Below The Surface: Microsoft Is Why Samsung, Dell And Others Didn't Invent The iPad

There's plenty of handwringing and tech speculating around the launch of Microsoft's Surface tablet—most of it about whether consumers are interested in coughing up $499 for the new toy. But the true star of the Surface—its new Windows 8 operating system, which launches today—means infinitely more to a swath of tech giants that include Acer, HP, and Toshiba. Microsoft's Windows 8 could fuel their success, and yet for the first time ever, they'll compete with Microsoft in hardware.

Then there's Apple, which looms over the launch of any new device that isn't an iGadget. Windows 8, while certainly an elegant entry to the software space that will enable more mobile consumption, is also arriving years late to the industry, after Apple has struck a commanding lead in the smartphone and tablet markets. Just this week, for example, Tim Cook boasted that Apple sells more iPads now than any OEM competitor sells PCs. Pressured from all sides, OEMs will now be competing with each other on Windows 8; with their own software partner Microsoft for the Surface; with their own Android-powered products; and most dauntingly, with Apple.

So the question now is whether traditional hardware manufacturers—those long dependent on licensing third-party software and pushing low-cost hardware at high volumes—have finally reached an inflection point. And if so, why didn't they see it coming?

In a series of recent interviews with executives and top players from hardware giants—including Acer, Dell, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, and Toshiba—Fast Company asked about industry disruptions, about their dependency on third-party software makers such Google and Microsoft, and whether they are experiencing the Innovator's Dilemma, the term coined by Harvard professor and author Clayton Christensen to describe when companies put too much emphasis on current current needs rather than adapting to the technology needs of tomorrow. At a moment when most pundits are scrutinizing processor speeds, price points, and device performance, we asked how these companies now approach innovation in a world increasingly dominated by mobile, and in a mobile world increasingly dominated by Apple. We'll be rolling out the full series in the coming days.

Given Apple's announcement this week that it has sold 100 million iPads to date, we started by asking hardware manufacturers one question: Why didn't they—and not Apple—invent the iPad first?

It's a tough one. But as nuanced as the answers may be, most can be summed up in two words: Blame Microsoft.

Hardware makers like Dell and Toshiba have relied on Microsoft's operating system for decades. This culture of dependency means innovation is essentially limited by what Microsoft says is possible. Apple, on the other hand, has controlled both the hardware and software, allowing it the freedom to dream up and developed game-changing products such as the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. As David Johnson, Dell's SVP of corporate strategy, told me, "Apple has a different business model than the Dell business model ... The reason we didn't come up with [the iPad] is because there wasn't an OS provider that could work with a tablet."

"In order to come out with a tablet, you had to have the ability at that time to influence and manage the power architecture, as well as a software layer," Johnson continues. "The reason why Apple has had so much success is because they've vertically integrated all of that into their environment. If you step back and look, that's not been Dell's historical model. We leverage and integrate others' technologies. But in this particular case, those other technologies didn't exist until now. I can simplify it to say that the Android system didn't work in a tablet form factor, Microsoft wasn't ready, and we're not an OS provider—we had a dependency on the OS providers."

Samsung mostly echoes Johnson's sentiment. "I think it's a matter of timing," says Samsung SVP David Song. "For instance, with the PC, without Windows 8, it's very hard to make such kinds of tablets—that type of hardware. Apple and Android provided ecosystems, and with Windows 8, Microsoft has just opened a new ecosystem. But before having that ecosystem, it was very hard to deliver these types of devices. That's why [a Windows 8] tablet like the iPad or an Android tablet has just been launched."

Peter Hortensius, president of Lenovo's global product group, says, "I think the global view is that everyone got a little bit surprised by touch [technology]. We had touch devices, but the industry just didn't connect the dots like [Apple]."

Hortensius lets out a short chuckle when I ask him why Lenovo didn't create the iPad before Apple.

"Well, if I knew that I might be living on a beach somewhere in a tiki hut retired," he says.

Stay tuned for more thoughts in the coming days on innovation and disruption from HP, Acer, Lenovo, Samsung, Sony, Dell, and Toshiba.

[Image: Getty Images]

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20 Comments

  • bobjohnson

    Surface seems overpriced for what you get.  You essentially get a touchscreen netbook for $600.  Netbooks couldn't sell at $250 and the reason was NOT lack of touchscreens.  For $800 you can get an ultrabook with a touchscreen that runs circles around Surface.

    The iPad's main problem is its closed platform.  Its second problem is that Apple has not updated their productivity suite in nearly 4 years after receiving 3 major updates in its first 4 years.  iWork for iOS is a limited version of iWork'09.  The only good thing about Surface is that it can run Office.  If Surface does succeed, Office compatibility will be the only reason.

  • RogerMKE

    I was eager to try the new Windows 8 on tablet. I stopped in at Best Buy this morning to try one out. The squares with all the animation looked pretty cool. I clicked one called Desktop (I think) and got a familiar Windows destop -- minus the start menu. I clicked on the MS Word icon, and Word started to come up, and then it crashed. I spent 5 minutes trying to figure out how to get back to the main screen, but there was no obvious way to do it. Disappointed, I put it down and moved on.

  • Guest

    Surface actually runs Windows RT not Windows 8. They may look the same to the average user but they are substantially different from a development point of view.

