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.

Alleged Apple fanboi, accused Android apologist, and confirmed Microsoft MVP for touch and tablet Mark Sumimoto a.k.a. Sumocat dabbles in all areas of mobile computing with a focus on Windows-based Tablet PCs and pen input. A mobile computing enthusiast since 2004, he pioneered the field of ink blogging via his personal blog, Sumocat's Scribbles. His current tools include a Fujitsu Lifebook T900, TEGA v2, and iPhone 4. Email: sumocat [at]


  1. I have used keyboards for a long as any other 65 year-old person, and i also like to keep abreast of useful technology. So I want the best of both worlds.

    I’ve also used Tablet PCs, however my 2008 Toshiba Portege M200 (Windows 7 now) spends 95% of its time in ordinary laptop mode. I agree with you and others, the pen experience in Windows Tablet PCs is still the best.

    This year i bought my first iPad, yes, a great bit of kit, but still not there for me, I want forms on the same device.

    This is why I will look at the MS Surface, as well as the Lenovo Yoga.

  2. I’m sorry, I dont’t really get it. The keyboard covers for the Surface are accessories, just like all the keyboard covers for the iPad or all the android tablets. In case of the surface, they are just a bit more clever, better thought out and better integrated which is a nice touch and the reason why the blogging world is buzzing with all the infos about these covers.
    Speaking for myself and probably a lot of other people: I would add a thin cover to my tablet in any case so I can just stuff it in my bag. If that cover can be used as a keyboard too without sacrificing much weight/space then that is certainly nothing I would sneeze at. Why would I? It is an option and the Surface seems perfectly usable without it. It’s not like on older windows-tablets or convertibles where you (have to) work with an OS and a device that was in its core developed around the keyboard-and-mous-combo.

    I actually wonder why such a sharp posting comes from you – you seem very focussed on functionality and productivity in a tablet. This is something I can very much relate to: I’ve been using convertible tablet PCs at the university for a few years now and the experience I’ve had has led me to be very, very excited about the Surface (Pro):
    A tablet that can run a full Windows, yet still be usable as a touch-controlled device and finally, finally at the same time with the incorporation of digital ink. The added keyboard functionality just rounds the whole thing off:
    I imagine, I would be using a surface most of the time as a digital writing pad for notes, annotations and sketches with the pen, in between to do some web browsing, calendar management etc. and sometimes, say if I have to reply to a blog post on gottabemobile ;) I would just flip the touch cover around and type away, probably much faster than on the onscreen keyboard and without obstructing half of my display with the virtual keys. When I’m done, I would just flip the cover back and go on with whatever else I want to do.

  3. I have the Apple wireless keyboard for the iPad and I find I almost never use it. In fact I write pretty much all of my “Post-PC Life” blog posts simply using my iPad’s touchscreen (and I’ve even written a few posts using my iPhone’s touchscreen as well).

    Once you get the hang of it, you can type pretty darn fast on the iPad. I just type and let autocorrect take care of my mistakes, then go back and edit the few it didn’t catch (or incorrectly autocorrected), and it’s almost as fast as typing on a regular keyboard after a bit of practice. This was written using my iPad too, incidentally. :)

  4. Someone already mentioned it, but the keyboard on the Surface tablet is part of the cover. Take it or leave it. I certainly don’t think it takes anything away from the fact that the tablet itself is undeniably a slate; think Asus Transformer Prime, which seems to have a decent following as far as Android tablets go.

    I prefer keyboards as an input method. I’ve been a tablet PC user/enthusiast for quite a while and prefer the convertibles over the slates for the keyboard. Different strokes and all that jazz.

    The Surface design is well thought out in my opinion. Don’t like the keyboard? Don’t use it. Simple as that. If the Surface tablet gains any popularity I’m sure we’ll see third party covers without the keyboard.

    I think the bigger issue for Microsoft is the timing of their announcement. The time to market for the average consumer who’s ready to open their wallets now will be problematic. Our attention spans have gotten considerably shorter over the past several years, especially when it comes to shiny objects like consumer electronics.

  5. MS hyped the “new” Surface keyboard simply because otherwise there was nothing much to hype at all. it’s the same old MS slate concept – running desktop Windows on tablet. including trackpad and stylus!

    which never has and never will succeed. because desktop Windows applications have never been designed for a touch UI and were never intended for such small screens. MS might be able to correct this with Windows 8 and its own Office suite. but all the other the major software companies would have to follow suit, and they’re not going to go through all the trouble and expense of totally redesigning their popular software unless and until an MS slate sells tens of millions.

    i doubt many will even update their products for Windows 8, except for necessary compatibility patches, until they see if it’s really popular or not.

    and this is all doubly true for complex specialized business software products. any tablet programs written for them (mostly iOS now) are set up as add-on modules to the base software for very focused purposes, not as replacements of the base program.

    well, maybe MS will finally give up trying to jam the Desktop Windows square peg into a tablet round hole after the Surface flops.

