BitDepth#841 - July 03

Microsoft introduces a new tablet concept, Surface, and the world is still waiting to find out what it's all about...
On the Surface
Microsoft’s new Surface tablet for Windows 8. Photograph courtesy Microsoft.

I’d been waiting for something like Microsoft’s new Surface tablet for some time now, if only to make some sense out of Windows 8.
After playing with three successive preview versions of the new operating system, I find myself still nonplussed by the product, which seemed to solve no traditional computer usability needs and seemed, instead, to make computing on the platform less accessible for the casual user.

The Metro interface is just plain weird when you try to use it with a mouse and some of the decisions that Microsoft has made with the traditional Windows interface, most notably removing the familiar start button, seem suicidal.

On a Windows Phone, the system of interface tiles that Microsoft grafted into Windows 8 make sense. They are a large, Tetris-like way of moving apps and widgets around on a small screen and well suited to the big-fingered set that I belong to.

Metro tiles on a Windows phone are the anti-Blackberry keyboard, a design decision that respects the way the device is actually used.
On a desktop operating system, particularly one designed to present them as a start point, the very same tile system is a waste of screen real estate.

So a tablet device with desktop capabilities running Windows 8 goes directly to the contradictions of the new OS. On June 19, Microsoft introduced two models of its new Surface tablet, Surface for Windows RT (which ships only on devices and except for preinstalled Office, runs tile-based Metro software only) and Surface for Windows 8 Pro.

The Windows RT model is a bit smaller and lighter, but the Windows 8 edition seems to be where Microsoft has identified a possible break-in point for an intervention in the tablet market.

Viewing a webcast of the launch announcement for the product, the Microsoft team seemed keen to keep the messaging points clear.
Steve Ballmer: “Windows is the soul of Microsoft.”
Steven Sinofsky: “A tablet that’s a great PC.”

The story was clear. People want a tablet that allows them to create content as well as consume it. Windows is pervasive, and customers want to access their software on their tablet devices.
There were some clumsy moments. Ballmer struggled with a surface/service extended pun and at one point Sinofsky simply stopped pushing at an onscreen element of the tablet, excused himself and went to a nearby table to grab another device. Did it crash? Who knows?

But there were some gracenotes as well. After making much of the healthy click that the cover made connecting with the tablet, Sinofsky opened the paired hardware elements to reveal that the cover was also a keyboard.
“Why don’t we take this surface and turn it into a full multitouch keyboard,” he asked the crowd who responded with the first spontaneous applause and hooting of the event.

Viewing the webcast, unfortunately, will tell you as much about the new Surface tablets as you would have found out at the event itself. After such a major announcement, the company was reported to be cagey about allowing anyone to actually use the new devices and as I write this, no-one has been able to report spending any quality time with a Surface tablet, nor has availability or pricing been announced.

Of the two devices, Surface for Windows 8 Pro provides the best window into Microsoft’s strategy for merging a touchscreen tablet experience with using an ultrabook running Windows. The new tablet is basically an ultrabook with the hardware behind the screen instead of under the keyboard and a touchscreen interface. Moving beyond that description will depend on both how well the hardware works in day to day use and how the software meets very different user expectations for a tablet.

Microsoft in the hardware game is also likely to annoy its many manufacturing partners. A promotional video for the company’s hardware division sought to position it as an integral part of Microsoft’s operations from the beginning, but except for some well regarded mice, the Redmond success story with atoms instead of bits begins and ends with Xbox and Kinect.

The company might argue that Surface is a proof of concept device for its hardware partners, but that’s not what Microsoft is saying with this launch.
“It embodies the notion of hardware and software really pushing each other,” Steve Ballmer said in introducing Surface.

What he might have really wanted to say is that Microsoft is willing to do all the pushing if its hardware partners won’t put their shoulders to the wheel of dislodging the iPad and Android based tablets.

BitDepth#801, Hands on with Windows 8
Danny Sullivan’s Hands Off review
Video by The Verge of the Surface launch event
23 questions about Surface
blog comments powered by Disqus