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The case for a Microsoft Surface-like keyboard for the iPad

analysis The tablet is moving from second screen, for keeping up to date on the move, to first screen for business and pleasure.

Microsoft's new Surface Pro 2 tablet with detachable keyboards. Sarah Tew/CNET

The tablet is moving from second screen -- for keeping up to date on the move and consuming entertainment content -- to first screen for business and pleasure.

If Gartner's estimates are correct, tablets will surpass PCs (desktops and notebooks combined) in 2015. The research firm estimates tablets will grow 53.4 percent year over year in 2013 to 184 million. PC shipments will decline 11.2 percent from last year, for a total of 303 million. Throw in ultramobile PCs, such as Microsoft's Surface running Windows 8, and the overall PC market will still decline 8.4 percent in 2013.


Tablets are now being groomed for business. Mobile operating systems are adding more desktop-like features, such as improved multitasking, and business apps, such as Microsoft's Remote Desktop app. Forrester predicts that 18 percent of tablets will be sold directly to enterprises by 2017, and that 60 percent of North American consumers will own a tablet in that time frame.

With more business use among tablet owners, the attach rate for the venerable keyboard with tablets is likely to rise significantly. Virtual keyboards on tablets take up half the screen, and the no-feel, cramped layout isn't an ideal typing environment. Dozens of capable wireless keyboards are available, such as the ClamCase Pro, Belkin YourType Folio + Keyboard, CruxCase Crux360, and Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover.

But none of the above matches the thin and light, integrated design of Microsoft's Type Cover and Touch Cover for the Surface tablet. The Surface hasn't challenged the iPad and Android tablets in any significant way, but it's turning out that Microsoft's notion of a hybrid tablet/laptop, with a keyboard fully integrated with a cloud-connected tablet, isn't necessarily what Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed a "fairly compromised and confused" product. "I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don't think it would do all of those things very well," Cook said.

The original iPad keyboard docking unit. CNET

Read: CNET's Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Review

Read: CNET's Microsoft Surface 2 Review

It could be that Cook was referring to Microsoft baking the full Windows into a tablet rather than a mobile-optimized operating system. But it would not be at all confusing or compromised for Apple, or the Android gang, to build a Type or Touch Cover of its own, something like a sleek iOS touch-screen version of the Macbook Air.

A former Apple employee blogged about Apple prototyping such a device. When the iPad was first introduced in 2010, Apple offered a docking keyboard, but since that time has offered only the wireless, detached variety.

With more tablets being acquired for business use, it seems reasonable that Apple would turn its current Smart Cover, which magnetically connects to the iPad or iPad Mini, into a Type Cover. It's an easy sell during the captive shopping experience at the online or retail Apple Store, and a good margin booster. Of course, Apple's engineers have to perfect the device, and avoid stepping on any Microsoft intellectual property.

Apple debuts its new family of iPads and other goodies on Tuesday. Perhaps a new keyboard-cover will be in the mix. CNET will be covering the event live, and you can tune in here.

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