Computers

With Surface, Microsoft puts its hybrid vision for the tablet to the test

November 4, 2012 

Microsoft’s latest hardware aims squarely at the consumer market, but the new machine it’s touting is designed to be different from anything Apple has to offer. Microsoft Surface is, on first blush, a tablet, a thought that brings back memories of early Windows tablets that failed in the market as well as the assumption that Surface is designed to go after the iPad’s clientele. But then you see the keyboard (in two different models) built into the device’s cover and realize that Surface is a hybrid. “It’s not just a tablet, but it’s the best tablet I’ve ever used,” Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky said at the launch event. “It’s not just a laptop, but it’s the best laptop I’ve ever used.”

The Apple influence is clear. Microsoft has gone after high-quality in the details consumers notice. The company’s engineers went to Steve Jobs-like lengths to create just the right ergonomics. Every aspect, down to sound and fitting, has to resonate with quality, from the design of the kickstand that lets you prop the device up on a desktop to the mechanism that lets you snap the Touch Cover keyboard into the tablet-like screen.

On the Surface screen is Windows RT, a pared-down version of Windows 8. The new operating system is optimized for a touchscreen, and it’s clear that Microsoft had the iPad in mind. But just as the iPad does not come with clip-on keyboard, neither does it offer an operating system that is consistent across all devices – what you see on a MacBook Air is substantially different than the look and feel of an iPad. Windows 8 is Microsoft’s bid to give you a consistent experience across everything from your desktop PC to the mobile phone in your pocket, assuming you buy Microsoft all the way, which is, of course, part of the plan.

Novel, but helpful?

The look of the new Windows is graphical and finger-friendly, a touchscreen experience that’s sweetly crafted and loaded with capability. On a desktop PC, though, you still need to get your work done in programs like Office, so Windows 8 lets you move into a mouse-driven, point-and-click environment as needed. The idea is to have a touchscreen where the hardware supports it and standard options where it doesn’t. It will take some time to get the bugs out of this, and long-term Windows users may find some of the changes more novel than helpful.

We’ll learn from experience how traditional Windows users fare when confronted with a reconfigured Windows and whether they’ll see advantages in the upgrade. And new touchscreen-enabled laptops now being released will go a long way toward showing us whether finger pokes make sense on machines normally run with a mouse and keyboard.

Issues with Windows RT

Meanwhile, the consumer experience is likely to be iffy. The sharp-looking Surface running Windows RT lacks the power of the full version of the operating system and comes with restrictions, including only spotty support for older Windows programs, leading me to wonder why anyone would buy the earlier product when a more full featured one should be out next year. We’ll see if there are enough early adopters to give Surface some traction despite this.

It’s quite a vision, this Surface tablet/laptop and the operating system that supports it, and Microsoft will support the Windows 8 strategy with its own Windows stores. The early adopters will chafe at things like a lack of apps and problems running various games, and an inability to run Flash-based videos except on sites approved by Microsoft. Outlook doesn’t work with Windows RT, nor does Google Chrome. Expect an Intel version of Surface with Windows 8 Pro to emerge early next year. It’s the device that will tell us whether Microsoft’s hybrid vision really will work.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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