May the best oversized tablet win

At its September unveil of the ninth generation iPhone models (the iPhone 6S/6S+) Apple, Inc. (AAPL) also announced its long awaited oversized iPad.  Since then Apple has been a bit quiet on the pricing and launch date, but on Monday it finally brought [press release] the long awaited news.

I. Go Big or Go Home

The jumbo tablet launches later today (Wed., 11/11/2015) in many markets around the world.  The 32 and 128 GB Wi-Fi models are set at $799 and $949 USD, while the 4G LTE cellular equipped 128 GB variant stacks in at $1079 USD.  

iPad Pro

And then there's the input accessories -- the much-mocked $99 USD "Apple Pencil" (basically, a pressure and angle-sensitive stylus) and the $169 USD Smart Keyboard.

Apple Pencil

iPad Pro Smart Keyboard

Buy both with a 128 GB LTE iPad Pro and you'll have to pony up close to $1,350 USD dollars.

And if you live in one of the following markets you'll get the chance Wednesday to do precisely that:
  • North America (incl. Cental America and Caribbean)
    • Anguilla
    • Antigua and Barbuda
    • Canada
    • Cayman Islands
    • El Salvador
    • Guatemala
    • Mexico
    • Puerto Rico
    • Trinidad and Tobago
    • US
    • US Virgin Islands
  • South America
    • Uruguay
  • Europe
    • Austria
    • Belgium
    • Czech Republic
    • Denmark
    • Finland
    • France
    • Germany
    • Gibraltar
    • Greenland
    • Hungary
    • Ireland
    • Isle of Man
    • Italy
    • Liechtenstein
    • Luxembourg
    • Monaco
    • Netherlands
    • Norway
    • Poland
    • Portugal
    • Slovenia
    • Spain
    • Sweden
    • Switzerland
    • UK
  • Central Asia and the Middle East
    • Russia
    • Turkey
    • UAE
  • Southeast Asia and Pacific
    • Australia
    • China
    • Hong Kong
    • Japan
    • Malaysia
    • New Zealand
    • Singapore
    • Thailand
Mostly the list of launch countries makes sense.  Most major markets are on there.  The small markets are a bit odd, admittedly.  Why is Uruguay the only country in South America with launch-day availability?  Why is Greenland on the list, but Iceland isn't? (There is, after all, an Apple store in Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik.)  I don't know... but surely there's some logical explanation.

iPad Pro

But let's set such questions aside, shall we.  But the bigger question independent minded consumers who want a device like the iPad Pro (namely, a big tablet) should be asking themselves is this:

Which big tablet is the best buy -- the iPad Pro, a discounted Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Surface Pro 3, or Microsoft's latest Surface Pro 4 (launched in October)?

Yes, it's a somewhat surprising question.  But it's the one that the iPad Pro's arrival inevitably provokes.   When the iPad first launched Apple was the one remixing the failed formula of Windows tablets.  Now it is Microsoft who has broken new ground and Apple who is following in the line.

The iPad Pro shares much in common with the Surface Pro 3 and 4 -- most notably:
  • A similar price
  • A pressure sensitive stylus pen input
  • A keyboard type cover
  • A jumbo 12+ inch touchscreen
The compelling twist is that this time around Microsoft was the first to implement each and every one of those common features.  Surely, things have come full circle in the tablet space.  Thus before we consider what tablet gives the best bang for your buck, let us first consider -- how did we get here?

II. The Spark

It almost seems like ages since the iPad first launched.

Inded for several years now the iPad family has been an absolute fixture of the gadgets space.  Since its arrival the iPads has been far and away the best-selling tablet on the market.  In fact, it practically put its market on the map as a high volume device business.  

Sure there's been some disappointment along the way.  Today the iPad has been eclipsed in unit sales by the collective of various designs from Google Inc.'s (GOOG) Android alliance.  And in recent quarters iPad sales have gently declined as the tablet market's explosive early growth gave way to stagnation.

