A decade ago, iPad blindsided Windows team

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Steve Jobs with the original iPad
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad 10 years ago today. It wasn‘t good news for Microsoft.
Screenshot: Apple

Steven Sinofsky has an unusual perspective on the iPad. On the the 10th anniversary of Apple unveiling this tablet computer, the former president of the Windows Division at Microsoft looks back at his reaction to this breakthrough computer.

Sinofsky took to twitter today to reminisce on Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ announcement of the iPad.

iPad: Netbook killer

Just before actually unveiling the iPad, Jobs talked about the creation of a third class of devices, to stand beside iPhone and Mac. But this would have to be better than either of the other two at some tasks.

iPad needed to be better at certain tasks
Steve Jobs said the iPad needed to be better at browsing, email and other tasks to be a success.
Screenshot: Apple

Many people already though they knew what the third class of device would be: netbooks running Windows. But Apple’s co-founder said “The problem is, netbooks aren’t better at anything. They’re slow. They have low quality displays, and they run clunky old PC software. They’re just cheap laptops.”

Sinofsky, who was the head of Windows at the time, said “‘Cheap laptops’…from my perch that was a good thing. I mean _inexpensive_ was a better word. But we knew that Netbooks (and ATOM) were really just a way to make use of the struggling efforts to make low-power, fanless, intel chips for phones. A brutal takedown of 40M units.” That last is a reference to the number of netbooks that had sold at that point.

Then Jobs proceeded to demonstrate what the newly-unveiled iPad could do. As the former Microsoft executive put it, “Sitting in a Le Corbusier chair, he showed the ‘extraordinary’ things his new device did, from browsing to email to photos and videos and more. The real kicker was that it achieved 10 hours of battery life—unachievable in PCs struggling for 4 hours with their whirring fans.”

No pen needed! Really?

The iPad’s lack of pen input really threw Microsoft. “There was no stylus..no pen. How could one input or be PRODUCTIVE?,” said Sinofsky. “PC brains were so wedded to a keyboard, mouse, and pen alternative that the idea of being productive without those seemed fanciful. Also instant standby, no viruses, rotate-able, maintained quality over time…”

To show an iPad didn’t need a stylus to be productive, Apple announced iPad versions of its iWork suite, bringing a word processor, spreadsheet and, and presentation software to its tablet.

Apple’s tablet was criticized for its strong ties to the iPhone. But Sinofsky pointed out “iPad had a 3G modem BECAUSE it was built on the iPhone. If you could figure out the device drivers and software for a PC, you’d need a multi-hundred dollar USB modem and a $60/month fee at best. The iPad made this a $29.99 option on AT&T and a slight uptick in purchase price.”

A shockingly low cost

The price Apple picked for the first iPad took aim at the market for netbooks and other low-cost PCs. “Starting at $499, iPad was a shot right across the consumer laptop,” said Sinofsky. “Consumer laptops were selling over 100 million units a year! Pundits were shocked at the price. I ordered mine arriving in 60/90 days.”

And the iPad enjoyed an immediate rush of sales. “In first year 2010-2011 Apple sold 20 million iPads,” noted the the former Microsoft executive. “That same year would turn out to be an historical high water mark for PCs (365M, ~180M laptops). Analysts had forecasted more than 500M PCs were now rapidly increasing tablet forecasts to 100’s of million and dropping PC.”

An existential threat to Microsoft

And Apple’s tablet was equally bad news for Microsoft. “The iPad and iPhone were soundly existential threats to Microsoft’s core platform business. Without a platform Microsoft controlled that developers sought out, the soul of the company was ‘missing,’” said Sinofsky.

An iPad accessory stood out to the head of Windows at Microsoft. “The kicker for me, though, was that keyboard stand for the iPad,” he said. “It was such a hack. Such an obvious ‘objection handler.’ But it was critically important because it was a clear reminder that the underlying operating system was ‘real’…it was not a ‘phone OS.’

“Knowing the iPhone and now iPad ran an robust OS under the hood, with a totally different ‘shell”, interface model (touch), and app model (APIs and architecture) had massive implications for being the leading platform provider for computers,” finished Sinofsky. “That was my Jan 27, 2010.”