Bill Gates, in case you thought otherwise, is a genius. He really, really is. Not only was he building a software company at a time when no one believed software had a meaningful future, but his vision of “a computer on every desk and in every […]


Bill Gates, in case you thought otherwise, is a genius. He really, really is. Not only was he building a software company at a time when no one believed software had a meaningful future, but his vision of “a computer on every desk and in every home” was nothing short of crazy hugely ambitious.

Even so, geniuses do get things wrong sometimes. In an interview with BNET’s Brent Schlender, he suggests netbooks will be the devices of choice in a post-iPad world;

“You know, I’m a big believer in touch and digital reading, but I still think that some mixture of voice, the pen and a real keyboard – in other words a netbook – will be the mainstream on that.”

Hardly shocking, coming from the man who co-founded Microsoft. He adds;

…it’s not like I sit there and feel the same way I did with iPhone where I say, ‘Oh my God, Microsoft didn’t aim high enough.’ It’s a nice reader, but there’s nothing on the iPad I look at and say, ‘Oh, I wish Microsoft had done it.’”

As TiPB’s Rene Ritchie pointed out, this is remarkably reminiscent of Gates’ dismissal of the iPod in a BusinessWeek interview in 2004;

There’s nothing that the iPod does that I say, “Oh, wow, I don’t think we can do that.”

I am not surprised Bill doesn’t “get” the iPad, in the same way he didn’t “get” the iPod, either. Gates’ vision of “a computer on every desktop” was a grand vision. But that’s as far as the vision went; he certainly didn’t describe the computer as an appliance. From the Microsoft perspective, the “computer” is, largely speaking, a screen with a keyboard and a pointing device. In fact, it’s even more specific than that; as far as Microsoft is concerned, a computer is a screen with a keyboard and a pointing device powered by Windows. And if you really want to push the boat out, you can add some flavor of Office into that mix, too.


Since neither Windows nor Office are particularly suited to pervasive, intuitive touch control, the Microsoft definition of “the computer” simply doesn’t accommodate anything like an iPad. Tablet PCs are a bit easier for Microsoft to swallow – at least most of those have a keyboard (making them notebooks in disguise).

And while Microsoft knows Tablet PC’s don’t sell, it also knows that the interest in Apple’s iPad might translate into a short-lived boost in Tablet PC sales, too. But let’s be honest; Microsoft isn’t committed to tablets in any meaningful way because tablets don’t fit into Microsoft’s vision of how we use computers. Or, more accurately, tablets don’t fit into Microsoft’s vision of how businesses use computers.

It’s ironic that Microsoft – popularizer of the ubiquitous spreadsheet software – still have not made Excel (arguably the most popular spreadsheet editor on the planet) touch-friendly. Meanwhile, Apple, considered by some to be makers of shiny toys for posing artistes, have a business-class spreadsheet app ready to go when the iPad launches. (Former Microsoft exec Dick Brass offers a possible explanation for this bewildering oversight in his revealing article on the NY Times last week.)

Just Enough

Apple’s vision has always been diametrically opposed to Microsoft’s. Steve Jobs has long-pursued a desire to make the desktop computer more intuitive and, paradoxically, less like a traditional computer. So, while Windows exposed increasingly complex functionality in each successive iteration, Mac OS X did the opposite, hiding or removing as much complexity as possible, leaving behind just enough to get the job done.

When it came to mobile devices, Microsoft’s desktop vision proved inescapable, and it tried to squeeze Windows into everything. (Only the Xbox and Zune break with that tradition.) Meanwhile, Apple demonstrated that a device’s software must reflect its form factor (like an iPhone OS on a tablet device is an obvious fit).

Therefore, the iPhone OS is designed to be so simple and intuitive that multitasking is intentionally restricted, reserved for a select-few apps. That’s not a lack of vision or coding acumen, but rather a terribly bold statement of intent. Apple has a vision for how people should interact with computers, and they believe it’s better than anything else we currently have. What’s more, it’s willing to stand by that vision, despite the cries of inflexible critics who fail to understand it.

In short, Apple doesn’t sacrifice form for function – rather, Apple allows form to dictate function.

Dream Come True

Back in the early noughties, it was Gates who championed the Tablet PC, and more broadly, the slate form-factor, boldly predicting in 2001 that, “…within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America.”

