Microsoft's Surface tablet: Three years too late?

Summary:Microsoft user interface researcher Bill Buxton told the Globe and Mail that he expects Microsoft to be offering three years from now a tablet device that will be like a slimmed-down mini Surface. That sounds all well and good... except for the three years part. And the Windows part ....

Microsoft user interface researcher Bill Buxton told the Globe and Mail that he expects Microsoft to be offering three years from now a tablet device that will be like a slimmed-down mini Surface. That sounds all well and good... except for the three years part. And the Windows part (unless Buxton is expecting Microsoft to make some pretty radical changes to the version of Windows running on these things.

Microsoft execs have been thinking about ways to make the Surface multi-touch tabletop more affordable and portable for at least two years. (Remember "Oahu," anyone?) So far, however, the Surface remains a "big ass table," as it was dubbed in a spoof video a while back.

What is Microsoft positioning against the iPad and Android slates that have begun to debut? Its partners are introducing some interesting-looking tablet/slate-like designs (like the new Dell netbook/tablet convertible and the Windows 7-based ExoPC slate (which was supposed to be branded Ciara last we heard) shipping on October 15). But these new models still aren't addressing limitations like relatively short battery life (the ExoPC reportedly is around 4 hours, compared to the eight-to-ten I'm getting on my iPad); instant on/off; and availability of a plethora of cheap or free apps purchasable through a common app store.

I think Microsoft and its partners aren't going to have any true slate contenders until mid-2011, at best, as I've said before. And even then, Apple, Google and their partners aren't going to be standing still waiting for Microsoft and its PC partners to come out with Windows Oak Trail slates which may or may not sport some kind of new user interface crafted by Microsoft to make them multi-touch-centric.

I've gotten a number of questions from readers about how I like my iPad, which I've now had for close to two months. Am I really using it much? What kinds of things has it proven good for? What isn't so good about it for us Windows-centric users?

I've used and continue to use my 16 GB iPad with 3G and wifi a lot. (In spite of AT&T's overly pricey 3G data plans, I'm glad I got one with both, as wifi hotspots are still few and far between in many places.)I toss it into my purse when I am going out for a few hours and don't want to pack up my laptop and lug it with me. I use it to surf the Web, check my mail, read books using the Kindle app, keep up with Twitter (via the Osfoora Twitter client, which I still like a lot more than Twitter's own iPad client or other alternatives).

I've run up against the inability to view Flash and Silverlight streaming content about once every other day. It's annoying, but not a deal breaker for me. I've been accessing my Office documents using Dropbox. And I've used Splashtop Remote to get my Zune music library to play on my iPad... not an elegant solution, but it's something. (I'm still hoping Microsoft opts to port the Zune software to the iPad, but know that won't be happening any time soon.) On the browser front, I'm an AtomicWeb gal, as I really can't like in a tab-less Safari environment.

I'm not a gamer, so even though everyone keeps telling me I must buy Angry Birds for my iPad, I've still not shelled out the $5 or so. I've also found very few magazine/newspaper sites compelling enough to download them. (The New York Times and Slate apps are OK, but I still like accessing their respective Web sites better. My absolute favorite new app is WikiHood (which I found via a recommendation from the Houston Chronicle's Dwight Silverman). It's the most up-to-date, interactive local travel guide ever and the only good reason I've found to turn on location-sensing (other than keeping up with the weather, via the Weather Channel app).

The best and most useful iPad apps I've found have come through recommendations of friends and people I trust. Although there are hundreds of thousands of iPad apps out there, I've found it hard to find good ones. Top 10 or 25 lists always seem to recommend the same handful, and recommendations on the app store site often feel gamed to me. (That said, if you're interested in more business/productivity-focused iPad apps, I would recommend lists compiled by my ZDNet colleagues Jason Perlow and Adrian Kingsley-Hughes as starting points.)

I am definitely using the iPad to consume and not create. I'm not saying that in a critical or bad way. About 80 percent of my job is about content consumption, not creation. I know I could create on an iPad if I wanted, but I still find it faster and easier to use my laptop to do so.

Would I still shell out for a Winpad? If it allowed me to seamlessly connect my PC and Zune HD, (and maybe a Windows Phone 7 -- though I'm taking a wait and see on that one), all using the Zune software client instead of iTunes -- and had true instant on/off and 10-hour battery life -- my answer would be yes. But I'm sure glad I didn't wait a year ... or three... just to get the true portability that I've wanted and needed for the past couple of years.

Topics: Hardware, Enterprise Software, iPad, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets, Windows


Mary Jo Foley has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications, including ZDNet, eWeek and Baseline. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). She also is the cohost of the "Windows Weekly" podcast on the TWiT network. Got a tip? Se... Full Bio

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