  6. Sorry Sumo, but you are wrong this time. Look at the comparison devices in your first photo – the screen portion is THICKER than the Surface. The keyboard cover will be killer and will redefine the market again – we just didn’t have the hardware before.

  7. Aside from weight, thickness, and form factor differences to the older generation of devices, there’s also the big difference of running tablet apps on Windows XP vs. Windows 8. I’ll be all for it if it provides the touch experience of an iPad, inking of a Tablet PC, and the ability to bust out the keyboard and do content creation (the “real work”) of a laptop.

  8. The cover acts as a keyboard as AN EXTRA BONUS FOR THE USER: what a horrible fail! You can use a pen for accurate drawing and handwriting IF YOU WANT TO: fail! You have a file system that lets you do what you want with your stuff: fail! There’s a display port and a usb port so you don’t need to haul around a bag of accessories: fail!

    If this kind of iFad marketing success continues, they’ll be able to sell flooring tiles and dongle pebbles as tablets before long.

  9. I use a tablet for most of my browsing. Until I know I have to do a lot of typing on webpages or some serious research. Then I bust out my notebook. The idea of the cover making the keyboard always an option without having to get up and get an accessory keyboard sounds great to me. It’s almost like it’s an advantage over other tablets. Crazy.

  10. I am a long time Windows Tablet user (on my 3rd generation tablet – a Fujitsu T2010). I’ve owned 2 convertibles and 1 slate. I agree that keyboards don’t sell tablets. But after my experience with a slate, I decided that I didn’t want to be without a keyboard. I don’t always use it, but I always want it available. I am enthusiastic about what I’ve heard so far about Surface, and part of that enthusiasm is about the keyboard solutions. It might finally be time to replace the Fujitsu tablet if they can bring it to market soon enough without any more of this “lock you into Microsoft ecosystem” nonsense that they’ve tried recently with Windows Phone and OneNote.

    I had been a longtime Windows Phone user/Pocket PC user, but I’ve recently gotten my first Android phone. I switched to Android because of this simple proposition from Microsoft in Windows Phone 7: “Want to sync your phone? Don’t have your own Exchange server? Then you *must* do it to Microsoft’s cloud!” I agree that cloud syncing is conventient, and I appreciate it as an option. But as my only choice other than third party sync software? It was enough to discourage a dedicated Windows Phone guy like me long enough for something else to win me over. My experience with my Anroid phone is helping me see that Microsoft’s software is quickly becoming less important to the average user. If they cannot soon *compete* in the mobile and tablet space, then they are in serious trouble. And competing is not locking you in. It’s having functionality and features so compelling that you want to be there. (And don’t get me started on who’s really been in a “Beta Test” with phones.)

    I’m also a big Microsoft OneNote user and evangelist among friends and co-workers. I think that OneNote is the most unique, useful and compelling piece of software that Microsoft sells. I’ve been showing surprised co-workers the kind of information that I can organize and retrieve with OneNote for almost 9 years. Recently, my workplace started providing OneNote on company machines, and it’s fun to watch my those same co-workers jump into OneNote. (Wait, this all sounds good, where is the problem here? Wait for it.) Now, Microsoft has again decided, this time with the OneNote for Android, that not only must I sync to the cloud, I am not allowed to use the product *at all* if I won’t create my notebooks on the Microsoft cloud. So, I’ve abandoned OneNote on my Android device, and am exploring other options. And there are plenty. After I settle on one, what are the chances I’ll be back? About the same as with Windows Phone.

    Recently, a friend showed me an Android tablet (Asus Transformer). It was more tempting than I expected. (The size made me think a little of Oregami. Sigh.) I hope that Microsoft comes through with Surface, made compelling with features and unfettered with platform constraints, before Android becomes mature enough to get me off of Windows altogether.

  11. The main thing is that this is a 1.5 or 1.8 pound (reports differ) laptop with, presumably, a user interface that is more adapted to smaller screens, but which runs the industry standard operating system (with access to all those applications).

    If it adds some convertible-like features, whatever but OK…maybe a few of them might actually be useful — two spring to mind: 1) drawing with a stylus; and 2) reading books and such with the keyboard folded over might be nice at times just to allow different physical postures.

    Of course a keyboard is absolutely essential for all but people with specific handicaps — this is our primary input device and will remain so for quite some time.

  12. Hmmm, go back to April 2010. You do fail to mention that the iPad was released (with a lot of fanfare I might add) with an optional keyboard. Yes, it was optional, but it also reflects the fact the Apple recognized at the time (and during all the thoughtful design process that lead to the iPad) that having keyboards available are an important feature. So, while I agree with you in that the iPad has succeeded because it is a “pure” tablet, I actually think that the Surface is a “purer” tablet in that sense.

    • Yes – why does EVERYONE forget Jobs demo of the “keyboard dock” – basically a Mac Bluetooth clone just for the iPad. The Surface is the keyboard “done right.” (Oops – sorry SJ for Stealing your favorite line).