Microsoft’s hardware partners dropped the ball when executing his vision, helped, no doubt, by Microsoft’s decision to crowbar-in a barely modified version of its full desktop OS – the exact same mistake it’s making again today. Not enough people got their hands on a Tablet PC to arrive at an informed opinion on its utility. Not enough software was developed that made good use of it, either. So, while the iPad is far from Microsoft’s ambitions, it’s the closest the industry has ever come to the realization of Gates’ tablet dreams.

Gates is obviously loyal to Microsoft, but he’s clearly prepared to say when he thinks Apple has done something remarkable. I don’t believe he fails to grasp what the iPad represents, despite his comments yesterday… and I’m pretty sure he’s disappointed Microsoft couldn’t learn from its earlier tablet mistakes. For a man who invested so much in the tablet dream, it must be pretty galling to see Apple succeed where he failed.

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  1. After all, Bill thinks Microsoft makes PC’s….

  2. Good read, thanks Liam.

    I have to say, over the past few days seeing these posts about Gates’ ambitions and question Apple in a few of the endeavors have brought some light to my eyes.

    Its good to see that even Gates, if plausible would acknowledge the fact that Apple is doing something great, and inquires about it.

  3. That’s it in a nutshell. I remember and have since view the interview on how much he loved his tablet, and his vision for the future. But alas, he’s got the wrong people at the helm and he’s watching Apple rule. We’ll see what the iPad’s like in every-day use before giving the final answer.

  4. …and Balmer laughed at the iPhone.
    Such fragile defensive egos.

  5. “But that’s as far as the vision went; he certainly didn’t describe the computer as an appliance.”

    That’s not entirely accurate. The first MS tablet protypes shown in 2000 comprised much of what we see in today’s iPad. It didn’t have multitouch of course, and it didn’t run an instant on OS. But the capability was a superset of today’s iPad. More like an iPad with OS X. The competition at the time was really webpads, which would be like an iPad with no multitouch and no app store. MS also had their Mira initiative, which was an appliance slaved off a host, and their embedded group, which then as now does most of their “appliance” work. Gates and MS had the vision. They, along with their partners, just failed on the execution and importantly were a little early technology wise. It happens.

    The iPad is great, but there’s no need to rewrite history.

    1. I disagree. I was excited by the tablet form factor, got and carried one for a year. Wanted to love it…but no. It was simply a PC laptop with a pen, bad/inadequate/limited software and I quickly stopped trying to use the pen-based functions. The iPad (and those that will quickly emulate it) is wholly different in its basic interactions and design. I don’t disagree that MS has visions and visionaries, but their historic inability to realize them in a way that changes the way we use computers is, sadly, well documented. Need I mention Surface???

    2. There is no re-writting of history here. MS had nothing but a bastardized PC in tablet form that nobody wanted. That is like saying that Microsoft had a computer with a processor, and the iPad has a processor so Microsoft had the same idea before Apple.

  6. Its premature to say apple have succeeded with the ipad. Let’s wait until it’s actually had some time on the Market…

  7. Agreed Jon….premature. For me, I’d really, really like to kind of find that typing with the on-line keyboard will be easy….or easy enough that I can quickly adapt. I think the posts about the rounded back (thus making it wobly on tables) will change with a proper skin. I am concerned though that every view you see of the person using it to type etc., has them with their feet up and legs bent — that’s not so condusive for the future. Anyways, as before, we’ll just see.

  8. I am very pleased with my convertible tablet and Gates is right about the keyboard issue. Not having a keyboard is really restrictive when it comes to actually doing work. But the ipad is restricted to the point that it is useless when it comes to doing actual work, but that seems to be exactly the point. It is nothing like a netbook or laptop it is just a MID.

    Also, I keep seeing people talking about how Microsoft failed to bring the tablet to the masses like it said it would. But really, back in 2001 would you have wanted a tablet? Do you remember laptops in 2000? Mobile technology was a joke back then, but now companies are finally realizing that the technology is there to make a decent tablet that consumers would want and could afford.

  9. The iPod and the iPhone are great products, and most people believed/realized as such when they came out. They took existing concepts and improved and converged them in a way that made them very useful to people.

