wasn’t one before,” he says. But, “I don’t know if calling it a laptop killer is completely accurate.”