Jun 12

Microsoft delivers its opening argument for Surface

In the last 15 years, I don’t think I’ve ever given Microsoft more than 10 consecutive minutes of my life. Which is sad, because long ago I was actually a fan.

But yesterday, curious about the Surface tablet, I sat myself down and watched the entire video of Monday’s Surface unveiling in Hollywood. I found it fascinating on many levels.

First, I have to say that I was drawn to the video because two of the Surface’s features seemed very cool — the 16:9 format screen and keyboard built into the cover.

So, despite my mostly negative views of Microsoft, I started the video being somewhat impressed.

I won’t say that feeling was immediately reversed, but when Steve Ballmer is the first thing you see, enthusiasm is difficult to maintain. He’s definitely not Steve Jobs. He’s not Tim Cook, or even Phil Schiller. His curse is that he is and always will be Steve Ballmer.

I can’t slam him for spinning the story in the most positive light, just as Steve Jobs would do at Apple events. But still, some of this spin is tough to swallow. Ballmer starts off talking about all the great innovation coming from Microsoft, and how it has embraced mobility. Never mind that Microsoft’s embracing of mobility came four years late in smartphones and three years late in tablets.

Microsoft has a script that never varies. It’s that Windows is the “heart and soul” of the company and PCs rule the world. So of course that’s the theme of this presentation. It’s all about the great coming of Windows 8 and positioning Surface not so much as a tablet, but as a new kind of PC. Talk of a “post-PC” world is not allowed here.

Ballmer’s first mission in this video is to rationalize why Microsoft needs to enter the hardware business here, competing with its own partners. To do so, he makes a pretty flimsy argument. He shows a video that romances Microsoft’s mice, keyboards and PC-cams. These are Ballmer’s examples of “what makes this place special.”

“Just as Windows 1.0 needed a mouse to complete the experience,” says Ballmer, “we wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation.” Clearly this is a man in search of a good rationalization.

You’d be hard pressed to find any living human who believes that Microsoft’s efforts in PC hardware were either necessary or special. If I were Ballmer, I’d have stuck with XBox (and Kinect) as my example — where Microsoft created a vibrant, successful platform.

I do understand the nature of a product introduction, and I acknowledge that Apple is well known for going overboard with its verbiage. But it takes a special kind of nerve to present something so familiar as fresh, bold, out-of-the-box thinking. This is why Ballmer says Microsoft created the Surface tablet:

People do want to create and consume. They want to work and they want to play. They want to be on their couch, they want to be at their desk, and they want to be on the go. Surface fulfills that dream…

This is a pretty good description of what people have been doing with iPads (and iPad imitators) for over three years already.

Now some observations about Surface itself:

When the cover is introduced, they make a big deal about how it attaches magnetically. It’s pointed out that a magnetic connector is actually built into the device itself. Whoever heard of such a thing! And hold the presses — the cover also acts like an on/off switch.

But then the keyboard-in-the-cover is revealed. This is something that I do respect and admire. It’s a clever idea. There are two versions: one is a little thicker, but the keys have some travel built-in. You can actually rest your fingers on the keys without accidentally triggering them. Can’t say for sure until I touch it, but it sure looks like a cool thing. (How long this will remain a Microsoft advantage is unknown. I see no reason why an OEM can’t build the same cover for iPad.)

There will be two versions of Surface, one Windows RT (for ARM processors) and the other Windows 8 (for Intel processors). The latter is the “pro” model that will have more memory and the ability to run Windows apps. Again, a stark contrast between Microsoft and Apple. Apple offers one flavor with all features available to everyone, Microsoft goes with multiple “editions” with different feature sets.

The pro version allows pen input. While iPad users probably don’t give a hoot about pens, Microsoft did offer up a few interesting demos. It is pointed out that Surface detects when a pen nears the screen and automatically disables the touch input, so you can rest your palm on the screen without accidentally moving things around. Cool idea, although at the 24:20 mark in this video, the screen appears to go screwy because of the hand’s presence anyway. May need to tweak this feature before showtime.

About that widescreen format: I have long assumed this would be the shape of all screens to come. Honestly, I never understood why Apple went with the “old” format in the original iPad, or why all iPad imitators have done the same. Perhaps there is some dark side to 16:9 screens I’m not aware of. But if entertainment is one of the main uses of a tablet, it’s a shame not to be able to watch a 16:9 movie full-screen. So I give Microsoft credit for this one.

The show winds down with talk about availability and price — but little hard info on either. We can expect Surface to have a price “comparable to other tablets.” The Windows RT version will come when Windows 8 ships, and the pro version “about three months later.” We’ll see about that.

