Image Source: The Verge Microsoft announced their upcoming Surface PC / Tablets – with Steve Ballmer hailing them as: Something new, something different, it’s a whole new family of computing devices from Microsoft. The announcement event was heavily hyped, started 45 minutes late, and by the end it seemed to have provided as many questions […]
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iSource Round Table: 5 Questions about Microsoft Surface

MS Tablet

Image Source: The Verge

Microsoft announced their upcoming Surface PC / Tablets – with Steve Ballmer hailing them as:

Something new, something different, it’s a whole new family of computing devices from Microsoft.

The announcement event was heavily hyped, started 45 minutes late, and by the end it seemed to have provided as many questions as answers for many in the live and online audience. We’ve had a few days to digest the announcement, watch the event video and check out the Surface.com site – and now several of us felt ready to share our thoughts on Surface by way of answering 5 basic questions about it.

A sort of iSource Round Table if you like. Here are the 5 questions and our answers:

1. What’s most impressive about Surface?

Brandon: The keyboard. A cover about as thin as the (darned near useless and overpriced Smart Cover) but is actually a full keyboard with pressure sensitivity, plus the intelligence to know when it’s being used and when it’s just being flipped around the the back of the device. I’ll also give them credit for the integrated kickstand as well as the presence of mind to handle the way the heat is expelled from the device in a sensible manner.

Finally – (8 Pro) is a real full featured OS with full multi-tasking, no need to jailbreak/root… and comes with the added bonus of not needing to carry a second device (laptop). I could explain more – but suffice it to say I find iOS (and for that matter Android) to be extremely limiting when it comes to really doing my job when away from the desk. It’s overkill for the standard iPad user’s couch surfing.

Patrick: Although Microsoft certainly borrowed a fair bit from Apple in their strategy behind Surface and other areas, it still feels like probably the least copycat tablet we’ve seen since the original iPad was released. From what I can see in the event video and Microsoft’s promo material it looks very nicely built. Both models look impressive. The smart case that doubles as a keyboard is a clever idea, hopefully the keyboard works well. The inking tech also looks quite impressive.

Brad: I am most impressed by the Pro version of the surface.  It almost makes my iPad seem like a toy.  While you can do a lot with the iPad, it is still limited by the fact that it isn’t a full computer and the fact that you do not have full control of your files.  I would love to have access to all of my files from any program and be able to open them from any program on the device – something that is not possible on the iPad.  There are also a lot of Windows based programs that I use on a regular basis that I could never use with my iPad.  Some of these programs are available for iPad, but usually in a more limited fashion.  The Pro version of the surface is a full fledged computer in tablet form.  I would be able to use all of my full-fledged Windows programs and access my files any way I want.  This excites me the most and makes my iPad feel very limited. 

Alicia: Nothing. In my view Microsoft showed us hints of innovation but nothing that they were willing to subject to real world testing by the public. At the bloody launch event. That in my view is pathetic and almost insulting. If they were so proud of their hard work why not let people play with it for real? They’re launching one in 4 months and don’t even show it off?

James: For me, the most impressive aspect of Surface is the overall design. Microsoft has finally decided to step up their game. Finally. Sure, they have made some nice looking keyboards and mice over the years, but what else? The original Surface? The Kin? The Xbox and Zune HD are about the best they’ve ever done, and they weren’t anything to write home about. As far as I can remember, the best looking piece of Microsoft branded hardware before this Surface announcement was the Courier, and it never made it out the door.

So, it’s good to see Microsoft, with its size and resources, finally take the post-pc era seriously. They have obviously put together a top-shelf design team, and given them what they needed to produce a first for the company- a flagship device.

The thing I appreciated the most about both the event and the Surface hardware, was that while Microsoft certainly took its cues from Apple’s success, they put their own spin on both. While the Surface shares a similar clean and simple design aesthetic, it is a fundamentally different device from the iPad. Also, while Microsoft could have straight-up copied the Apple Smart Cover, they didn’t, instead putting a very different spin on it. Who knows how well the multi-touch version will work in practice, but it looks pretty cool in theory.

Thomas: I actually think the trackpad on the detachable keyboard is a good idea. I don’t think that tablets should be primarily mouse-driven, but there is something to be said about keeping your hands where they are – on the keys – to manipulate the tablet screen. Reaching up from the iPad isn’t horrible, but a trackpad sounds like it might simple things, like text selection, easier.