But even if it hasn't quite met the wildest expectations of some analysts, the iPad achieved something few believed it would or could when it first launched.  It has created the first tablet sales hit.  And Apple remains firmly on top of tablet unit sales by model.

It all began back in 2010 with Steve Jobs' "magic" 9.7-inch iPad.  Today the mid-size model is in its sixth-generation with the iPad Air 2 (Oct. 2014).

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs' vision of the perfect tablet was narrow, but inspired. [Image Source: Reuters]

When the first iPad came out Steve Jobs was adamant -- the size was perfect as was the input.  Forget keyboards and styluses.  Ignore those big and small tablets.  The iPad was perfection -- or so Jobs said.  And the public seemed to agree.

But with Jobs abrupt departure and subsequent passing in 2011 Apple suddenly had a new chief -- Timothy Cook.  And the new chief's vision was subtly different from Jobs as would become apparent in 2012.  That year the iPad family saw its first wholly new addition -- the small-ish 7.9-inch iPad Mini.  It was precisely the kind of device Jobs vocally bashed.  

At first sales seemed to suggest that Jobs was right.  Consumers weren't biting.  But in time sales of the Mini warmed up.  If they hadn't the iPad Pro might have never been launched.  But ultimately they have and today the Mini is an important second tier of the iPad line.  Manning that post is the fourth generation model, the iPad Mini 4, which was announced in September alongside the ninth generation iPhones and the iPad Pro.

Ah, the iPad Pro.  Apple has at last added a third tier -- a bigger tablet.  And it is undeniable that Cook's new device comes off as somewhat reactive by its nature.

III. Surface's Phoenix Rose From the Ashes of Windows' Tablet Failures

Much as the iPad Mini was a response to the growing threat of cheaper, smaller Android tablets to the midsize iPad, the iPad Pro is a response of sorts.  In this case it's a retort to the growing success of the Surface Pro tablet line from Microsoft.

Windows tablets have of course been around for eons... or er, decades.  But when the iPad came onto the scene a half decade back, they were still stuck in purgatory as niche sales laggards, their potential overlooked.  The problem was largely the same as early smartphones -- their design was crude and they relied overly on physical buttons.

Much as with the iPhone the key to the iPad's success was simplicity -- it was the first tablet to truly put the touch screen front and center.  And of course Apple's marketing machine helped sell this "magic".

Microsoft wasn't very pleased to witness people believing Apple had "invented" the tablet.  Didn't they know about Windows tablets?

Ballmer Slate
Former Microsoft CEO Ballmer fumbles with an HP Slate back in 2010.  The device would launch late and flop in sales; the plug was pulled soon thereafter. [Image Source: Bloomberg]

To its credit, Microsoft had enough experience and insight to recognize how it had been beat.  It carefully studied the factors that allowed Apple to create a sensation in a space where Microsoft's own OEM partners had previously failed to make much noise.  With Windows 8 had the OS to challenge Apple in the tablet space.  It just needed hardware support.

At this point Microsoft already had its own tablet dabblings with the in-house Courier project.  The project actually predated the original iPad having been teased at to the public in 2009.  But where Apple delivered a product, Microsoft made the fateful decision to mothball Courier and lean on OEMs for the hardware side of the touch-driven Windows tablet push.

It was a controversial decision that triggered some Microsoft executives to quit in protest.  But then-CEO Ballmer and then-Windows President Steven Sinofsky were firm in the belief that it was best to stick with their company's traditional role of playing platform provider.  After all, it had given OEMs a solid platform in Windows 8, risking alienating traditional PC users even, to improve Windows' appeal for touchscreen devices.  In OEMs it trusted.

Courier 2009
Courier was kicking long before the iPad -- oh what might have been. [Image Source: Gizmodo]

But to Microsoft's frustration its loyalty and trust came back to bite it.  In spite of much teasing and hollow promises, Windows OEMs failed to deliver a single major tablet launch.  Holiday 2011 rolled by... then spring 2012... then summer.  By mid-2012 it was clear the Windows OEM crowd simply wasn't catching Microsoft's drift.

