Devices! Devices! Devices!

Steve Ballmer, in an email to Microsoft employees today:

“Going forward, our strategy will focus on creating a family of devices and services for individuals and businesses that empower people around the globe at home, at work, and on the go, for the activities they value most.”

Now that’s interesting.

The CEO of the world’s largest software company says Microsoft will focus on devices and services.

Translation: Ballmer wants to morph Microsoft into a mix of Apple (devices) and Google (services).

Where does Windows fit into Ballmer’s plans? Well, Windows is already running on Microsoft’s three primary devices: Surface tablet, Xbox, and Windows Phone. And the current head of Windows and Surface engineering, Julie Larson-Green, is now in charge of the new Devices and Studios group.

Microsoft still builds a crapload of other products. But none are as important as those Larson-Green is now tasked with growing.  Microsoft has seen clear success with the Xbox, and with the Xbox One on the horizon, should maintain their lead in the cutthroat console business.

But the Surface and Windows Phone are basically non-players in a game being dominated by Apple and Samsung. If Larson-Green can turn them around to become a bona-fide competition in the smartphone and tablet markets, then Ballmer should turn over the CEO keys to her.

How much are two well-known devices worth to Apple?

The iPhone, which Ballmer famously mocked, has been around since 2007 while the iPad didn’t show up until 2010. These two products now drive more revenue and profit than every Microsoft product and service combined. In fact, the iPhone, on its own, is larger than Microsoft in terms of revenue and profit.

Ballmer finally appears to realize that mobile is the future, even for the company that built the desktop.

But It Comes With A Bug Deflector

It’s not supposed to happen like this.

Especially in consumer electronics where new tech comes along and knocks the leader of its perch. Look no further than the gaming consoles pioneered by Atari and Nintendo which eventually gave way to the Sony Playstation. Until, of course, Nintendo regained its footing with the Wii only to have Microsoft waiting in the wings with its Xbox and hot selling Kinect.

But that’s not what we’re witnessing in the consumer tablet market. In fact, it’s not really a tablet market as much as it’s the iPad’s market where a few companies dabble from time to time.

Competitors like Samsung, Blackberry, Sony, Toshiba, and Motorola have had two years to produce something that gives Apple a run for its money. And, to date, each of them have created tablets which consumers find less appetizing than a turd sandwich.

I see these competing tablets each time I visit Fred Meyer or Fry’s Electronics because they stand out like a sore thumb. You’ll find them sitting on a table, screens covered in dust and seldom turned on. If consumers cared about them wouldn’t they be operational? Have Samsung and Sony executives never stepped foot inside an Apple store to see how real people interact with their products?

The new iPad’s most fearsome competitor is the iPad 2. Even the original iPad holds its own! Think about that for a minute. Apple is replacing the best selling iPad ever (that has no peer) with another iPad.  Honda used to do this to the mid-sized sedan market every few years. Just when the Camry or Taurus began to gain ground, Honda would release a new Accord that reset the bar. In a sense, Apple is doing the same thing except, in their market, they also make the Camry and Taurus.

At this point, anyone purchasing a tablet without the Apple logo is intentionally telling everyone, "I do not want the best tablet available". They may have philosophical differences with how Apple conducts business, but from a product standpoint nobody else is even in the game.

Imagine the cost of a BMW M3 and the Ford Fiesta were identical. The non-Apple tablet buyer is akin to the guy who, given that choice, selects the Fiesta and then tells everyone else that his car came with a bug deflector and rear spoiler.

My Favorite iPad Apps

A few months into iPad ownership and I’m as excited as Beavis with a bowl full of nachos.

I keep my iPad screens quite tidy. In fact, I now keep all my apps on one screen and remove those I don’t use often. Those I use regularly but not each day go in a folder. Those apps I use almost each day, gain a spot in the upper four fifths of the screen. And finally, those I have open all the time, are pinned to the lower bottom.

Here’s the run down on my favorites:

Alarm Clock Pro – Made for the iPhone but works on the iPad. Simple but gorgeous. 99 cents

Weather HD – The best look weather app I’ve found. 99 cents

Speed Test – Tests Wi-Fi and 3G speeds such as Ping, download and upload speeds. free

Writings – You may never go back to Word again. Love this simple text editor. 99 cents

ABC Player – Catch up on Modern Family, the Bachelor or, my favorite, the Shark Tank. free

Slacker – Check out my full review, but this is how music apps should be done. app is free, subscriptions run $3.99 to $9.99/month

Daily – Cancelled local paper and bought the daily, the newspaper designed for the iPad. app is free, annual subscription is $39.99

60 Minutes – Always something to watch in the archives. Brings out my inner news junkie. $4.99

Air Video – Amazing app allows me to stream video from my PC to my iPad. Get your nerd on. $2.99

NPR – You could waste months diving into this app, but you’d be a lot smarter. free

Video Time Machine – Just download this now. Seriously. Stop reading and do it. 99 cents

Car Buzz – Everything you wanted to know about cars from total car nuts. free

MyPad+ – If you’re on Facebook, you’ll want this. 99 cents

Twitter – I prefer TweetDeck on Windows, but Twitter on iPad and iPhone. free

Diigio Browser – Do you wish your iPad browser looked and acted like Google Chrome? free

Week Calendar – A major upgrade to the default calendar. Love this app. $1.99

Reeder – Saved the best for last. My favorite app. Makes reading RSS feeds fun, and syncs with Google Reader. I spend more time in this app than any other. $4.99