2. What’s least impressive about Surface?

Brandon: The fact that when Microsoft decides Windows 8 has a big enough market presence, they’ll kill it off. Or if it fails, they’ll kill it off. Windows Vista meet Zune.
I’m quite sure it’ll ship late, and at a ridiculously high price. Let’s be honest here – A $500 Android tablet only sells to the Android fans. A $1400 Ultrabook only sells to the people who know what an Ultrabook is. The rest of the market is $200 tablets and $329 utlra-cheap laptops from Best Buy.
Oh, and the fact that’s it’s Microsoft supporting the device. That actually kind of scares me, because last time I had to deal with Microsoft for hardware support… well I might as well have just tossed the XBox in the trash, then gone out and buy a new one. Oh wait… that’s what really ended up happening.

Patrick: It *still* doesn’t have a firm release date – and the Pro model is set to ship 3 months after the RT model, which sounds like it may not even be this year.

There’s still no real pricing detail for either model. ‘Comparable to’ is more than a little vague.

At the announcement event there was no mention at all of 3G/4G capabilities for either model. If one or both of them are WiFi only that’s a big drawback right out of the gate.

There was also no mention of battery life. If that’s because it’s nothing to write home about, that’s another big knock on it.

The inking feature is only available on the Pro model, which sounds as if it will be far more expensive.

Microsoft emphasized heavily that this is as much a PC as a tablet. I don’t think that’s what most tablet buyers want. Maybe it will have more success in the ‘ultrabook’ space.

Brad: I thought Microsoft messed up by introducing the Surface before the product was ready to pre-order or purchase.  After watching the keynote, I was very excited about the product and probably would have considered purchasing it had it been available immediately.  The fact that there will be a long cooling off period before this product is made available I feel will hurt the sales of the Surface.  I think Apple does this right by shipping their new products immediately after their keynote presentations when the excitement is at the highest point for their new products. 

I’m also not sure how well this computer will work as a “Lap” top.  Will I be able to stand it up securely on my lap using the flip out stand?  What makes a laptop or Ultarabook nice is the flat bottom surface of the machine that rests very securely on your lap.  I’m not sure I will be able to do that with a kickstand and the flimsy looking (albeit impressive) keyboard.  I could use it easily as a tablet on my lap, but I would then be forced to type on a glass screen again.  For that reason I am not sure this is the “go to” machine for people who need to travel with their computer and work with it on their lap a lot.

Alicia: Difficult to reduce my options here. I think the 16:9 factor a wrong choice. For entertainment viewing yes but not for working. Can you type without the add-on keyboards? If not they are not tablets but ultrabooks with detachable keyboards. And for all their brief demoing, no one demoed the actual typing aspect of the keyboards. You’d think they’d use the chance to wow some early adopters. Loads of questions remain. No 3G, 4G. No demo of getting stuff onto or off of the device. Cloud options? Any cool pairing with Windows phone features?

James: While it has more of an identity than higher-end Google Experience Android tablets, it isn’t much more of one. Those devices have been abject failures, even by their manufacturers’ own admissions, because they were aimed at a market that didn’t really exist. Google bet on power users, but with an experience that still has compromises and price tag higher than a mid-level laptop that can get more done.

Microsoft has aimed at the same target as Google with a more fully-featured arrow. But, will it really hit the bullseye? I don’t think that the full Windows 8 version of the Surface will have the same limitations as an Android tablet, but then again, no one is completely sure of this yet. We only got a brief glimpse of a product still months from launch. Will it be a new Retina Display MacBook Pro-like marriage of power and slim design, or will it be a first-gen MacBook Air-like underpowered and frustrating compromise. Only time will tell. And even if the hardware is spot-on, how many companies and hard-working power users are going to jump into Windows 8 head first on day one? That’s even harder to figure.

And the Windows RT version? That one is anybody’s guess. Will Metro apps show up in droves before launch? Will it have enough power? And for both models, will Microsoft be willing to take a hit in the pocketbook to make their play? They’ll have to, because price parity won’t be enough to make a big splash. They will have to come in under competing Ultrabooks for the full Windows 8 version, and the iPad for the RT version to really make a splash.

Apple wisely chose to design the iPad to handle a core set of basic tasks, such as web surfing, email, and media consumption, beautifully and intuitively. Sure, thanks to the wide variety of tablet-oriented apps in the App Store, it is capable of doing so much more, but as Steve Jobs said at the product launch, it was ultimately designed to do those basic tasks beautifully. That focus has made it a massive hit with several market segments, because its aimed at a different target that nothing else before it hit just right. When you consider that the only other tablets that have been able to survive this new game so far have been less expensive, even more consumer focused devices like the Kindle Fire and Barnes and Noble Nook, it is pretty clear where the market is. And if the rumors are true, even Google has taken note of this, and is headed in this direction with their upcoming Nexus-branded tablet.