The failure ultimately was among the key factors at play in prompting several waves of major executive shakeups at Microsoft and cost Sinofsky his leadership role at Microsoft.  But before that would happen it would also catalyze Microsoft to begrudgingly play devicemaker.

Unable to find support from its allies Microsoft had learned a hard lesson of self reliance.  And so it was that in late 2012 Microsoft soldiered out the first-generation Surface.  Some OEMs cried foul and treachery.  Others respectfully took note of what Microsoft had been trying to tell them for some time.

Surface RT
The Surface RT landed in 2012 following the failure of Microsoft's OEM partners in mounting a challenge to the iPad's tablet market dominance.

Microsoft didn't expect it to compete with the iPad in volume and its distribution network early along was a "work in progress" -- to put it nicely.  It didn't have Apple's volume, market, and brand cachet.  But you have to start somewhere.  And for all the odds against the Surface, Microsoft approached the project with a sort of innovative determination that had propelled the company to global dominance some distant decades before.

IV. A New Paradigm, a New Master

The original Surface was basically a tech demo.  And it was an imperfect one at that.  But ultimately more important than the product itself was the fact that Microsoft had delivered a message.  The Surface told OEMs loud and clear -- step it up, or step away.

And while some OEMs would ultimately heed that call (to some extent), Microsoft has stuck around because the OEMs have thus far given it little reason to leave.  Why quit when it was onto the seeming start of something good?

Microsoft was finding its mojo. The Surface was quietly defied the odds and a devoted following thanks to the device's one big unique twist on Apple's hit formula.  That twist was the Type Cover. With the addition of this vital accessory, a chimaeric half-laptop half-tablet device was born.  Microsoft called it a "hybrid".  It was a clever idea and to quote an old Apple marketing adage "it just worked."

Surface latching

Over the past few years Surface has slowly morphed into a more serious endeavor.  While it lost money -- quite a lot in its early years -- over the last couple years much like Bing -- another perennial money pit -- the Surface line has turned the quarter and is approaching profitability and record sales volumes.

Key to this was the addition of more power Intel Corp. (INTC) processors in the Pro line and aggressive pricing.  Somewhat counterintuitively the best-selling Surfaces have often proven to be the pricier members of the Surface Pro line because they offered a similar pitch as the iPad used to ward off Android -- computing power and app catalog.

Microsoft's tablet project has also put forth new hero features as well.  First there was the Surface Pen.  While styluses were in vogue back when tiny tablets were called PDAs, the Surface's stylus included fine-grained pressure sensitivity -- a feature most commonly seen in art tablets.  Over time it's honed the feature, most recently bringing the Israeli firm it bought the pens from -- N-Trig -- in house via acquisition.

Another key innovation landed last year with the move to a 12.0-inch display.  With that clever twist the Surface Pro 3 saw a sales boom and was actually one of the best selling tablets on the market not named "iPad".  Microsoft had tapped an uncharted demand for tablets larger than 10 inches.

Surface Pro 3
The Surface Pro 3 (pictured) forced Apple to create its third tier.

And perhaps most important has been that Microsoft has avoided overreach.  While it has played with the idea of a Surface Mini or a Surface Phone, it ultimately has ultimately declined to bring either to market.

Part of that speaks to the fact that Microsoft is a somewhat begrudging device maker -- sort of the Peter Parker of the world of superhero gadgets.  New CEO Satya Nadella's approach to the device business at times appears to be a dash to exit it via continuous layoffs and cuts.  

And even when Microsoft does show it hasn't given up on directly designing mobile devices, it is still all too apparent that it never wanted or intended to take on this burden.  But OEMs continue to force its hand.  At the same time, commitment aside Microsoft isn't overly interested in developing a high volume brand or even making a boatload of money.  It simply wants to continue to push the envelope in creative directions and prove itself a market leader. 

