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Surface Surfaces

June 19th, 2012

Is the new Microsoft tablet a winner? Possibly. There’s still a lot that’s not known about it.

On the one hand, Microsoft seems to be presenting something very different from Apple: a full-fledged PC in tablet form. Apple comes close with the Macbook Air, but that is clearly more in the netbook/notebook side. Microsoft’s new “Surface” tablets are definitely on the tablet side.

This could be good, or it could be bad. Microsoft has always, from the very beginning, pushed tablets as regular computers, failing each time because the technology was never good enough to produce a tablet computer. Apple won that game by first waiting for minimally usable technology to evolve before presenting a product, and then presenting it for what it was best suited for instead of staying trapped in the personal-computer paradigm. Companies other than Microsoft made the same mistake with netbooks, and Apple showed them up by waiting until they could make the Macbook Air.

This time, however, Microsoft could come up a winner: the technology may be more than strong enough to support a full-fledged PC in tablet form. If it is, then Apple could be in some trouble, as it has not yet merged its mobile and laptop environments quite enough to produce a Mac-like tablet–a tablet which fully supplants a laptop computer.

On the other hand, Apple may know what it’s doing. Despite some people desperately trying to use the iPad as if it were a laptop, most people are more than satisfied with it being a handheld media device. So the question is, will the tablet form work for a full-fledged PC? It might, but we just don’t know yet. Microsoft strictly limited hands-on access to the device, allowing reviewers only a minute or two with a device, and only the lower-end “RT” model. There were no hands-on demos of the keyboard.

This might be because some of the hardware is not actually ready. Remember when Microsoft previewed the Windows Series 7 Phone? Their “hands-on” presentation was to have trained users walk around and show visitors how it was used–and it was a complete disaster. The live-use demos were atrocious.

Which leads to other caveats. Microsoft is not releasing any information on pricing. Why not? Will Microsoft try to pit this against the iPad, taking only minimal profits? Or will it try to match the Surface against the Macbook Air? I can only imagine that the lighter model will be priced low, and the “Pro” model will be in the thousand-dollar range at the high end.

What Microsoft seems to be doing is telling everyone the good news before they hear the bad news–carefully controlling all information so that people only know what’s great about the new device, thus generating excitement–and only later, after (Microsoft hopes) people have formed a solid opinion about and desire for the tablet, quietly disclosing the bad news.

Even more suspicious is that there was no information, not even a hint as far as I could tell, of a release date. Microsoft is famed for introducing fantastic-looking stuff and then not actually releasing it for a long time. When Apple gives a sneak peek, they always give a time frame, even if just a quarter. As far as I can tell, Microsoft has not even given a year yet, though 2013 is a safe bet.

There is the usual Microsoft fan base (and/or the Apple Hating crowd) which more or less automatically proclaims anything Microsoft releases as the best thing since sliced bread; this has to be taken into account when reading what people are saying. The lack of data really makes it impossible to be certain about this product, meaning that anyone who currently claims it will be a hit or a dud is whistling in the dark, at best.

I would normally be tempted to say that Microsoft initially releases a piece of crap but then improves on it, evolves it, and eventually has a solid product. However, the Zune kind of belied that; Microsoft no longer makes a music player. It could be said, however, that the DNA from Zune lives on, in Windows Phone 7 (still not doing well with an embarrassing 4% 20 months after release), Metro, and now this tablet.

One telling point is that this is not the first PC-ish tablet to challenge the iPad. Tablets have come out with laptop CPUs, laptop amounts of RAM, USB ports, sexy designs, nice peripherals, etc. None have made a dent in the iPad. This can’t just be another full-featured tablet, it has to have something that will jolt people and make them want it, even need it.

Again, this could be an iPad killer. Given Microsoft’s track record, however, that’s not the safest bet in the world. Microsoft has gotten great hype upon announcing this kind of thing (originally, the Series 7 Phone was touted as the best thing since sliced bread even as it fell apart in the hands-on demos), only to have the most serious problems–that of the whole user experience–to sink the project upon release.

None of this is to say that Microsoft can’t make anything successful in hardware–the Xbox is successful, for example–but it would be wisest to refrain from any conclusions at all until people get a chance to take it home for a week, or even just play with a for-market version for an hour, unsupervised or otherwise constrained by Microsoft PR hacks.

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  1. Troy
    June 19th, 2012 at 16:21 | #1

    I’m thinking the detachable keyboard angle is dum.

    The membrane keyboard on the ARM model might have all the ergonomic joy of an Atari 400, and the i5 model is shipping with a keyboard, touchscreen, trackpad, and pen???

    It was really pathetic seeing Microsoft engineers try to impart how much they bleed about the details, like they were designing an Audi or something. It’s just a f-ing case, as somebody quipped they were making it out to be made out of alien spaceship metal.