Can Microsoft be all things to all people, hitting both the power and consumer targets with two different devices running two very different versions of the same OS? Stay tuned this Fall, but I have my doubts that they can do it right out of the gate.

There is one more thing I definitely don’t like about Surface, or at least can’t for the life of me understand. If Microsoft wants to make a big splash ahead of Google I/O, and wants to establish that Surface will have an ecosystem from day one, why the heck didn’t they bring up their ace in the hole. Why was Xbox not even mentioned? Microsoft has put together the most compelling lineup of movie and television streaming content in the industry, far ahead of even Apple, and just got done touting it all at E3 last week. Between this and gaming, one of the iPad’s current strongholds, why would they not want to tie their new baby to the product that consumers already know and trust? If you want consumers to really consider Surface head-to-head with the iPad, Xbox HAS to be part of the picture. In my opinion, this was a big gaffe on Microsoft’s part.

Thomas: It’s already been said a billion times, so I’ll keep it short: no release date or pricing details, and next to no hands-on impressions of software and hardware. Blah. Seriously. 

Microsoft Surface Tablet

3. Is Surface likely to be a major iPad rival?

Brandon: No. Like I said – Microsoft will price itself out of the market, so from a consumer perspective, I don’t see it. The exception will be some enterprise customers which will try to standardize on the device because they refuse to bring in iOS or Android but still want to appease the sales staff.

Patrick: On what we know so far, probably not. It has a lower resolution screen than the iPad, may not offer 3G/4G connectivity, may not match the iPad’s battery life, and will definitely be no match for the iPad when it comes to available apps and ecosystem. In fact, it will be way, way behind – and may face a real uphill battle gaining developer support, especially with the decision to have two models running two separate operating systems. That has ugly echoes of the Bad Old Days of Windows Mobile. It also sounds like it will be priced at about the same level as the iPad. No tablet priced that way has gained any significant market share thus far – and the Surface just doesn’t seem like it has enough big selling points to compete at the same price.

Brad: I don’t think the RT tablet version with atom processor Surface has any chance of competing with the iPad.  There is just nothing there that makes me want to replace my iPad with it.  However, the fact that the Pro model is really a full-fledged PC gives it a shot not only against the iPad but also against the Macbook Air.  I currently own both an iPad and Macbook Air.  The idea that I could basically have a version of both those devices in the Microsoft Surface excites me.  The Pro version of the Surface can play the role of both a tablet and an Ultrabook.

Alicia: This depends on the price. God knows people react to low low prices (HP Touchpad anyone?). It also depends on the physical availability and the reaction of their hardware manufacturers who have invested resources in building tablets running the Windows platform. I wager it will be comparable to the Xoom sales.

James: Not just no. HELL NO. Microsoft’s Windows RT doesn’t have enough going for it to de-throne the iPad any time soon. There is just no way that Microsoft can create an app ecosystem out of thin air between now and the Fall. If Microsoft is willing to invest a lot of time and money to get developer involved and making ARM-compatible apps for RT, the consumer-centric Surface has the potential to eventually hold its own. But, they are going to have to be willing to subsidize and heavily incentivize developers right off the bat, and stick with it. Microsoft has talked a good game  for two years now with Windows Phone, but hasn’t really delivered. Will they do more for Surface? If not, the RT version could suffer a similar fate.

Thomas: I think that will really depend on the apps market, and judging from what Windows Phone 7.5 has on offer…it’ll be a while yet. However, as Brandon Steili has said: maybe the Surface doesn’t have to be. PC folk have wanted a tablet-shaped device that actually works (unlike most sluggish Tablet PCs), and the Surface could be it. 

4. Is Surface likely to be a major rival for Android tablets?

Brandon: No. Like I said – Microsoft will price itself out of the market, so from a consumer perspective, I don’t see it. The exception will be some enterprise customers which will try to standardize on the device because they refuse to bring in iOS or Android but still want to appease the sales staff.

Patrick: Yes, I think it could well be – largely because it looks more original and much better built than most Android tablets we’ve seen this far.

Brad: I think Google has more to worry about than the Apple.  If Windows 8 turns out to be a good operating system and Microsoft is able to recruit plenty of developers to produce a decent app store, I feel that the Surface would more easily integrate into the lives of the average consumer much easier than Android does.  Almost everyone I know uses Microsoft Office and that name recognition and file compatibility alone will give the Surface a head start on Android tablets.

