Apple has released the iPad Mini. Microsoft unveiled the Surface RT. Google has expanded its play with the Nexus 4 (phone) and 10 (tablet) to sandwich the previously released 7. In virtually every review of these new devices the Apple advantage was ecosystem.

Time and time again, following descriptions of well designed and built hardware 1, reviewers were forced to add some form of, “But the ecosystem cannot compete with Apple’s 275,000 tablet-optimized application.” I think this understates the power of Apple’s amazing developer advantage.

I use three distinct computing platforms every day: my phone, my tablet, and my traditional PC (laptop and desktop). There are times where I use an application which is specific to one platform or the other. Dark Sky, for example, is incredibly useful on my iPhone but would be pretty pointless on my Mac Mini or Macbook Air. This kind of platform-specific, quality application is what most would consider the App Store advantage. Not me.

Apple’s true advantage is when applications are available across all three platforms, offering simultaneously a device-optimized and consistent experience no matter what I am using.

They offer a frictionless experience.

There is a good reason people were so excited for Tweetbot for OSX and love to use Reeder on iPhone, iPad, and OSX. The features, feel, gestures, and even notification sounds having consistency across environments makes it easier to use computers. The so-called “halo effect” of the iPod was widely discussed in the early 2000s. iTunes on every Windows machine represented the tail end of a long play that pushed the promise of frictionless computing with Apple products. iOS delivers on this promise in spades.

Google knows a big selling point of Android is offering the best mobile experience with their web products. As an early and voracious user of Gmail, Google Contacts, and Google Calendar, I do find this enticing. But Android apps are never going to be able to offer the frictionless experience offered by Apple across the mobile and desktop space. ChromeOS is Google’s best effort to push a frictionless platform, but it’s entirely limited to non-native applications so anything but Google products require major modifications and just won’t be the same.

Microsoft sees the Apple advantage clearly, and they understand Google’s inability to fully compete. That’s why they are launching Windows 8, in many ways attempting to even further integrate the tablet and desktop than Apple. The Surface, and Windows 8 writ large, is a bet that Apple made a mistake grouping tablets with cell phones. The tablet, according to Microsoft, is about replacing laptops and should be grouped with the desktop.

I think this is a smart play, regardless of some of the rough reviews of both the Surface RT and Windows 8. Version 1 has some awkward transitions on both devices, but that may be worth the cost to take advantage of a near-future where the power available on a large tablet will be comparable to that of a laptop or even desktop computer. Just as the Macbook Air is every bit as good a consumer computer as “the fatter” laptop market, soon tablets will be every bit as good a consumer computer that exists. Microsoft’s bet is that with that power will come more sophisticated and complex uses, better suited to applications at home on the desktop. They are betting the future is the past– a full multitasking enabled, file-system revealing environment. If that’s what users will eventually want from their tablets, Windows 8 will have these capabilities baked in from the start while iOS struggles to pump out new features and APIs to mimic (or create) these capabilities.

The future is frictionless. Apple’s true advantage is they can already offer one version of that future. If Microsoft plays its cards right, and if it is not too late 2, they can offer an equally compelling alternative. It won’t win over the real, dyed-in-the-wool Apple fans, but it may stem the tide carrying the consumer market swiftly away.

  1. Hardly a given in the past from either Google (LG/ASUS) and Microsoft partners. Although Microsoft’s actual hardware, until now primarily keyboards and mice (do you pluralize a computer mouse? It seems strange.) ↩︎

  2. I really think it might be. Windows Phone 7 was brilliant, but released 2 years too late behind at least 1 year of development. ↩︎