    Whatever. Nobody gives a s- what the material is as long as it works. Funny name choice, “vapor”, as in vaporware.

    But the RT will be coming out in 3-4 months apparently and the “Pro” a bit later. Apple pre-announced the iPhone 6 months but at least they had a price.

    One comment on metafilter that caught my eye was who is Microsoft enlisting to build these? Maybe Foxconn or somebody, but Apple is the supply chain pros and they’re the only ones with the momentum to deliver product in the tens of millions.

    I think iPad buyers are just going to shrug, while Android buyers might wait for these, since Android tablets are not at all attractive purchases anyway. Windows 8 ultrabook buyers might be waiting, too.

    Microsoft’s problem is that there’s already a kick-ass i5 ultrabook that runs Window 8 — the 11″ Macbook Air.

    But for people who don’t have any taste in computers and are going to stick with actual Wintel OEMs, I think Microsoft is just losing the plot.

    This whole RT vs. Pro thing is just bizarre. Sure, I can kinda explain it to someone but it takes about two minutes to go through all the details and differences.

    Microsoft would be well-advised to abandon one of these platforms, to beat the rush.

    Metro demos well but I wouldn’t want to live there, it’s like being stuck in the 2001 movie UI paradigm (or Portal’s).

    Microsoft offering a flagship tablet competing with all its Win 8 OEMs is also bizarre.

    I think at this point it is safe to ignore what MS is doing and just focus on our Macs.

    Leave the poor Windows peeps to their own miseries.

  2. Troy
    June 19th, 2012 at 16:34 | #2

    this cracked me up:


  3. Luis
    June 19th, 2012 at 18:49 | #3

    Yeah, saw that. Heh.

  4. Tim Kane
    June 20th, 2012 at 01:57 | #4

    I don’t see how this device could be an ipad killer. To do that it has to offer something that the Ipad doesn’t offer now, and couldn’t offer later. Even if we assume that Microsoft finally got something right, like the kick stand or the flimsy keyboard thing, and that turns out to take off. How hard would it be for Ipad 3.5 or 4.0 to have one of those?

    I’m just guessing, but Microsoft doesn’t appear to be able to anticipate how we will use things in the future.

    I’ve always said that most occupations are all about aligning things, to create the art of the possible from those things.

    Capacitive touch screens, small cpus, memory and disk drives made Ipods, then Iphone possible.

    All Apple did was imagine what we would like to do on the one hand, and map it to what, of that, is possible with the technology that’s available, if it is properly aligned.

    That’s all they did.

    And from that Apple becomes the wealthiest company on the planet.

    In 2000 my friends and I working at Sprint were all buying palm pilots – but we kept talking about digital convergence: one device that does everything. The only difference between us and Jobs was Jobs thought about one device that does everything incredibly well, and well within the way we live.

    I keep telling my brother at Intel, which is trying to break into the mobile market, that they should get behind a dicktracy/preditor wrist device. Make an Iphone like and sized device that you wear on your wrist. Some one calls you look into it, see who’s calling, answer by touching it and talking into your wrist like dick tracy. If it turns out to be your girlfriend calling to break up with you while you are on the subway, you pull of a plantronics type bluetooth device and plop it on your ear, and viola, you have a private conversation. When you are done you clip it back onto the phone. If you want you can clip the phone off the wrist band and hold it and operate it like a regular phone, read an article, watch a video. Or do that by looking at your wrist. When your subway stop comes just attach the phone back on to your wrist. This keeps your pockets empty.

    Maybe we aren’t quite there yet with the technology, but we are pretty close.

  5. Tim Kane
    June 20th, 2012 at 02:12 | #5

    And ode to netbooks:

    By the way, I think the net book was a perfect device. I love mine and wouldn’t live without it. I got it for $200 in January 2009. Suddenly I found myself doing with it, all the things I anticipated doing with my laptop, which I also love.

    You couldn’t walk into a coffee house in Sinchon district of Seoul, and there might be 500 hundred thriving coffee houses within a square mile there, without seeing a half dozen people fiddling with a net book. Some watching, some writing, whatever.

    I got a six cell battery pack with mine. I was able to take it to school and show videos to my students all day long using it.

    One of the keys to it was that it was light and small, but the other was that it was also cheap and only a back up device. I couldn’t afford to damage my laptop. But the netbook, because it is almost a disposable device, I could afford to take it anywhere, and not worry about droping it, banging it, even losing it.

    I don’t think that Apple makes anything that cheap but still that completely useful. My Ipod Touch is cheap enough, though, and mobile enough, but its too small for most uses. An Ipad has the mobility, but you almost have to wrap it up in bubble wrap before you go out to make sure it won’t get damaged because it cost so much. In this sense, a Kindle fire might be nice this way, but still you don’t have a keyboard for doing things like I’m doing now.

