Bill Gates Unimpressed by the iPad

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 (s msft). 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 (s aapl) 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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