I recently presented UX Design Essentials for Managers to a group of executives. Everyone there had an iPad and loved it. Most said that they were using their iPads for routine tasks now, and rarely needed their laptops anymore. Their top question for me: Why didn’t Microsoft invent the iPad?
It’s a very reasonable question to ask, and the answer is extremely relevant to the course. After all, Microsoft had a huge head start, with an early lead in tablets and touch. Windows XP, Tablet PC Edition was released in 2002, Windows Vista had pen support built in by 2007, and Windows 7 had touch support built in by 2009. And Windows has a huge market share advantage to help get traction.
By contrast, after the failed Newton, Apple showed very little interest in tablets. My friend Bert Keeley, a tablet and touch expert, approached Apple about creating a tablet but was rebuffed by Steve Jobs, who said “We won’t do those.” When Apple finally shipped the iPad in April 2010, it was extremely late to the party.
Fashionably late, it appears, as the iPad has driven Microsoft’s tablet efforts into oblivion. And it took all of a week on the market to do so.
Dick Brass is a former Microsoft VP who led their tablet and e-book efforts. After the iPad was released, he wrote the New York Times article Microsoft’s Creative Destruction, where Mr. Brass explains how Microsoft’s “dysfunctional corporate culture” squandered its early lead. He tells a tale of technology backstabbing and sabotage remarkably similar to the plot of Mean Girls.
But is this really the reason why Microsoft didn’t invent the iPad? Here’s an interesting thought experiment: suppose Microsoft executives were a little less adept at backstabbing and sabotage, and gave their full support to Mr. Brass. Would Microsoft-based tablets have been as successful as the iPad?
My answer: No.
Many people believe that UX design is problem solving and Microsoft definitely falls into that camp. Here’s a problem solving approach to designing a Microsoft tablet:
(BTW: What’s up with “pain points”? Many people talk about these—as if not being painful is a good user experience design aspiration.)
If the iPad didn’t exist, this might seem like a reasonable plan—especially to a Microsoft VP. Exploit the Windows market share, get something out there quickly that runs Office, and see what happens.
But in the context of the iPad, there are three glaring flaws with this approach:
Having tablet technology doesn’t matter. Running Windows and Office doesn’t matter. Having a delightful, hassle free experience does. That is why the iPad is successful.
Apple gets this, but Microsoft doesn’t (Mr. Brass included).
The iPad is unique among consumer electronics devices. The iPad is something everybody wants, but nobody needs. There is nothing you can do with an iPad that you can’t do with a laptop or a smartphone.
This is not a slight. After all, nobody needs a Ferrari either. Rather, it sets an extremely high bar for UX design. There is no clear need to fill—beyond customer delight. Without a clear need, if the results aren’t delightful, what’s the point?
Microsoft can create delightful products—but only after it has exhausted all other possibilities. The much-maligned Zune is an interesting example. While the initial release was weak, the Zune desktop software was delightful and made iTunes look like a spreadsheet. But by the time Microsoft got it right, it was well beyond the point where anybody cared.
The “three tries to get it right” approach worked just fine in the Windows and Office era, but doesn’t work anymore when your competitors are hitting grand slams every time at bat.
OK, enough about Microsoft’s problems…what does this mean to you? Here are the key takeaways:
Attention managers: Do you need help improving your team’s design culture? Please consider hosting UX Design Essentials for Managers for your management team. This class will help your team identify and work through its design culture challenges (having a neutral outsider drive really helps), plus help boost their UX design skills.