Why Android Tablets Will Never Be Overtaken by Surface

Coming out to either support or attack an operating system, company or piece of hardware almost inevitably leads to accusations of fanboyism. My choice of headline here may make it sound as though I’m on the attack, going out for Microsoft all gun blazing… But that’s not the case.

While this is an Android site and I spend a huge amount of my time playing with Android apps, tablets and smartphones, I actually spend the vast majority of my time using — ironically — a first generation Surface Pro… and I love it. So I’ll preface this article by saying that I love Android, and I love Windows and the Surface platform. But I’m not foolish enough to think that Surface will ever overtake Android — or even become its equal. Why? There are various reasons.

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Microsoft seems strangely directionless when it comes to Surface. The first generation on the tablet / laptop hybrid is widely regarded as something of a failure, and now the company is having a second attempt with Surface 2. Part of the problem with Surface is the difference between the Pro and non-Pro versions.

The second generation Surfaces changed the naming convention, causing further confusion for customers.

The second generation Surfaces changed the naming convention, causing further confusion for customers.

The first time around, the two models could be differentiated by the RT and Pro suffixes. It seems that this caused a degree of confusion for potential buyers. It’s clear that there is a distinction — they have different names after all! — but Microsoft did a terrible job of explaining just what it was.

Taken at face value, the key difference was price. Surface RT was significantly cheaper than the Pro model, making it seem like the tablet hadn’t quite decided what it wanted to be. It was comparable in price to higher end Android tablets, but cheaper than the iPad. The major difference, of course, was that, despite appearances, this did not run the regular flavour of Windows.

Surface Pro runs Windows 8, but the RT version is likely to lead to disappointment in the app department.

Surface Pro runs Windows 8, but the RT version is likely to lead to disappointment in the app department.

Instead there was a strange new beast in the form of Windows RT. This was, and indeed is, the mobile version of Windows 8. But there is one very important thing to bear in mind — something that Microsoft was not exactly shouting from the rooftops — Windows RT does not run regular desktop software.

On the one hand, it could be argued that this makes perfect sense. This is a mobile device, so it isn’t wrong to have a separate mobile operating system. But on the other, Windows RT looks so much like regular Windows (indistinguishably in fact), you would be forgiven for expecting it to act the same. After all, Apple’s mobile OS, iOS, looks completely different from its desktop OS, OS X. Similarly, Google’s Android and Chrome OS are completely different versions. Users would expect them to operate differently.

Version differences through age aside, use an Android device and the OS is the same.

Version differences through age aside, use an Android device and the OS is the same.

So it is very possible that a lot of people bought into the idea of the cheaper Surface RT only to discover they were not able to run the apps they’ve come to know and love. Remember how Windows Phone is often derided for having such a sparsely populated app store? The situation is worse for Windows RT.

Surface Pro gave users the ability to run regular Windows software — any program you like, just like on your desktop or laptop — but it comes at a price. Surface had an image problem, and the confusion about the name and capabilities of the operating systems. The second generation of Surface has now been released, so what has Microsoft done to clear up this confusion? Nothing. If anything, the situation has been made worse.

Surface tablets are undeniably heavier than both Android and iPad -- another nail in the coffin.

Surface tablets are undeniably heavier than both Android and iPad — another nail in the coffin.

The cheaper hardware running Windows RT is now known as Surface 2, and the device that runs full-fat Windows is the Surface 2 Pro. There is absolutely no indication that the cheaper of the two will only run a small selection of apps that have been specially coded. If there was confusion before, it just got a whole lot worse. At least before, the presence of RT in the name suggested some sort of difference, but now it just looks like Pro and non-Pro.

It would be reasonable to expect the two to be pretty much identical… But the Pro is faster, right? Now even this unclear differentiation had been removed. If Surface had a poor reputation before, this is going to do nothing to repair it. There will be numerous uninitiated buyers who opt for the Surface 2 under the delusion that they are getting a cheap Windows tablet.

I’ve also mentioned Surface’s lack of direction. It really does seem undecided about whether it wants to be a tablet or a laptop. It tries to be a bit of both and excels at neither. Despite Microsoft’s protests to the contrary and pushing of the Modern interface, Windows 8 is not a touch friendly operating system. By comparison, Android was designed specifically with touch operation in mind.

Windows 8's onscreen keyboard is one illustration of its unsuitability for touchscreen operation.

Windows 8’s onscreen keyboard is one illustration of its unsuitability for touchscreen operation.

Android also benefits from a well-established ecosystem with Google Play offering a wide range of decent quality apps (although there are, of course, plenty of duds). Surface finds itself in something of a Catch 22 situation. People are put off buying it for, amongst other reasons, the limited number of apps that are available. And developers are uninterested in spending time producing the apps because of the limited market.

Google Play is a staggering display of just what can be achieved with mobile apps.

Google Play is a staggering display of just what can be achieved with mobile apps.

But Microsoft has also shot itself in the foot with the pricing of the hardware. Surface RT and Surface 2 may be relatively cheap, but the fully fledged Surface Pro and Surface 2 Pro cost more than a decent laptop. And in either case, you’ll probably want to invest in a keyboard to make life a little easier. The cost of a keyboard cover? Over $100. For a keyboard.

With an Android tablet, you know what you are getting. There is a tablet to suit just about every budget and for many people the hardest decision they’ll have to make is choosing a screen size. And if you want a keyboard or a keyboard case for your Android, things are much, much cheaper and there is a far wider range to choose from.

Unlike Surface, Android device have an abundance of varied, affordable accessories such as cases and keyboards.

Unlike Surface, Android device have an abundance of varied, affordable accessories such as cases and keyboards.

Surface may work for some people, myself included; it certainly has its place. But Microsoft should get no delusions of grandeur or expect to make any sort of impact on the tablet market with its platform. In fewer words: Android can be tailored to the user while Surface requires users to bend to its will.

Surface is a unique product. It has no direct competition. But it fails by trying to be everything to everyone, and throws a dash of confusing nomenclature into the mix for good measure. I think Android is safe for the foreseeable future.