This is another difference between the way Microsoft and Apple work. Apple never unveils a product without a perfectly clear plan: configurations, prices and shipping dates. Microsoft doesn’t do itself any favors by being so fuzzy.

When Ballmer returns for his farewell comments, he thanks everyone involved. He notes that this has been “an unbelievable journey,” and he’s absolutely right about that. It was an unbelievable journey in the worst sense of the phrase. It was a journey that started ten years before Apple unveiled iPad. And it was a journey in which Microsoft tried to lead the way on multiple occasions and failed every time. This article chronicles Microsoft’s many efforts to come up with a tablet computer.

Ballmer says he often hears the question “Why now?” His answer: “We took the time to really get Windows 8 and Surface right, to do something that was really different and really special.”

Uh, right. The fact is, Microsoft was left in the dust when the tablet revolution started. Surface does incorporate some interesting ideas, but no one can possibly believe that it would look anything like it does if a certain someone hadn’t first invented the iPad.

Ballmer goes on to say that “because of Windows 8, the Surface is a PC… something new, something people will really love.”

That’s hardly a given. A tablet version of a PC will probably appeal to some. However, one could easily argue that by turning the tablet into a PC, Microsoft is missing the whole point of tablets. iPad is a phenomenal success for consumers and corporations precisely because it is so much simpler than a PC. It offers up apps with specific purposes at the touch of a finger — and it’s at the center of an ecosystem featuring over 200,000 apps.

And then there’s that little matter of Microsoft’s not-insignificant other competitor: Android.

As the saying goes, competition is a good thing. I’m glad to see Microsoft jump in with some new ideas because we will all benefit in the end. How much Microsoft benefits, though, remains to be seen.

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  • BladeRunner

    How do you see XBox as a “success?” It’s lost billions of dollars over the years. They could only compete against the Wii and the PS3 because they had a giant war chest in which to pad their losses. Is the XBox in a lot of homes? Yes. But I wouldn’t call it a success financially.

  • BladeRunner

    How do you see XBox as a “success?” It’s lost billions of dollars over the years. They could only compete against the Wii and the PS3 because they had a giant war chest in which to pad their losses. Is the XBox in a lot of homes? Yes. But I wouldn’t call it a success financially.

  • > I see no reason why an OEM can’t build the same cover for iPad.An iPad version of the cover would need Bluetooth. Hence, a battery that needs to be recharged. Hence pairing. Hence extra COGS and bulk.

  • > But if entertainment is one of the main uses of a tablet, it’s a shame not to be able to watch a 16:9 movie full-screen. 
    IMO 16:9 is best for watching movies, but worse for everything else. It’s awkward in portrait, and it forces lots of scrolling in landscape when viewing documents. So I would argue that Apple doesn’t think movie playing is an important enough use-case to dictate the screen ratio.

  • Sorry for posting multiple comments. My goal is not to “spam” but to allow for people to reply to individual thoughts :)

    The Surface announcement reeks of desperation to me. MS had to jump in to do HW because it doesn’t trust OEMs to do it right – backstabbing their business partners in the process. They’ve tried tablets for 10 years and failed horribly, only to see iPad and to a much lesser degree Android tables come and steal its lunch and threaten it’s PC monopoly for the first time. Can’t blame them for being desperate.

    Another thought: their messaging with Windows has always been disastrous (Home? Professional? Enterprise?) but now with Windows RT it got much much worse. They are both Windows 8 but one runs more programs. But the programs aren’t actually compatible / universal binaries. You can buy a ~$500 tablet but it won’t run all Windows software. Or a ~$1000 tablet that will, but weighs more. And who knows about battery life?

    Try explaining this to a non techie. What a disaster.

    To make things worse, the Intel version ships ~3 months after the ARM version and the OS ship. So they essentially Osborned Ultra book manufacturers and possibly tablet customers who will wait for the Intel version to get reviewed before making a purchasing decision. Yikes!

    Who knows, maybe Windows 8 and Surface turn out to be a really great product and they pull through despite all of this.

  • The keyboard in a case has already been done by Logitech for the iPad:

  • chse1

    re. 16:9
    I’ve had the chance once to see a “slate” by Samsung or some other OEM in 16:9. And if you actially enjoy to use an onscreen keyboard with this aspect ratio [in landscape mode] I’d cosider you outright masochistic. So my guess for MSFT using 16:9 is that they are not relying on an onscreen keyboard all too much. Also, this is basicslly a landscape-only device.

  • By the way, nobody is talking about how Surface FROZE & CRASHED during the demo. Same ol’ Microsoft. Same ol’ Windows. 

