Microsoft Surface Tablet vs iPad 6/20/12

I wanted to update everybody on the World Congress mHealth Exchange Conference that I’ll be speaking at in July. We’ve gotten lots of applications from startups that we’re reviewing this week. The top 10 will present at the event. If you’re interested in attending, here is the brochure and a discount code for registration – “HISTALK”. I look forward to seeing you there.

I’ve been sick and struggling to come up with something to write this week. The announcement of the new Microsoft Surface Tablet, with corresponding news frenzy, inspired me to write something of a tablet comparison post, comparing the new Surface with the market leading iPad. Many of the details of the new Surface are still to be worked out and certain details, like battery life and price, will play a big role in its success; despite this, it’s still worth looking at what MS did right but also what an uphill battle remains.

First, I admit to being an Apple user. I’m on my third iPhone, second iPad, and second MacBook Pro (hopefully third soon with the new 15 inch Retina MacBook Pro). I still use Windows through a virtual machine, but now mostly only for cross browser testing Internet Explorer 7, which has become the bane of my existence. I do have a Kindle Touch, which I enjoy considerably more than the Kindle App on the iPad. I also have an Android phone used for testing but I struggle with using buttons on touch devices now, so it’s not the experience I’ve come to expect from my phone (Jared Sinclair submitted a great article to HIStalk on the power of touch, worth a read if you missed it). I know most new Android devices don’t have the buttons but mine is not new.

Thinking about Apple products in healthcare brings up a running debate I’ve been having with a friend. He’s an Apple user but has a Dell Windows laptop that he uses for presentations because he thinks vendors with Apple computers throw up flags for healthcare IT shops. I don’t agree with him but in the last couple weeks I’ve been asked twice about support for Windows software, both times with the question prefaced by “You have an Apple computer so…”. So, do people presenting to a healthcare organization throw off flags when they use Apple computers? Just curious.

Back to the new Surface. The new tablet, a departure for MS in that this is essentially building both the hardware and software for a computer, has some pretty impressive features. The tablet has a 10.6″, 16:9 widescreen, front and rear facing camera, and runs on the new Windows tablet OS (full specs here). The defining features are the USB port and keyboard/stand combo, at least compared to the iPad, which, as the market leader, is what all tablets are compared to.

USB ports are something I think it would be nice for the iPad to have (though it might be a Thunderbolt port if Apple ever does add something like this). USB would make life easier as you try to connect to external storage and printers. That said, it’s not that important to me as Dropbox is sufficient for storage and I almost never have something on the iPad that I want to print. You can also use wireless printing on the iPad, though it takes some effort to setup.

In a clinical setting, USB would work well for connecting peripheral devices in the facility. I suppose it would also be possible to connect a non-wireless peripheral device, like a patient glucometer, to a tablet with USB. I think it would also be nice to be able to print educational material, like studies or tailored instructions, for patients. Obviously the iPad enables you to email these things but sometimes printing and handing to somebody is better.

The keyboard cover and stand is what I think is the most striking feature, made all the more striking because it is Microsoft. What the keyboard does is really blur the line between tablet and netbook. The new keyboard is very similar in look to the iPad Smart Cover. It’s attached by magnet to the side of the Surface, protects the screen when closed, and opens to reveal a flat keyboard. All that and it is only 3mm think. It also comes in vibrant colors, also very similar to Smart Covers. To be fair, there are third party keyboards that connect to the iPad but none is as seamlessly integrated as the keyboard on the Surface.

I really like the keyboard and I’m hoping somebody is making a Kickstarter video right now to make something similar for the iPad so I can try it. For me, it would enable me to stop traveling with my laptop. Right now I lug my laptop with me but it’s mostly for writing blog posts. I’ve tried voice but for some reason the process of typing is the only way I can produce anything halfway coherent. For presentations, I can use the Keynote iOS app (MS would need a nice Powerpoint app for the Surface).

To me, that’s a pretty specific use case for the keyboard and I can’t really think of many others, at least for me. I can’t replace my computer with a tablet because of the nature of how I use the computer. I’m currently struggling with a 13″ screen and going to 10.6″, or 9″ with the iPad, is not going to cut it for me for everyday use. I think the same holds true in healthcare. Sure, a tablet with an attached, embedded keyboard could replace computers on carts but I don’t see that happening.

The value of a tablet in a healthcare setting is the mobile nature of it. When used in this way, touch functionality and experience is what needs to be optimized, not adding ease of typing. If that’s the case, the keyboard doesn’t add much and I think the bigger screen doesn’t either. If anything, the 9″ iPad has been criticized as not being portable enough. The major area where the Surface might be of value in healthcare is the home health market. This is an environment where I could see peripheral connectivity and a keyboard being of greatest value. But, despite the value of these added features in home health, a great touch experience is still a necessity.

The other value of the Surface in healthcare doesn’t relate to the tablet but to the company. In selling into the enterprise, I think Microsoft will continue to be more trusted than Apple. The Surface OS likely will also provide other security features that add value beyond the company name. That said, Apple has built an impressive following with clinicians and easing buy-in and adoption for clinicians also has value.

In truth, I think the Surface is not going to be too much of a competitor to the iPad, either generally or in healthcare specifically. I’m fairly confident that Microsoft, or any other tablet competitor, is going to need some impressive wow features to drive users away from the iPad. Between the apps, the resolution, and the brand coolness, I think Apple doesn’t have much to worry about at the moment in the tablet market.

Travis Good is an MD/MBA involved with health IT startups. More about me.


  • Chris Joyce

    No disrespect intended Travis, but I think you do your readers a disservice with the constant Apple bias. I realize iPad is the leader and deserves all the praise they’ve been receiving for the past few years. I’m not an Apple hater. But I would just find the articles more engaging if you weren’t so dismissive of anything that isn’t Apple. It comes off as intellectually lazy. I get the nauseating feeling like “Everyone likes Mad Men, its an amazing show – how could you NOT like Mad Men?” or people that get their news from the Daily Show.

    Did you notice the Surface comes with a stylus and handwriting recognition for note taking, signatures and documentation? That’s important for mobility. USB ports and a larger display? That’s huge for productivity. Gorilla glass for a more rugged form factor? The possibility of a sub $500 price tag? A more healthcare enterprise mobile device that encourages further adoption (including the iPad)? Microsoft already provides better toolsets for building Metro apps than iOS and HTML5 combined. This is a fantastic opportunity for innovation in healthcare mobility!

    Sent from iPhone

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