Can the Surface Win Its Way Into the Heart of the iPad Market?

Bill Gates is on a mission to prove that Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) is down, but by no means out. While the software maker fills the top slot in several categories, there’s at least one market where that is not the case: mobile platforms, or more specifically, tablet computers.

The number one space for tablets is almost undeniably awarded to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), as its iPad tablet has sold 140 million units since its launch in 2010. It’s widely accepted as the gold standard of tablet computing, and the company has built legions of fans around the product, while Microsoft has been largely relegated to the sidelines as the iPad stole the spotlight.

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A few years following the iPad’s release, Microsoft gave the tablet market a shot with its own unit, the Surface. As is usually the case with products that don’t enjoy first-to-market advantage, the Surface has been a relatively slow seller. The company sold 900,000 units in the first quarter of this year, for about 1.8 percent of the tablet market. (Apple, by contrast, sold an estimated 19.5 million units). Although selling more slowly than the company was hoping for, Bill Gates has stated that the Surface fills in the void that the iPad has left empty.

Gates maintains that tablet users desire more than what the iPad can offer. Unlike the iPad, the Surface has a physical keyboard, but perhaps more importantly, it can offer a fully functional office suite.

“With Windows 8, Microsoft is trying to gain share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device,” Gates said. “A lot of those users are frustrated. They can’t type. They can’t create documents. They don’t have Office there. So we are providing them something with the benefits they have seen that have made that a big category, without giving up what they expect in a PC.”

For Microsoft (and by extension, Bill Gates), the tablet represents a far more functional product than what the iPad is currently offering. Perhaps it stems from the company cultures of which the two tablets were born — Apple, with its extensive app store and game-and-fun friendly interface, versus Microsoft’s undeniable mastery of office productivity. The two products seem to exist to serve two different purposes.

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In a reality now where technological success hinges on such peripheral additions as a physical keyboard, or having the right apps or a bigger camera, there is a key notion to keep in mind: technology has come so far overall that companies must rely on these mundane details to differentiate one product from another. Is it really so impossible to think that the iPad and Surface cannot coexist?

In the end, consumer preference will ultimately be the deciding factor in the tablet war (or smartphone battle, for that matter). What works for one person may not work for the next. To some, a tablet represents a fun gadget to bring on long flights, a means for some comic relief after the workday. To others, the tablet is a tool for streamlining office productivity and ensuring you have the necessary utility in a compact, easy-to-store format. Whatever side of the tablet divide you fall on, if the tablet you own does what you need it to do, that’s the most important part of all.

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