Surface thoughts

By now you’ve heard that Microsoft announced its own tablet: Surface (formerly a largely vaporware table). If you haven’t, go read about it before continuing.

On the surface (pun intended) it looks like a cool product that may challenge the iPad for best tablet. I like following what happens in the tech sector, so I have a bunch of thoughts.

OEM backstabbing

Microsoft for the most part has been a software company. Notable exceptions are their mouses and keyboards, Xbox, Kinect, Zune and Kin. They make a huge chunk of their money by selling Windows licenses to companies like Dell and HP, who then build largely identical PCs and sell them to you.

Now Microsoft is going to compete directly with its partners, with the handicap of earlier access to software, the ability to better integrate the software and the hardware (Apple style), and without the added cost of software licenses.

Yeah, people at Dell are pissed, even if they won’t admit to it publicly.

Even more confusion

Windows licensing has been a complicated mess for some time: Starter, Home Basic, Home Premium, Professional, Enterprise, Ultimate, etc. I don’t even think people who work at Microsoft know what the hell the difference between them is.

Now it’s worse: Windows 8 will also run on ARM processors. But it will be a special version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Windows 8 has desktop interface and tablet (Metro) interface. Metro will work great with fingers but horribly with a mouse. Desktop will work with a mouse but will be unusable with a touchscreen. Windows RT only supports Metro. And it won’t run any of your existing Windows applications because those are built for Intel processors.

But Microsoft is releasing two (!) tablets: one that runs Windows RT and will be comparable in size and weight and price to an iPad, and another one that has an Intel processor and will be comparable in size and weight and price to a MacBook Air. But in tablet shape. The expensive one will run your current applications, but they will probably be unusable unless you use a keyboard and mouse/trackpad.

Are you confused enough yet? Is it obvious to you which one you should buy? Why are they making such a mess? Because…

Nobody at MS can make a decision

And this is the heart of the problem. To me it seems like nobody at Microsoft has the balls to make a decision: “We’re going to do ARM.” “We’re going to do full Windows with Intel.” “We’re going to pick keyboard A or B.”

The lack of a clear message confuses customers and ensures that no matter what you end up buying, you will at some point regret your choice or at least having a nagging solution that you should have bought the other model: my tablet is too heavy! the battery life sucks! I can’t run all applications! the cover is too thick! the keyboard has no travel! I can’t use the pen! I paid extra because of the pen and I never use it!

Protecting the Monopoly

All of this reeks of desperation. They see Android and iOS slowly but surely threatening the Windows PC monopoly. Tablets are growing, PCs are not. They don’t trust OEMs to come out with cool or cool enough products running Windows 8. They felt like they had to do it themselves. And maybe they had to. Maybe Apple’s do-it-all approach really is the way to go if you want the better (but not necessarily cheaper) product. And maybe more people are buying the better, not necessarily cheaper, product.


So why announce all of this now? They have no prices yet. They announced no specs. No battery lifetime. Not even the ports on the device. They had no Intel-based tablet on display at all. And nobody was allowed to touch the keyboards – the most important and arguably innovative thing about Surface. They clearly are not ready. This is vaporware.

The reason, I think, is that they had to show something before Google very likely announces their own tablet next week at Google IO (also backstabbing their own hardware partners in the process).

They had to do it even if it means pissing your partner off. Even if it means that nobody with a clue will buy a Windows Ultrabook until the Intel Surface comes out so that proper reviews exist – a full three months after Windows 8 ships! Crazy.

Surface vs iPad

Surface and iPad are both tablets. But I think there are some fundamental differences in the basic usage philosophies surrounding both. Time will tell which one is right or if there’s room for both approaches. But if Microsoft’s tablet history (they’ve been pushing tablets since the nineties, believe it or not) is any indicator…

First, iPad is meant to be used mainly in portrait orientation. That’s why it has a 4:3 screen ratio, the home button and cameras and dock connector are where they are.

Surface is meant to be used mainly in landscape orientation. That’s why the keyboard attaches where it attaches. That’s why it has a 16:9 (optimal for video watching) screen.

iPad is primarily meant to be used while holding it up with your hands and with your fingers.

Surface is meant to be used as a traditional laptop: on a table, with a keyboard and trackpad. Since it sits at a 22 degree angle when using the built-in kickstand, I bet that tapping on it with your fingers is too likely to knock it down.

For all these reasons, I think Surface is more a laptop that looks like a tablet (as defined by the iPad) and not as direct of a competitor to the iPad as one would think initially. It’s a very basic different approach to computing, and one that’s understandable knowing where Microsoft comes from.

Surface vs Android

Android on tablets has failed so far. Let’s wait and maybe talk about it later.

One more thing: Windows Phone 8

Windows Phone 8 was announced yesterday. It’s a nice and much needed upgrade. But it’s not shipping yet, and one thing they did say is that no Windows Phone 7 hardware will get upgraded to the new OS. This is reasonable because under the hood they are quite different pieces of software even if they look similar.

But what schmuck would go out and buy a Windows Phone 7 today knowing this? Only a clueless schmuck. Nokia is already hurting, now it’s going to get worse. Thank you, from Finland!


Yeah, I think that it’s desperate for MS to release a tablet and betray it’s partners. I think combining a tablet/touch interface with a desktop/mouse/keyboard interface in one OS is a mess: you’ll get a horrible experience at least part of the time regardless of what kind of machine you have in front of you.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Windows 8 is really really good and developers will get behind it and it will be a great success. Microsoft has lots of money and a few monopolies that allows them to push this for a while even if it costs them dearly.

Time will tell.

Leave a Reply