Alicia: Probably.

James: Yes. Big time. Why? If the full Windows 8 version of the Surface is price-competitive with current high-end Android tablets, it pretty much sucks the little bit of life they had right out of them. It will run productivity apps that corporate customers and power users are used to. It’s not like Android tablets have seen wide enterprise adoption so far, but with the arrival of Windows 8 and Surface, that door is about to slam shut permanently. Again, both products are aiming at similar targets, but Microsoft has a bigger gun, and a lot more ammo in the form of enterprise experience and credibility. Make no mistake, there is a good reason why the Nexus tablet is headed in a different direction.

Thomas: I think the Surface could trump Android tablets – especially if the Microsoft retail stores work out. Having people on hand who actually know what the hell they’re talking about really helps convince customers why they should drop hundreds of dollars on a tablet that isn’t called “iPad”. Based on friends’ feedback in carrier stores and outlets like Best Buy, standard tech store staff just aren’t trained well enough to tell people how tablets could help them out.

5. Will you be getting one?

Brandon: I’m definitely considering requesting one of the Pro units when they ship. I’ll likely turn in my work laptop and iPad for one IF I do get one – but it won’t be for personal use.

Patrick: I’ll be very interested in getting an RT model, just to see how good / bad / mediocre it really is. I’ll also be interested in the Pro model but if it is priced like an ultrabook ($700-1,500) that’s likely to be well outside my budget.

Brad: Because of all the current unknowns, I can’t fully answer this question at this time.  I can tell the factors that will cause me to purchase it.  Like I said before, as an iPad owner, I am not interested in another limited tablet experience.  I do have some interest in the Pro model, though.  If the pro model has a good battery life (6+ hours), if the keyboard is really as good as Microsoft claims (as in that I can touch type at my regular speed), and if the price is similar to that of an entry level Macbook Air (Somewhere in the $1000-1100 range or lower), I could see myself purchasing the Surface.  If it is able to carry out the role of both a tablet and Ultrabook equally well, I would love to have one device instead of the two (iPad and Macbook Air) I currently own. 

Alicia: No.

Overall I think Microsoft came across as desperate during their presentation. The tone was less celebratory and more somber. Kinda like the RIM Playbook launch.

Over 2 years after the launch of the iPad and they still don’t have something ready to ship? And when they do come up with something they are full fledged computers in tablet form? And no pricing? Also, they seem to be aiming for the business community rather than for consumers. No demos of music or internet browsing or photo management. Instead they go on and on about VaporMg and how the hardware fades into the background and how it feels great in your hand. Sigh. I was expecting better.

James: No. I can’t say that I’m not intrigued. I think the design is very compelling and shows that Microsoft is FINALLY getting it. That said, funds are limited, and this device isn’t compelling enough on the surface to make me ditch my iPad. If someone wanted to give me one, however, I certainly wouldn’t say no. As I have already discussed with a couple of my fellow writers here at iSource, at work I am the classic “truck driver,” as Steve Jobs put it. I work in commercial and industrial controls, which demands a mobile computer with a lot of horsepower, a descent size screen, and legacy compatibility, and it is unlikely that Surface and Windows 8 will fit into my work world for a long time.

For example, it was over a year after release before I could even consider using Windows 7 on my work laptop. And even then, I had to use a bunch of adapters and at least four different virtual machines to get all of my necessary programs working and compatibility restored. With the radical changes in Windows 8, I expect an even longer wait this time around.

I have written several times about using my iPad at work for productivity purposes, which may seem at odds with what I just stated. However, since I have to have a “truck” for work, the iPad actually makes a perfect trailer to go along with it, acting as a second screen for taking notes, viewing prints, going through email, and managing projects, while I am programming or designing on my laptop. It’s a pretty perfect combination for me. I don’t see how Surface could fill either of those roles for me right now.

Thomas: I doubt it – at least not this generation. I have a desktop PC for gaming, a MacBook for writing/video editing, an iPad as a mobile computer, and an iPhone as my smartphone. Then there’s the fact that I tend to operate with suites of software across my Mac and iOS devices. I’d need something similar from a Windows tablet and a Windows phone combo to consider trying another ecosystem out.

And there you have our answers to those 5 key questions on the upcoming sometime-to-be-released Microsoft Surface. We’d love to hear  yours too of course – please chime in on these questions and the Surface in general in the comments.

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