  • Edahsc

    Microsoft has been notorios for not inventing things, but for doing it better after failing on the first try.  Are they now irrelevant, maybe, but anyone who's watched someone take notes on a laptop when compared to the other devices realizes the PC is not dead yet, it's just morphed into a tablet with a keyboard and a larger screen.  I believe it's called a notebook and that's the trend.  Why do I want something that only provides a partial solution when I can have a device that's flexible and does what I need when I need it.  Tablet is just a marketing term.  As soon as Apple sold it's first tablet, it started selling keyboards as an added component.  In other words they know the world needs a good notebook that can transition as necessary to a tablet.

  • michaeljc70

    I think that Microsoft having tablets that run the same OS as their desktop PC will be a winner if the tablets are cheap enough (equal to an iPad).  It would be fantastic to use full blown apps on your tablet rather than the toy apps on a tablet.

  • BeenThereSeenItAll

    Yeah, right 'blame Microsoft'. What happend is that it's way easier to cover your *ss and not invent. Google obviously did not think 'oooh poor us, we only can run stuff of PocketPC'.
    There *were* embedded OS other than those from MS, but they needed hard work, invention and visionary leadership -- but that's too hard, we'll wait what microsoft allows us to do. Well, gentlemen, nothing, you're done. Last one, please turn off the lights

  • +++++ My Global Website +++++

    true, MS proposed (but NOT invented) a PC tablet more than ten years ago

  • Marcos_Brazil

    Microsoft is making a BIG mistake. Mobile operating systems are completely different in function and objectives than desktop systems. 
    In a desktop, Windows 8 is awful,  the big squares are a distraction. Everybody is turning them off so it looks like Windows 7. People need the file explorer and the start bar in desktop tasks. 
    In mobile devices, people use apps, one function at a time. 
    I believe this is the beginning of the end for Microsoft. They only exist because companies have an immense inertia and stick to Windows for business tasks. They don't want touch nor big squares. It is such a myopia that is hard to believe. 

  • seventhson74

     Absolutely not!  Those big boxes are eventually going to be applications all written for Windows 8, which means they will be sandboxed!  That alone will be worth the switch for sys admins of the future....

  • Bliss

    Windows 8 is a tablet platform. It made no promises about the desktop environment, except that it would be better to use than Windows 7. And the desktop environment is better, despite what you think. The glorified Start Menu makes it infinitely easier to find your commonly used applications, and see the status of your programs, unless you need to use the currently opened application to see what to search for. If you type your application's name, and the results come up FASTER than before. The File Explorer is the same, except FASTER. Aero is off, so now your battery also lasts LONGER. Your boot-to-working time is less, so you can be productive FASTER. 

    If you want the tablet experience, you've got it in Windows 8. If you want the desktop experience, you've also got it. Stop deluding yourself in thinking that the two environments have been integrated. All of your concerns are pathetic. If you don't like tiles, then you don't like tiles. But don't pretend that you understand the market better than Microsoft, and don't make claims that don't have any basis. 

  • Top Scientist

    "Windows 8 is a tablet platform."
    My god, what an imbecile. Windows 8 is a desktop platform, half-wit. RT is the tablet platform.

    Based on Microsoft's performance so far, my cocker spaniel understands the market better.

  • nessus42

    What would make anyone think that Microsoft understands any market other than the one they have been entrenched in for decades? That market and the video game market are the only market they've ever succeeded in. (And did they actually ever turn a profit with video games?)

  • rick

    But isn't Google's purchase of Motorola going to allow them to vertically integrate just like Apple? 

  • Genesutton02

    Doesn't really synch with my memory. I'm pretty sure there were tablet computers before iPad, some running Windows. Apple did not invent tablet computing, but Apple certainly did hit the market with a great product just when all the pieces were available to make a better tablet than anyone had before.

  • exo

    "I'm pretty sure there were tablet computers before iPad, some running Windows."

    First, the title isn't "why others didn't invent the tablet?"  It mentions the iPad specifically. Like it or not, most companies today are still hoping to make the next iPad and have that level of success with one of their products.
    Secondly, concerning the windows tablets of old, they were an absolute failure. Microsoft did not truly understand the market and product that was needed for tablets to succeed. Apple did that.  Apple was the company that made the tablet market the way it is today, and that's why any tablet that comes out is still being compared to the iPad, (and likely will continue to be for sometime) rather than a windows tablet from 2002.  

  • NotMyRealFakeName

     Yes: "productivity tablets" running Windows and Office have been available for over a decade. I don't think sales volumes ever exceeded 20,000 in a year. Then Apple came along with no Windows, no Office, apps that Microsoft's friends like to call "toys," and they sell a hundred million of them. Now comes Microsoft again, this time with a "productivity tablet" running Windows and Office, and they actually expect to see a different result.

    Windows on a laptop makes a lot of sense. But tablets are not about "real work" or "productivity." Microsoft proved that 'productivity tablets' do not sell, and Apple proved that casual-use tablets sell like hotcakes. I expect to see some of the Surface Pro units adopted by corporate IT shops, but they are too expensive for consumers. The Windows RT tablets are cheap enough, but they're just a "me too" product years late.

  • Wize Adz

    I bring this up all the time -- there were quite a few tablet computers.  They weren't great, but they were there.  Same for smartphones, PDAs, and music players.  Apple didn't invent anything.

    What Apple did do was to re-create these devices such that they're a joy to use.

    Apple's stuff doesn't really serve my needs very well, and I'm not a fan of their patent practices.... But their devices *are* a joy to use, if they happen to cover your use-cases.  And this certainly brought webpads, MP3 players, PDAs, and smartphones from being geek-toys into the mainstream.  They're really made these devices fun to use and beautiful to look at.