    Microsoft’s press release should have read:

    “GREAT NEWS, WORLD! MICROSOFT IS COMING OUT WITH A TABLET!! Now you can get error messages, viruses, crashes, freezes, confusing interfaces, blue screens of death, and unexpected shutdowns 10 times a day… all in a much smaller format!! Rejoice!”

  • ksegall

    I won’t pretend to be an expert on game machines. But I did Google before I wrote, and there are a ton of articles about the success of this platform. Even if it only has the aura of success, I’d still go with that over my line of PC mouses and keyboards.

  • ksegall

    So how does Microsoft do it with Surface?

    And there are peripherals that do this already with iPad (as Scott points out above). I don’t see any in the form of a “smart cover” yet, but I imagine those will be arriving soon.

  • ksegall

    I have no doubt that Apple thought about this long and hard before choosing the format they did. There must be some good reasons. But there is a certain logic I don’t buy, which I can only resolve by actually trying a 16:9 screen for myself. So I look forward to that. True, there would be more scrolling in landscape mode, but there would likely be less scrolling in portrait mode. If 16:9 truly is an inferior experience, it will be interesting to see what kind of reviews Surface gets when it ships.

  • ksegall

    Very good points. At the end of the day, I’m afraid Microsoft can’t stop itself from being Microsoft. All these different versions may have reasons to exist, but they make things more complicated right out of the gate.

  • ksegall

    I was going to call that out in my article, but I decided to be nice — only because these demo crashes happen to the best of them. Still, it was kind of fun to watch :)

  • Microsoft passes data and power through the magnetic connector. Think more of a Mag Safe + data rather than the hidden magnets on the iPad used by the Smart Cover.

  • I have no insider info, but my gut tells me that nobody in MS has the balls to make a decision and go one way or another (ARM / Intel or thin/thick keyboard). So they ship both, confusing their message and their customers. This is something Apple excels at, or at least did when Jobs was around. We don’t know who’s going to take that role now.

  • JerryL

     I would really have loved to see what a game system designed by Apple/Jobs may have looked like.  Jobs obviously never was interested in that market.  But I have a feeling if he did, and he envisioned a truely unique take on it like the iPod, iPad and iTunes, it probably would have made the XBox obsolete.  The XBox doesn’t really have any competitors that are visionaries…..

  • sarumbear

    Movie playing is dictated by the width. The height is different from film to film. Most blockbusters are 21:9 (2.4). If watching films is the main reason for a device then 16:9 is not ideal either.

    I firmly believe that 4:3 or 3:2 are the better aspect ratios for a computer device. You can optimise the page you are seeing by orienting it between landscape and portrait and actually gain something by it. On a 16:9 page landscape lacks height and portrait lacks width on almost all apps bar TV watching (at 16:9).

    Guess what, TV watching is the least used function of a tablet.

  • ksegall

    Not sure why this didn’t strike me before:

    I love my 11-inch MacBook Air. I love everything about it, right down to its 16:9 aspect ratio. I have never felt like I have to scroll too much, and I enjoy being able to watch full-screen movies. Some movies may not be an exact match, but the vast majority end up significantly larger than they would on a 4:3 display. This screen is ideal for me — and on a laptop I don’t even have the option of viewing in portrait mode.

    So it’s hard for me to shake my curiosity about a 16:9 tablet screen.

  • sarumbear

    As I said above, movie watching on a computer/tablet/phone is dictated by width of the screen but it should actually be dictated by height. After all we gage the size of things against the height of human beings. (That is why many people film video in portrait mode on their iPhones.)

    When you have a 16:9 display you are limiting the height of the elements in the film. Almost all films are shot for TV in mind and the action is centred. It is a better experience to watch a film in 4:3, centre cropped on a tablet device where your eyes are focusing on a display that you move around and position as you want.

    When you are in a movie theatre and the screen is 30+ feet wide and stationary, the experience is different. Elements are around you (hence the surround sound and early IMAX) and you are involved in the film instead of directing attention to it as it is the case with a hand-held display. I am very glad that Apple doesn’t blindly follow the industry and use 16:9 displays on hand-held devices.

    The reason why almost everyone use 16:9 display is to do with economics of flat-panel display manufacture. 16:9 is used on TVs as well and it is cheaper to create dies that fits to both TVs and computer devices. That is why 19:10 displays with 1920×1200 gave way to 16:9 with 1920×1080 and Apple uses a 27″ 16:9 display on garden variety iMac but 16:10 on top of the range 30″ display – 16:9 is limiting the height.