    I think all of these devices have their place. The the truck didn’t replace the train, nor the plane the train, nor the car, the train, etc…. All those devices have overlapping uses. The McAir is a great device, I’d like to have one. Especially at the price I paid for my net book. But it doesn’t compete head to head with a netbook – for one thing, because of price.

    So, apple didn’t wait for the technology to come along before getting into the netbook game with McAir, instead, created a different, though quite similar niche – one right next to the netbook’s niche – which is also right next to the Kindle Fire and the Ipad. But they are all different niches, in my mind anyway.

  6. Anonymous
    June 20th, 2012 at 05:15 | #6

    Okay, I’ve written a lot of nonesense. I appologize for that.

    Here is an interesting (pro Surface) article from gizmodal:

    The article caught me by surprise – taken at its face value, Microsoft might have done something right in a big and deep way: something I thought was just not possible, because, frankly, they’ve never done that before, in my mind, ever. (Windows was originally a junk version of OS/2, which was a very solid product and reasonable alternative to the original Mac – as a result millions of productivity hours were lost by computers running Windows locking up during the 90s).

    The article signals or seems to think that the game is on between Apple and Microhard (since now they are a hardware company).

    This of course is a good thing.

    It appears that the Surface will lack the Ipad’s strength in apps, but is designed to leverage Microsoft’s strength in pcs – the device can function as a tablet and as a laptop/netbook/ultrabook computer.

    Hopefully we’ll see a full fledged war between the two pushing each other to new heights. Unexpected Great excitement.

  7. Troy
    June 20th, 2012 at 06:14 | #7

    >Hopefully we’ll see a full fledged war between the two pushing each other to new heights. Unexpected Great excitement.

    I see it more as a reactionary move to combat the iPad’s (and Android I guess) increasing infiltration into Microsoft’s castle, business computing.

    Microsoft saw that happening in the late 1980s with Macs, and was able to respond with Window 3, which was good enough to keep Macs out until Windows 95 finally shipped.

    Innovation-wise, we’re looking at a tablet kickstand that “sounds like a car door”.

    Um, yeah.

    Apple’s innovation was packaging multitouch glass display with a performant/watt CPU along with a pretty decent graphics stack (OpenGL to PowerVR tile renderer), along with a first-class web-browser that can access the real web, along with the App Store that supports people and developers in beautiful symbiosis.

    Nokia had parts of these pieces already in the last decade (OMAP hardware, Webkit-browser) but nothing close to the whole end-to-end solution that is needed to actually get traction and win the market. Windows Mobile had less, even though companies like HTC were doing their best pushing the state of the art. Palm/Handspring, didn’t have a clue.

    Curiously, Microsoft is moving away from its direction of the 2000s, which was C# and managed environments, to the WinRT programming model, which looks like MFC all over again.

    While with iOS 5, Apple introduced important environment advancements that modernized development, finally giving us convenient object property accessors and a form of background garbage collection.

  8. Tim Kane
    June 20th, 2012 at 13:43 | #8

    “I see it as a reactionary move…”

    I think you are certainly right there. The question is, is it a good strategic reactionary move? (at least the question in my mind).

    What I mean by this, is, Microsoft’s cash cow is Wintel model, of supplying software, and not offending hardware makers. If it pushes on Surface, then it’s going to offend those hardware makers.

    With mobile computing throwing the notion of operating systems wide open and the surface blending pcs with tablets and tablets with smart phones: with Android, ios, and Windows 8, might those hardware guys get together and say ‘the heck with it, lets just push real hard into another direction?’ Open source stuff. Perhaps the Taiwanese and the Chinese hardware vendors might favor this kind of thinking – but maybe that just gets them a pc running android or something. I don’t know.

    Just speculation on my part, but I’m wonder if, strategically, this move by Microsoft could more quickly undermine Microsoft’s cash cow than Apple and Androids moves?

    Of course, Google’s move into hardware at Motorola, its production of the Nexus phones, and its ownership of Android hasn’t had a negative effect on other hardware manufactures use of android. So, probably not. Just answered my own question, I guess.

  9. Troy
    June 20th, 2012 at 15:13 | #9

    It’d be interesting if there were a desktop/laptop alternative to Windows 8/9, but I don’t see it.

    To be a Windows OEM is a pretty soulless task anyway. Can’t innovate, have to compete with every other Windows OEM. If I were a Windows OEM I’d just put a bullet in my head.

    Microsoft boosters on the web are quick to point out that Windows 7 has sold 500 million licenses. This . . . is an impressive footprint.

  10. Troy
  11. Tim Kane
    June 22nd, 2012 at 00:24 | #11

    A less MS friendly assessment comes from Cringely, here:


    As a further note, the comments are almost as good as the column itself.

  12. Troy
    June 22nd, 2012 at 10:32 | #12

    fwiw, I grabbed a screenshot of the Surface website before MS changed it . . .


    best of 2011!

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