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Fact checking Tim Cook on 7-inch tablets and Microsoft's Surface

The Apple CEO is engaged in his own campaign to highlight faults of competitors' products in contrast to his unbridled delight in Apple's products.

Tim Cook (Credit: CNET)

Tim Cook has been applauded as a kind of operational superman, bringing Apple to new heights of efficiency and profit in the last year. Apple's stock has tumbled about 14 percent from its all-time high and its recent quarterly earnings weren't as fantastic as in previous quarters, but the latest set of new products introduced this week augurs a strong holiday season. Apple is expecting to generate more than $50 billion in revenue from October through December.

While Cook isn't the showman that his predecessor was, don't let his Southern, seemingly mild-mannered demeanor fool you. He is full of Apple's well-honed arrogance and not above painting his competitors as weaklings or makers of freakish contraptions.

Like President Obama and Mitt Romney trading insults, Cook is engaged in his own campaign to highlight the alleged faults of competitors' products. It's an assault that strikes a sharp contrast to Cook's unbridled exuberance and delight in Apple's products. 

Hating on 7-inch tablets
Take Cook's dressing down of the 7-inch tablets from Google, Samsung, Amazon and Barnes & Noble. During Apple's earning call, Cook was asked aboutSteve Jobs' comments from October 2010, when he said that "the current crop of 7-inch tablets are going to be DOA, dead on arrival." Jobs wrote:

Apple's done extensive user-testing on touch interfaces over many years, and we really understand this stuff...There are clear limits of how close you can physically place elements on a touch screen before users cannot reliably tap, flick, or pinch them. This is one of the key reasons we think the 10-inch screen size is the minimum size required to create great tablet apps.

The 7-inch tablets are tweeners, too big to compete with a smartphone and too small to compete with an iPad.

Cook's response was that Apple didn't make a 7-inch iPad, but rather an iPad with a display that was closer to 8 inches -- nine-tenths of an inch bigger than a 7-incher:

On your question about iPad Mini, the comments you're referencing are comments Steve had made before about 7-inch tablets. Let me be clear, we would not make a 7-inch tablet, we don't think they're good products. One of the reasons is size. The difference on just the real estate size is almost 30 percent. When you look at the usable area, it's much greater than that, it's 50 to 67 percent. The iPad Mini has the same number of pixels as iPad 2 does, so you have access to all 275,000 apps that are in our App Store that have been custom designed to take advantage of the full canvas. iPad Mini is a fantastic product, it's not a compromised product like the 7-inch tablets.

Cook concluded that the iPad Mini is in "a whole different league." It may be that Cook truly believes that the 7-inch is unworthy of Apple's attention, and that the extra 0.9 inch is a game changer. But is the entire clan of 7-inch tablets lousy, or as Cook said, just not good products? That would depend on what you're looking for in a tablet.

If you love Apple, crave the screen real estate, and don't mind paying more, then the iPad Mini is a great buy. But at $329 for the 16GB Wi-Fi version, it's $130 more expensive than the 8GB, Wi-Fi version of Google's Nexus 7, which has a sharper screen and faster processor. CNET's reviewers said the Nexus 7 has a beautiful screen, fast performance, a comfortable design, overall great media options, and is a steal at $200.

Apple could have come out with a 8GB iPad mini for $279, but it would still be $80 more than a comparably configured Google Nexus 7, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2.0, or 16GB Kindle Fire HD. Plus, a lower-priced iPad Mini wouldn't be ideal for Apple's profit margins, either. 

Reviews: Top 5 iPad Mini competitors

Review: CNET cage match: iPad Mini vs. Google Nexus 7 vs. Amazon Kindle Fire HD

Hands on: Apple's $329 iPad Mini 

In sum, the iPad Mini is more elegant, thinner, lighter, and has more tablet-optimized apps than the 7-inch tablets, but for many users it won't be worth the extra cash. So, is Cook's claim that 7-inch tablets are completely no good true? Let's just say it's false for everyone but those who drink the Apple Kool-Aid.

Cook on Microsoft's Surface
"One of the toughest things you do with what product to make, is to make hard trade-offs and decide what a product should be, and we've really done that with the iPad, so the user experience is incredible. 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."

That's what Cook had to say about Microsoft's Surface tablet/laptop, prefacing those comments by saying it is a "fairly compromised, confusing product."

Microsoft opened a pop-up store in New York's Times Square to promote and sell its new Windows operating system and its Surface tablet. Shara Tibken/CNET

Steven Sinofsky, Microsoft Windows president, had a different opinion about the dual heritage of the Surface: "Is it a tablet? Is it a laptop? What category does it go in?," he said at the launch event. "It's not just a tablet, but it's the best tablet I've ever used. It's not just a laptop, but it's the best laptop I've ever used."

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer declared that the Surface and Windows 8 "shatter perceptions of what a PC is." 

Cook said he hasn't touched a $499 ($599 with the Touch Cover keyboard) Surface, but those who have don't dismiss it. CNET reviewer Eric Franklin spent a week with the Surface, and this is what he concluded (read the full review): 

Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet, and it had better be. As the only Microsoft-branded Windows RT hardware to launch with the new operating system (Windows 8 launches this week as well), the tablet serves as ambassador and flagship for the touch-focused, wildly risky Windows grand experiment. The Surface excels thanks to its thoughtful design, sensible implementation of its keyboard accessory, and the innovations brought about by the interface formerly known as "Metro"-- chief among them: the gesture-driven menu system, powerful search tool, and incredibly cool and versatile split-screen feature.

Unfortunately, there's a price to pay for doing things differently. I've spent a week with this soldier for the Windows cause, and I predict that some of you will find Metro's steep learning curve discouraging. Additionally, apps support is dismal, performance (especially when using IE 10) is slow at times, and like the old guy in the club still hanging around after last call, the traditional Windows interface lingers on, feeling embarrassingly out of place.

The Surface isn't for everyone. Those looking for tons (or even several pounds) of apps should look elsewhere; however, it takes a legitimate swing at replacing your computer and gets closer than any tablet before it at hitting the mark.

Cook has a vested interest in seeing the iPad replace PCs for consumers and business users, and he is not rooting for the Surface. 

"There is incredible development in the ecosystem and product in tablets," Cook said during the earning call Thursday. "When we look at the size of the PC market, there is an enormous opportunity for Apple." An estimated 80-90 million PCs are sold each quarter, he added. "The iPad, the iPad Mini, and iPad 2 will all be extremely attractive to people in lieu of PCs...We are very confident with what we have in the pipeline."

Nonetheless, if the Surface gains traction, Cook will respond, just as Apple did in entering the 7-inch (7.9 to be more precise) tablet arena. It could be that next year Apple comes out with a Macbook "AirTouch," with similar capabilities to the Surface, that addresses those who want the functionality of a laptop and the flexibility of a tablet -- yes, a car that floats and flies. Of course, Cook will say that Apple built this amazing, incredible AirTouch that provides the ultimate in flexibility for users.