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  • Hm

    This ‘Surface’ project has compromise written all over it. Compromise on the chips (x2 options); compromise on the keyboard (x2 options); compromise on connectivity (no 3G / 4G); compromise on the screens (average resolutions) and compromise on the software (Windows RT and Windows Pro).

    Many will say these are not compromises, they are providing consumers with choice, but every one of these decisions makes Surface a more fractured and confusing platform from day one. Having two platforms halves their chance of success immediately and I suspect it’s a decision that will come back to haunt them. Either the RT or the Pro model will likely be killed off when it becomes clear which one people want (if either), leaving unhappy customers of the other platform behind.

    As to Apple and their 4:3 screen, I suspect they thought long and hard about what people would mostly use their iPad for. 16:9 is great for one thing only – movies. 4:3 is better for the web, for books, for productivity apps – pretty much everything designed in a traditional way. It works better for switching between portrait / landscape modes too, and ergonomically it just feels better in the hands. Microsoft didn’t even show Surface running in portrait mode, and their built in flip stand is for landscape mode only… more compromise.

    Microsoft have some good people. They have some good ideas. But as you said, they just can’t stop themselves from being Microsoft. And I see that all over Surface.

  • Arjuna

    I agree with Marcos, it’s better for movies, and only movies. And Apple clearly doesn’t think of the iPad as primarily an entertainment device.

    I use my iPad mostly in portrait mode, and I think that’s common. As a device for reading, that feels best, and a 16:9 ratio would be awkward and seem to0 tall. When I am in landscape, it’s often for typing, and I imagine an on-screen keyboard on a 16:9 display would leave little room to view your content. (That’s one place Microsoft does shine, I’m excited about that keyboard cover, though certainly skeptical since no one was allowed to touch one.)

    But honestly, I was just as surprised as you at the iPad’s initial announcement that it wasn’t 16:9 – that seemed like a regression to me, and Apple’s always forward thinking. Why would they do that? Clearly every screen of the future is going to be something resembling 16:9.

    As soon as I started using it though, it made perfect sense. The iPad was designed to resemble a sheet of paper, the 21st century notepad. It’s not just another screen for you to look at – for that 16:9 is certainly better – it’s a book, a magazine, a composition pad, a canvas. 4:3 is my preferred aspect ratio for that.

  • robroberts2009

    First of all,I must say the Surface looks “badass” in the same way a stealth bomber does — sleek, industrial strength and foreboding.

    That being said, I don’t need a stealth bomber to drive to work and back.

    My prediction: The ARM chip version will be crippled by lack of software and the Intel version will be crippled by lack of battery life.

    I LOVE the concept of the keyboard — but why were no journalists allowed to touch one, let alone type on one? Another prediction: Somebody like Logitec will copy this design for the iPad and release it before the first Surface is sold.

  • myonlinelifenow

    First off, great commentary on Surface.  Hard not to like that Microsoft is at least in the fight and competition is always a “good” thing.

    A couple of things right off the bat from a non-pundit consumer, 

    “People do want to create and consume. They want to work and they want to play. They want to be on their couch, they want to be at their desk, and they want to be on the go. Surface fulfills that dream…”

    Why is is so hard for pundits to believe that you can already do this on the iPad.  It’s knocked so hard as a consumption device, but I”m surprised at how much I actually do everyday with ours.  You didn’t bring up the fact that Office was toted as a plus for Surface users but in my case, the migration to using Pages/Numbers/Keynote on the iPad was too easy.

    The 16:9 debate at least in our house isn’t much of one.  Watching a movie on the subway or the bus is fine in 4:3 for 30mins or so, but when I am at home its all about AirPlay!  I should charge Apple for all of the AppleTV’s I’ve sold showing off the feature to friends.

    Microsoft also brought up their “Eco-System” during the presentation but why didn’t they push the X-BOX integration? Or is this all business and no fun.

    Regardless Surface is going to need all the help it can get and it’s probably the one thing Microsoft has fallen short on.  By getting into the hardware market, they’ve screwed their partners like HP, ASUS, Dell and Samsung.  Selling millions of keyboards, mice and even X-BOX’s (66 million over the last 7 years) is one thing, but the iPad is at +60 million plus in less than 4 years and they don’t seem to be slowing down.

    I wonder what Google I/O will bring?  

  • I expect a very short, brutal life for the new Surface.

  • hugo92800

    One more thing :-)   Wasn’t this event the first Touch Product Launch where Journalists were not allowed to touch and test the product ?    Please don’t touch :-)   Press Coverage honestly only touched the Surface of things with no price, no battery life, no First Impressions…. 

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