Keyboards Don’t Sell Tablets

Attention everyone who thinks a keyboard is the key to beating the iPad: 2009 called. They want their thoroughly disproved idea that tablets need keyboards back.


Remember back in the months leading up to the iPad’s release? All these people who knew nothing about tablets were talking about all the problems with tablets. They were all like “tablets suck” and “people want keyboards” and “Apple would never build such a dumb device.” And then what happened? Apple released a keyboard-free tablet and those same know-nothings lined up to get one.

Back in the present, Microsoft revealed their new Surface tablet with an amazing keyboard, and once again the claims of “people want keyboards” are ringing through the halls about how the Touch/Type Cover keyboards will be the “killer” feature of the Microsoft Surface. Yeah, because that’s why people buy tablets – for the keyboards.

Give me a break. If a keyboard could sell tablets, how do you explain this?


If your powers of observation match that of my wife’s, you’ll notice they all look like laptops. But they’re not. They’re tablets. Windows tablets.


The first is the venerable HP TC1100, widely recognized as the most beloved Tablet PC due in part to its… wait for it… innovative attachable keyboard. The second wasn’t a product. It was a teaser image from Microsoft’s Origami Project*. Yes, that design with a keyboard and kickstand from 2006 was from Microsoft for their UMPC. (Go green! Recycle!) Love the form factors, but let’s face it, neither the Tablet PC nor the UMPC set the world on fire, both of which worked fine with keyboards. So why, oh why, does anyone think a keyboard, even one as amazing as the Surface Touch Cover, could be the “secret weapon” for selling tablets?

Don’t get me wrong. I like physical keyboards. A lot. I rock two Microsoft keyboards at work. I have a convertible Tablet PC for my personal use. But I also ink. I’m also pretty good at typing with one thumb on on my iPhone. I’m not a ninny who’s useless without a flat surface to type on (and thinks everyone else is too). The keyboard is, as I’ve argued for years, a great peripheral, but it is exactly that: a peripheral. Keyboards have a place, and it’s not at the top of a tablet’s feature list. Keyboards are useful as value add-ons but they’re not the answer to beating the iPad.

If looking at Microsoft’s history of misses with tablets doesn’t convince you, how about looking at Apple’s breakout hit?

New iPadThere it is. The world’s most successful tablet. And surprise, surprise, it looks like a tablet. Yes, it works with and can attach to a keyboard. But no one thinks that’s some absolute critical feature. More importantly, they’re not pushing the iPad as some type of pseudo-laptop, and it’s become Apple’s fastest selling product. The iPad did not succeed despite its lack of keyboard. It succeeded because of it, just like the iPhone did.


If the Surface is to do the same, it needs to break away from the failures of the past and that means promoting it as slate and not dressing it up like a laptop. Yes, the Touch Cover technology is amazing, but that’s not going to make this tablet a success, any more than keyboards on its predecessors did. The sooner everyone recognizes that and stops with the “killer” keyboard nonsense, the sooner we can focus on the features that truly set the Surface apart.

*Hat tip to UMPCPortal for the Origami flashback.