The (new) Microsoft Surface

Seeing the Microsoft Surface [really Microsoft? You guys couldn’t find a new, unique name?] Keynote reinforces my belief that the company has long lost the capacity of creating and projecting a genuine, unique and interesting image, products and services.
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, it quickly did away with most of the product lines the company was making that weren’t very successful. It ended printers, clones, the Newton and many other products and services and focused on creating a few, exceptional products. In the early 2000s Apple had started gaining mindshare, both in the computing world with OS X and generally with the wildly successful iPod. At the time, given Microsoft’s tendency to copy features, ideas and æsthetics from Apple, I thought that Apple, being a much smaller company, was serving as some sort of research facility for Microsoft, which then took the successful ideas and commoditised them. Even though Apple is now much larger than Microsoft, the trend continues; the Surface Keynote event was a cheap copy of Apple’s events, down to the ‘How we made it’ interlude videos, the speaker rotation and style, while the products — still — better designed and refined, oozing with much needed quality in a ever-cheaper industry, sadly fail to go beyond marginal improvements to existing, commonplace technology, a few technical features most people don’t know or care about (MIMO antennæ, optical bonded display, etc) and lacklustre features and presentation. Sure, Surface is new, it introduces what Windows 8 is all about: a tablet form-factor with a full-featured OS. But Surface didn’t really create excitement in the audience, people didn’t seem enthused, the presenters tried too hard to convince everyone of “how you’ll fall in love with it” etc, when the device didn’t seem all that great. No matter how much this company tries, it tries too hard to ‘copy’, instead of ‘creating’. To ‘replicate’ concepts, features and products, instead of cultivating their own culture, their own vision. The result shows that; by trying so hard to adopt the Apple mantra of style, quality and innovation, when they don’t really believe it, they come out with mediocre products, like the Zune player and, now, seemingly, the Surface tablet. That doesn’t mean, of course, that Microsoft doesn’t ever innovate or that it inherently could not. It is a company that has both resources and technology to revolutionise computing, a company that has introduced countless innovations over the years, but on average it suffices to releasing second-rate products, it cares more about the economics of doing business than the passion, quality and enjoyment of creating technology and products.
Surface, a tablet that wants to replace not only devices primarily aimed for consuming content, like the iPad, but, eventually, your laptop probably tries to do too much at once, while being mediocre at both. With a schizophrenic cover/keyboard device, it’s presented as a notebook replacement; with Metro, it competes with the iPad. But Surface Pro will also be able to run classic Windows programs, where the plain model won’t (it’s ARM-based). How about battery life? I think that Google/Apple got it right when they separated PC and post-PC devices. In terms of productivity nothing, let alone a tablet, beats a workstation, with its massive real-estate, ergonomic size and positioning and greater power, but Microsoft desperate attempt to differentiate the Surface from the iPad and Android tablets by invoking ‘creation’ rather than ‘consumption’ and pointing to the keyboard and higher performance is ludicrous. I’d take a brand new MacBook Air anytime, even running Windows 8, instead of the just-released Surface. Sure there’ll be cases when the full power of a notebook might be useful in a tablet form-factor, and there’ll be cases where the presence of a touch-based keyboard will be better than its absence, but in general this is not anyone’s vision for a productive portable consuming experience.

Then it’s presentation. Microsoft’s attempt at positioning it at such, failed on numerous occasions during the presentation. For example, the presenter went as far as talking about how fast this keyboard scans the keys (“ten times faster than any keyboard that you use today”. at 42’49”), as if scanning speed is anywhere near the issues a typist faces, especially when typing on a shitty ‘touch’ keyboard. (I happen to love typing, I usually type at about 110-140wpm and I can tell you that on anything other than top of the line mechanical or Topre keyboards, the speed drops by about 30-40wpm. Move to ‘touch’ keyboards on displays, projected or on plastic, and a further 20-30wpm drop is to be expected, leaving aside the significant fatigue that typing on a non-tactile surface entails). Here’s to borrowing from Jobs’s bullshit marketing presentation skills. Although, without truly innovative products and his unique “RDF”, it fails miserably.
My prediction is that the Surface tablet will never be anything, but a decent niche product for Microsoft. It may be followed by much improved models and it definitely ushers a new era where PC notebooks may start becoming the exception rather than the rule and replaced by TPM-equipped, locked down ‘tablet’ devices that won’t be able to run anything other than the Operating System that came preinstalled by the factory, will require signed binaries and so on. In some ways, this might be the beginning of the end of truly general purpose, programmable, portable personal computing and, in that respect, I am disappointed that Microsoft chose to copy even the darkest of Apple’s policies.
On the other hand, I love Microsoft’s guts with moving to Windows 8, its work with Windows Phone 7 and its reinvigorated design values, clearly evident in the magnesium case and design details of Surface, the attention to quality and the (most probably) competitive pricing. And while I’d hate to agree with Jobs’s ’95 quote that Microsoft has no taste — and it certainly is less true today than it was back then — it somehow rings so true every once in a while.
I found the following video funny and pertinent to my criticism above.