During Apple's Q4 2012 conference call today, when asked about Microsoft's new Surface tablet, Tim Cook said he hadn't had a chance to play with one yet, but based on everything he'd read, he found it to be compromised and confusing.
Cook went on to say that one of the toughest things to do when designing a product was making hard tradeoffs and deciding what a product should be. He said that's what Apple had done with the iPad, and what made the iPad user experience incredible.
While not exactly citing Home Simpson's car, Cook did liken Microsoft's Surface to making a car that could also fly and float, but not do any one of those things particularly well.
The use of the word "compromised" is interesting, since "no compromises" was Microsoft's buzzword for Windows 8. That translates into two versions of the Surface, one that's releasing now and runs Windows RT for ARM, and one that's being released early next year and runs Windows 8 Pro on Intel. It also translates into two modes, the Metro/Modern/Windows 8-style of higher-level apps, which is more like iOS, and the full-on Windows mode, which is more like traditional Windows, of course. It also comes with two versions of Internet Explorer, one for Metro and one for Windows. They also have two kinds of keyboard-covers, one that's multitouch and one that has physical keys. And the bifurcation goes on and on.
Optimistically, it can be viewed as Microsoft trying to best serve the needs of both new, iPad-generation users and old, Windows-generation users both, and transition the latter towards the former. Pessimistically, it can be viewed as Microsoft failing to make any choices of their own, and offloading all those choices to the users.
Pragmatically, it can seen as living somewhere in between the iPad and the laptop, the way the iPad mini lives somewhere between the iPhone/iPod touch and the iPad.
It's personality is undeniably split, and that will seem compromised and confused to most Apple users, made only worse by the inarticulate way Microsoft has handled their messaging. But it might also be exactly what traditional Windows PC users need to help move them into the post-PC era.
The Surface isn't a product Apple would ever make, but it's also more than the Tablet PCs Microsoft has allowed to be made in the past. So whether or not history ultimately judges it as a misstep, for Microsoft, it remains a step, and that's interesting.