Microsoft Surface: Will It Be Enough?

The Microsoft Surface tablet was announced, following unusually tight secrecy, even to their own OEM partners. After sifting through the various impressions, photos and opinions on the device after the keynote, I’m beginning to form some understanding of what it’s supposed to be. If you want to view the Surface keynote in it’s full awkward glory, complete with Steve Ballmer’s blunt rhetoric, see here.

 

The Surface even manages to crash during Steven Sinofsky’s brief use of it when trying to launch a game – not something that keynotes haven’t seen before, but his reaction is painfully palpable. Panos Panay’s segment was more convincing, but I found there to be a disproportionate focus on the hardware, with precious little software being demonstrated.

 

Well, what did we learn from this presentation? That this is a out of the ordinary move for Microsoft is an understatement. They’ve put plenty of effort into creating something unique from a hardware standpoint, applying discipline in design, borrowing more than a few pages from Apple’s book on the finer details such as material use and emphasis on tactile changes, not to mention extreme secrecy. Their only other notable hardware success has been the Xbox360 (along with some PC accessories like keyboards/mice).

 

Make no mistake, this device is aiming to cover all bases, to it’s detriment. Corporate users with the keyboard covers, backwards application compatibility and Active Directory integration on the x86 version; and casual users with the Metro interface and Windows Store. This is an iPad and Ultrabook competitor through and through. Some have said that it’s a goal for OEM’s to shoot for, possibly after watching the lacklustre and unguided efforts from the market to date. This would explain the lack of any real detail or usage time with the device (see Danny Sullivan’s write-up). In other camps, the reaction has been mixed, some hailing it as the next revolution, whilst others have already written it off.

 

I believe it is next to impossible to have one device and one OS deliver the best of a traditional desktop OS and a touch-centric mobile OS. If they can pull it off successfully, with functional and affordable hardware to boot, it will be a miracle.

 

It’s still too early to say with certainty what will happen, but they have their aims set extremely high. I want competition and innovation. The market needs it, especially in the very one-sided high-end tablet space, but I lack the faith in Windows 8 being the right vehicle to deliver it (you can read my thoughts on Windows 8, the desktop version here. Much of it’s success will come down to the still unknown details about battery life, pricing and it’s subsequent positioning in the market. In it’s favour, Microsoft has essentially unlimited funds to throw at the problem (see Bing).

 

That there’s already a dividing line in Windows between the baggage-laden Pro (x86) version and the start-from-scratch RT (ARM) version doesn’t bode well. That OEM’s will need to pay a jacked-up $80 licensing fee for the ‘crippled’ RT version is also telling. I’m of the belief that the simple and beautiful Windows Phone should have been expanded to suit tablets (replacing, not complementing the RT version) – combine that with the hardware of the Surface and it’s a stunning combination for casual users. As it stands, there’s no less than 3 unique mobile operating systems from Microsoft, each with it’s own app base and hardware requirements.

 

But there’s something bigger at work here, Microsoft making Windows Phone 8 incompatible with existing handsets (even ones which are technically capable), is something to note. The blunt shoving of users into the toyish Metro interface on their most popular product line to date, Windows, is puzzling. Microsoft apologists like Ed Bott, writing guides on how to make Windows 8 look like Windows 7, are missing the point, you shouldn’t HAVE to change and fiddle Metro into something that vaguely resembles the classic desktop. Interfaces should be more and more transparent between you and the tasks you need to get done.

 

The new Microsoft is one which wants more control of the user experience. It knows that it HAS to move forward, and recognises the threats that it’s facing, or risk long-term extinction. It knows that if it’s golden goose is coming to it’s end, but it’s absolutely all-in with this current approach. When, or even if, Windows 9 does arrive, it will be far, far too late, our very paradigm of modern computing is changing right before our eyes, and it requires a fresh approach, not to shoe-horn old ideas to fit.

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