  13. @Blair – I feel for you. In the coming years you won’t be able to use a smartphone, tablet or full computer. The Cloud is here, and Microsoft has been leading the way with this for a long time, it is simply in the past few years they feel like they can make bigger, bolder moves. I’m happy with the changes. I’m a Tablet PC user, Onenote nut, and WP7 lover. Mostly because of how connected to the cloud everything is, and in my tech sales experience when you show someone how they can do everything they’ve been doing through some manner of cloud service, they are impressed and switch their entire company over. Not be upset they can’t still plug in a dongle and sync a few things over a cable. I understand the desire to want things to be the same always, but it simply isn’t the future and technology drops the things only used in niche markets.

    @Gottabemobile –

    Seriously? The issue you have with the Microsoft Surface Tablet is that it has a fantastic keyboard and you think that this is the defining property of it that makes it compete with the iPad?

    I was talking with someone just the other day and he is a tech geek, but younger than me (I’m not that old). And this guy says, “Wow, did you know it has a keyboard cover AND a digitizer, I’m stoked, finally I can run all my art programs and draw right on the screen!” And I looked at him, and smiled, told him about the history of Tablet PCs and let him play with mine. He had just recently bought an iPad because he’d heard such great reviews of the art programs on it. They suck, not because of the apps, but because of the capacitive pens you have to use. It just isn’t a tool, it is a toy.

    I started talking to people specifically about this announcement and low and behold the keyboard and pen options were the things selling almost everyone. Excitement was boiling around features that really have been part of windows-based tablet pcs for a long time. A built in keyboard (convertible tablets) and a digitizer pen. And then I thought about all the years I’ve been using Tablet PCs and wondered how many times in that time did Microsoft make a major announcement about the fact that their stuff did these things? Zero.

    When people see my computer, even though it’s a clunky Lenovo Thinkpad x200, they don’t care about its bulk, they don’t look at the odd way the battery sticks out, they don’t even care that it seems worn around the edges and that it has no fancy industrial design. They care that I’m doing something they’ve dreamed of doing with their laptop for a long long time, they just never knew the technology existed. At 3 1/2 years old this laptop still turns heads, from Mac users, from PC users, from individuals who wasted money on things like the HTC Flyer or Samsung Note, because they realize when they see my laptop there’s something that DOES do what they’ve always wanted.

    You know what, I’m not so excited about the Microsoft Surface Tablet. I didn’t need a marketing team to show me a tool I wanted, I looked for it, scoured for it, found great reviews and bought the damn thing. But most people? If it ain’t on TV it don’t exist. Well, the Microsoft Surface has got the attention focused on things that Microsoft has done for many years, and failed at doing, and not because people didn’t want these tools but because no one told them these tools existed. In an age where people aren’t curious, don’t properly research their products (they just read tech blogs at best), and regularly waste money on crap that doesn’t do what they want, they now have it without compromise. This is something that might just stick in their lives.

    • I am posting this from a Motion LE1700. I fully agree with this comment. I think the Tablet PC was and is an amazing piece of hardware, but it was one of the most colossal marketing failures in history.

    • Finally a post that has some facts and common sense with it. I’ve been buying and using tablet PC’s since they were available on the market. You couldn’t really call it introduced to the market since there was never really any advertising for them. Yet all the time I used those devices people were amazed with the functionality prior to the iPad. Most people that approached me post iPad in the consumer market mostly asked me if I can do certain apps and were amazed when I told them they could run anything they can run on their PC. In the IT and business world, everytime I see someone run an iPad or Mac, they either have a fold out keyboard to take notes, or run a Windows 7 VM to be functional. My ASUS 12″ slate with Windows 8 is leaving quiet an impression even without a keyboard but the full Windows functionality and improved touch capability, and this prior to release without improved applications tailored for Windows 8 and improved hardware.

  14. The 10-point multi-touch of the iPad allows another virtual keyboard concept:
    The app TypeWay adapts the key configuration to individual hands!
    E.g. resting of 10 fingers lets shift the keys in relation to the fingertips,
    and typing changes key positions too.

  15. I think a good no-briner keybord solution will help sell surface tablets. There is a segment of the market that will want a keybard and appreciate the “fit”. If this is not WiFI connected it will be a power/battery life saver.

    To me, a keyboard is an accesory and will not kamake the decision for me.

    The (Microsoft) Keyboard that was included with the Asus EP121 was not a good “fit”. It was not the same size, not elegant to transport with the EP121, was not included in the warrenty – it just added to the cost.

    The Samsung S7 has not had great reviews and had poor availability.

    Following the TablePCReview forums, the enthusiast have had a lot of discussion over the keyboard options.

    For myself, when at home I want a docking solution that allows me to use teh slate as a drawing tablet with an external monitor and keyboars.

    The MS cover appeals to me as an accesory that other keyboard have not. It seeems to be an elegant solution.
    I hope it can be attached backears for east carring when using in tablet mode. Any laptop configutration is not good ergonomically. I hope there is a dock solution.

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