The tech community has been mostly unified in semi-harsh criticism of Microsoft’s Surface hardware. It’s like schoolyard bullies going after the geeky kid that stands by himself on the playground, thick glasses, and button-down shirt, twiddling his thumbs as everyone else plays sports (I know what it’s like — I was a geeky kid like that). Bloggers have been commenting about the seemingly deficient battery life, the weight, the size, and the cognitive dissonance of going back and forth from the Modern UI to the classic desktop. On top of that, many have been bloviating about how the “Surface is no iPad killer.”
Let me stand apart from the fray and discuss why I think the Surface devices are forging a completely new paradigm shift for computing.
When Apple introduced the iPad in 2010, they ushered in the “tablet era” and revolutionized mobile computing. Although people have been moving to laptops and away from desktop computers for quite some time, in one fell swoop the iPad sped up the move away from being tethered to a desktop. Combined with the App Store, Apple made mobile computing and the cloud real for the masses. In my opinion, the iPad represented the first real example of how mobile computing and cloud technology combine to provide an experience of how people really want to connect with devices and each other. I knew something big was afoot when I was in a mall watching an older gentleman swiping through screens on his iPad. In one device, Apple captured how most people want to interact with technology.
Humans are funny creatures, however. They will naturally try to evolve their own perceptions of what a device means to them and try to make it adapt to their environment, needs and desires. People love the “lean-back” experience of consuming content on the iPad. But many wanted it to do more — they want productivity apps. They want to work with it. They want to always BE with it and make it an integral part of their lives. Many already do this with their smartphones. Inevitably, developers starting building apps to unleash the power of productivity on the iPad.
The app world has moved fast. Developers are innovating at lightning speed. Much faster than Apple’s UI and OS developers can keep up. Supporting two devices that are selling faster than Chinese kids can screw them together, combined with updating the OS and the built-in apps to keep up with how people are using them, has kept Apple on the edge of its capabilities. Compromises are made. The fragmentation of its operating systems are starting to show. The rough edges are exposed. The “old-school” textured backgrounds in iOS, the debacle of Maps, the bandwidth leaks, and so on show a company splitting at the seams with its strategy as it tries to stay the dominant player in the market.
Along comes Microsoft with a different perspective of how an operating system should support its users. Instead of two OS’s and a fragmentation between devices, Microsoft builds a new OS to blend the lean-back experience with the desktop experience and give the user control over how to interact with their device. They decide to build their own hardware to control the experience. They fundamentally provide a different perspective on what a “tablet” computing experience represents. Enabling the lean-back (what I call the “entertainment mode”) with the “productivity mode” in a form factor that supports both touch and input devices tells the world they’re not going to dictate how their users should interact with the device. In one operating system, Microsoft is saying, “you can traverse between your tablet, your laptop and the Xbox and determine how you want to interact with the device in a seamless fashion, picking up where you left off.” A completely different approach than Apple, which has a disturbingly complex and confusing cloud strategy, a stretched-to-the-max hardware strategy. It seems like Apple’s current strategy is to tack on a few “blingies” to the existing line and host a new launch party. (See the convoluted iPad product family as an example.)
The Surface Pro sold out at Microsoft's Palo Alto retail store today.
Then there is the contrast between the user interfaces. Microsoft’s Modern UI is nimble, flexible, and approachable. iOS is still trying to shake off the legacy of the Jobsian look-and-feel, which is to try and be cute and clever with “real-world” textures and metaphors to physical objects. Firing Forstall was necessary, but Apple is years away from where Microsoft is already. Windows 8 begs you to touch. It wants you to interact with it. I’m tired of fumbling around iOS, falling into holes where the way I use my device is just not well thought out.
Having said all this: The Surface devices, in my opinion, represent how I will interact with my mobile device. When I want to consume content, it provides me a quick, snappy way to engage. It supports an app store experience like any other device. When I need to be productive and “get things done” I have the perfect interface in which to focus on work. I don’t have to try and make the OS work for me and accept compromises (I mean, just try to get Pages to really WORK on iOS — and many features on iPad’s version of Pages are different than OS X’s version).
Bloggers are beating Microsoft up, but history will show it has the right strategy. The Surface devices are representative of how humans want to interact. Sure, battery life will get better, the devices will get thinner. This is version 1, folks. Right now, Apple is the schoolyard bully, throwing it’s punches — but I’d rather be Microsoft right now: the geeky kid with the pocket protector, holding the key to “getting the girl”.