    The biggest problem I see with the iPad is I can’t envision HOW people are using it. At work? No. At your home? Odds are you have a regular computer there. On the go? This is the ideal spot for the iPad, but it assumes you’ve got $500+ to spend on an “on the go” machine and haven’t yet opted for a laptop or a netbook for this purpose.

    The device can’t replace your iPhone, it can’t replace your iPod, it can’t replace your laptop….so it’s just a 4th device to carry around. I’ve seen people state that this is a computer for “regular people” but you can bet your ass that your non-savvy computer users don’t want to type on a touchscreen keyboard. If you’re using the external keyboard, it sort of defeats the purpose of the device and I doubt “joe computer user” is in a hurry to buy more accessories just to make his $500+ device usable.

    Also, when it comes to the iWork stuff….again, touch screen keyboard. Spreadsheets wouldn’t be TOO tedious, but I can’t even imagine trying to type up a document that way. Holding the device in one hand while hunting and pecking with one finger to type up a document? Who would EVER want to do that?

    The device isn’t a phone…it’s too big to use as a dedicated MP3 player. It’s not a productivity device. It’s not going to play your DVDs, which limits it as a multimedia player, especially for the “casual” user. So with all this in mind, what is the market for this device?

    With iPod, obviously making an MP3 player and making it easier to use had lots of applications. With iPhone, making a smartphone with a hugely improved interface/UI/browser over current phones had great promise.

    I just honestly can’t figure out WHO would want an iPad. The only place I can see this selling is for big Apple fans and gadgetheads who just want a fun toy. Most people aren’t going to be willing to carry ANOTHER device next to their phone/mp3 player/laptop…there are a few who will, but it’s not going to be a world changer. I predict this sells slightly more than the MacBook air. Same userbase, and might draw a few extras due to the lower price.

    1. @ Jason Harris

      I couldn’t have said it better myself. I use and love apple products (macbook and iPhone) but as hard as I try I just don’t get the iPad and just can’t see myself buying one. It’s a big iPod touch, I don’t care what people say! Where would I use it?

      At home? I watch a lot of videos on my macbook (hulu, netflix, etc…) but since flash is not supported, I can’t do that. Using it as a e-book reader might be an option but anyone who’s spent more than an hour reading on an LCD screen knows how much strain it puts on your eyes.

      Commuting? Most people’s commute is short enough that pulling out an iPad is really not practical. And even if you do, unless you spend the extra money for 3G capabilities what do you use it for? Music? videos? maybe…

      At work? Maybe if you’re a teacher or a nurse.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure the iPad will sell like hotcakes, but I’m also willing to bet that there’s going to be a lot of buyer’s remorse when people realize they really didn’t need one.

    2. “I just honestly can’t figure out WHO would want an iPad.”

      Oh ye of limited imagination. For me it’s going to be great to take it to bed and read/watch/listen/play games on the iPad. I do this already with the beloved iPhone but yearn for something with a bigger screen. And not to be crass but an iPad in the bathroom can supplant a stack of magazines, etc. handily! Key is portability, instant on, instant entertainment pretty much anywhere. And of course other applications are unlimited with software making this thing go where no “Pad” has gone before.

      I can’t wait until the iPad goes on sale, becomes a spectacular success (c’mon, you KNOW it will) and puts all the doomsayers, critical feature set geekmeisters and clueless back into their myopic shells where they belong. (Until the next Apple new product introduction that is.)

    3. You are right on the money here Jason Harris.

      PaulG: You just described how I use my laptop. The pad will be terrible in bed because it will not stand itself up.

    4. Barbara Saunders Sunday, February 14, 2010

      I agree.

      The day after the big announcement, I found myself in a cafe, responding to an unexpected, urgent email on my iPhone. I needed access to the Web to get some information. The thought, “An iPad would be great right now,” crossed my mind, and then …

      I remembered that the only reason I had the iPhone with me was that it was small enough to slip in my pocket. Had I expected to need to answer this kind of an email, I would have carried my laptop, which would have been better for the purpose than the iPad.

  10. This coming from a man whose former company knows nothing about user experience. Who can forget their multi-layered preference panels and endless (and often, cryptic) dialog boxes?


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