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.