I’d been waiting for something like Microsoft’s new Surface tablet for some time now, if only to make some sense out of Windows 8.
After playing with three successive preview versions of the new operating system, I find myself still nonplussed by the product, which seemed to solve no traditional computer usability needs and seemed, instead, to make computing on the platform less accessible for the casual user. The Metro interface is just plain weird when you try to use it with a mouse and some of the decisions that Microsoft has made with the traditional Windows interface, most notably removing the familiar start button, seem suicidal. On a Windows Phone, the system of interface tiles that Microsoft grafted into Windows 8 make sense. They are a large, Tetris-like way of moving apps and widgets around on a small screen and well suited to the big-fingered set that I belong to. On a desktop operating system, particularly one designed to present them as a start point, the very same tile system is a waste of screen real estate.
So a tablet device with desktop capabilities running Windows 8 goes directly to the contradictions of the new OS. On June 19, Microsoft introduced two models of its new Surface tablet, Surface for Windows RT (which ships only on devices and except for preinstalled Office, runs tile-based Metro software only) and Surface for Windows 8 Pro. Viewing a Webcast of the launch announcement for the product, the Microsoft team seemed keen to keep the messaging points clear. Steve Ballmer: “Windows is the soul of Microsoft.” Steven Sinofsky: “A tablet that’s a great PC.” The story was clear. People want a tablet that allows them to create content as well as consume it. Windows is pervasive, and customers want to access their software on their tablet devices. After such a major announcement, the company was reported to be cagey about allowing anyone to actually use the new devices and as I write this, no-one has been able to report spending any quality time with a Surface tablet, nor has availability or pricing been announced.
Of the two devices, Surface for Windows 8 Pro provides the best window into Microsoft’s strategy for merging a touchscreen tablet experience with using an ultrabook running Windows. The new tablet is basically an ultrabook with the hardware behind the screen instead of under the keyboard and a touchscreen interface. Moving beyond that description will depend on both how well the hardware works in day to day use and how the software meets very different user expectations for a tablet. The company might argue that Surface is a proof of concept device for its hardware partners, but that’s not what Microsoft is saying with this launch. “It embodies the notion of hardware and software really pushing each other,” Steve Ballmer said in introducing Surface. What he might have really wanted to say is that Microsoft is willing to do all the pushing if its hardware partners won’t put their shoulders to the wheel of dislodging the iPad- and Android-based tablets.