And by not releasing the kinds of devices everyone else was and instead focusing its energy and attention on new form factors it is forcing the market to take note of its innovation.  And it is thanks to that approach that here we are in 2015 and the tables have turned.

Microsoft is playing Darth Vader to the Obi Wan.  Now Microsoft is the master.

V. The Winner is...

Or is it?  With history in the books and fresh in your minds, let us answer that question -- or try to.

Apple and Microsoft arguably have offered up the most compelling large form factor tablets of the holiday season.  The iPad Pro's launch follows hot on the heels of the Surface Pro 4 which launched late last month.  But it's important also not to count out the Surface Pro 3, which is still available at a deep discount direct from Microsoft or third party resellers.

Here's a big comparison to help you figure out the answer:

Comparison -- iPad Pro vs. Surface Pro 3/4

Basically, Apple's tablet has a few key advantages: Other categories -- such as storage -- are more of a draw.  But Microsoft's third and fourth generation Surface Pro models have wins of their own:
  • The Surface Pro 3 is now the most affordable of the trio
  • The Surface Pro 4 on the high end beats the iPad Pro in processing power
  • The x86 Windows software library is at present larger than App Store entries optimized for the 12-inch screen (the iPad Pro can run standard iPad apps upscaled, but they don't really do its big beautiful screen justice)
  • Microsoft offers more options in terms of price
  • Both Surface Pros have external storage
I'm probably missing a few nuances, but that's the overall take home.  But that returns us to the headline's question -- who's the winner?

For someone with truly no prior investment on either platform -- or for someone who doesn't currently own an iPad or iPhone the Surface Pro probably wins out.  For budget buyers in this position the answer is the Surface 3 Pro, while buyers with a more liberal budget will gravitate towards the Surface Pro 4 i7 model -- the most powerful device in its class.  For customers with no prior attachment to Apple it's not so much that the iPad Pro is priced too high or is lacking in any particular way.  Rather in a very tight race, it is arguably narrowly beat by Microsoft's devices.
Surface Pro 4
Surface Pro 4

Surface Pro 4 is a solid option -- and perhaps the best value if cost is not a factor.

But that's assuming no prior investment in either ecosystem.  For Apple fans who already use Apple's services, own a lot of content from the App Store and iTunes, subscribe to Apple Music, etc. the answer I would expect is different.  For them the iPad Pro is definitely the logical choice.  The Apple bashing crowd will of course be quick to rain on the iPad Pro.  But it's mostly sour grapes.

The iPad Pro may be reactive and is definitely a Surface Pro clone to some extent.  But much as Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) has produced compelling iPhone-like devices, Apple's tablet doppelganger is not without compelling selling points of its own.  Ultimately this is a win-win for consumers as it looks like Apple is bringing its A game to a space Microsoft is already wowing it.

iPad Pro Trio

I know it's a cop out to say "neither is a winner" because they're so close.  But that's not exactly what I'm saying.  I'm saying each device will be the winner for certain buyers in certain situations.  And to deny that the Surface Pro 3 and 4 are in a very tight competition with the iPad Pro in terms of price and features would be to deny reality.  The facts show that without a doubt this is a narrow race.  So as unsatisfying as it may seen it's too close to say which device better fits your needs a priori, without first knowing what your requirements are.

Who's the winner?  Ultimately you'll be the judge of that.  Or not.  Many won't want a massive tablet.  Clearly the tablet market is already overstated.  But demand is there and some will inevitably buy.  And their decision will likely be justified in either direction based on the factors above.

At the end of the day, consider that there's a big picture here: a decade ago original iPad stirred a sleeping Microsoft to fresh innovation.  Today Microsoft has prompted a similar reaction from Apple, and the response should elevate the big tablet form factor to new heights.

Source: Apple [press release]

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