Analysis: Surface signals tablet makers to step up their game

Lately, I’ve gotten the impression that tablet design is commoditized: One after another, I see a nondescript slate, with a shiny slab of glass. But Microsoft’s Surface—unveiled earlier this week—went the extra mile with its design. This will help light a fire under competing tablet makers—for Windows and Android both—to step up their game. And that benefits consumers, as we enjoy better, more innovative designs.

Admittedly, a tablet has some limitations in terms of what it can innovate: there’s only so much design real-estate to work with. That reality is precisely what makes Microsoft’s design all the more impressive.

Surface: Product Design 101

When you’re fashionably late, it helps to debut with a product that makes a strong statement and demands attention. Microsoft did just that with Surface.

The Surface’s internal frame

From what I saw earlier this week at Surface’s debut, Microsoft paid close attention to the little details, and the company is proudly talking about its efforts. Everything from the quality of the physical construction and the solid design of the internal frame, to the silky high-end feel of the magnesium alloy case, the optical screen bonding, the integrated kickstand with a unique hinge, heat dissipation vents in the Pro version, and the decision to include a full-size USB port—all of this shows the Surface isn’t just a whim for Microsoft. Nor is Surface something that was slapped together in a matter of months, and built on a schedule and a tight budget by in a factory across the Pacific.

“Slapped together” is one way to describe many of the Google Android tablets I’ve seen. A handful of Android tablets reflect thoughtful design—Asus has been the leader in that front—but the vast majority have simply gotten worse as the competition heats up. Clearly, for many tablet makers, design has given way to price considerations: It’s as if manufacturers sat around a table, ticking off the cheapest ways to build a competitive tablet that will get to market quickly and make them money. Metal gives way to plastic, scratch resistance gets lost in the shuffle, and optical screen bonding to eliminate the air gap between the display and the glass surface is virtually unheard of.

Today’s existing Windows tablets are no better. In fact, they have unappealing bulky, boxy designs, and lack the iPad-like finesse that captures consumers’ imaginations, and interest.

An up-close look at the Surface’s ports

With Surface, Microsoft ignored the commodity approach entirely. The company’s tablets introduced enough innovation to turn heads, even among the tough-to-sway technorati attendees at the launch event.

Future Directions: Better design?

Microsoft’s big unveil should be sending the company’s Windows hardware partners—the ones who have been working on Windows 8 tablets of their own all year—into a tailspin as they re-evaluate their own offerings. At least one current tablet manufacturer admitted to me off-the-record that the company is having meetings next week to discuss where to go from here, in light of Microsoft’s Surface bombshell.

Overall, that’s a good thing. For too long, I’ve heard manufacturers talk about tablets as if they were targeting their usual PC-buying audience. I’d ask about one feature or another, and hear back, “Our customers say they want” or “This is what our customer base needs.” But the stark reality is that tablets reach beyond PC makers’ “traditional” customer bases; if you’re going to compete with the Apple iPad juggernaut, you’re going to need to go beyond the basics. And making the tough decisions to cut a port here, or choose a less-expensive material there becomes more damaging than helpful when the resulting product is unremarkable and merely average, at best.

Microsoft’s new tablet, on display in Los Angeles this week

I fully expect that Microsoft’s Surface will have some manufacturers re-evaluating their own tablets’ competitive specs and designs. We may even later hear stories akin to what happened with the original Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which was introduced at the 2011 Mobile World Congress with a half-inch design that was competitive with the original iPad, only to slim down a month or so later at CTIA after Apple introduced the iPad 2.

And all of this competition can only be a good thing for consumers. In the end, we’ll get more choice in tablet designs, and we’ll get better choices. I just hope that Microsoft—and others—can keep the prices out of the stratosphere.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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