Surface: Is it 'Microsoft's iPad', or something else?

Summary:Now that I actually own an Surface, it's clear to me what it's about. Spoiler: it's not an iPad.

Last week, when I finally received my Surface , I was in a position to sit down and write a comment piece on what I thought the device was like and what it meant.

I've been using Windows 8 full time since March, so I didn't feel I needed to get to know the operating system. What I was really looking for was how well the desktop experience translated into the tablet experience presented by Surface.

I downloaded apps that I was familiar with, two of them being Metrotwit and Tweetro. Both of these apps on the desktop perform well. (I have some niggles about the UX, mostly because the Metro/previously-different-named design aesthetic makes it difficult to build apps that put the user's first.)

What I found: Apps that were fine on the desktop behaved in an unusable fashion on Surface. One crashed continually, and both presented a frustrating user experience chock full of unacceptable lag and stutter. Neither app was usable.

This isn't to denigrate the work that the developers have done on these apps - what's happened here is Microsoft's policy of keeping ARM hardware out of the hands of developers, like the people who've worked hard to get Metrotwit and Tweetro ready for Surface's release, has resulted in apps that don't work properly.

Who would have thought starving partners of support would yield bad results? (!)

To get what I prejudged to be the "authentic Surface experience", I chose to write my piece in Evernote. For me, Evernote is one of the all time great apps of the device-centric, post-PC world. I've used it perfectly happily on all of my devices for years.

On the Surface, I wasn't so happy. It kept crashing and junking my work. In a fit of pique I uninstalled and reinstalled it without checking whether the work I had done have been sync'd to the Evernote cloud. As a result, I lost three hours work. Perhaps here, too, had Microsoft actually engaged the Evernote developers, the first Evernote app that would run on Windows RT would be something that actually works.

I was not having a good time.

Cajoled

On Twitter, several of my ZDNet colleagues kept pinging me in response to my complaints saying that I should fire up Word on the Surface. I still resisted, claiming it wasn't the authentic experience. But eventually, after much cajoling, I did indeed fire up Word and started to re-draft my piece.

And, oh boy, what a difference that made.

With the kickstand out, Type Cover keyboard deployed, and Word fired up, the Surface is an absolute joy to use. It's a truly, almost unfathomably good computing experience. I instantly went from "meh, what's the point of this thing?" to "OMG - this is the best device ever!"

What's clear is that this whole device has been built around this application – and I'm using the term "application" in the traditional sense. Using it, it's obvious that "it must be a really great mobile Office experience" was what they were looking to get signed off as their primary objective.

Sluggish

It's not so much that Word is slick and responsive, it's more that it makes most of the rest of the proposition feel clunky and slow. Things like the Start screen, the charms, etc have been optimized to behave like a Formula 1 car. Everything else is less inspiring.

On iPad -- and I mention this only because it's a benchmark device -- everything is slick and snappy. Try to compose a new email with the iPad app, click the "reply" button and -- pop! -- the compose window is there. On Surface, do the same thing and it's "one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three-Mississippi, ah, there it is!" Click "close", "delete draft", and again it's "one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, and we're back!" Surface's performance in areas that haven't had Microsoft's engineers poring over it is generally is on par with an Android tablet from about 18 months ago.

Apple's neatest trick is that its smartphone and tablet devices don't feel like computers. They simply act as lenses out to your digital realm. They just get out of the way and realise that digital realm within your analog perception. Surface doesn't achieve this at all. It's very obvious that you're using a PC whenever you sit in front of it, or indeed whenever you pick it up.

However, if you're using Word, Surface is as snappy and slick as an iPad, albeit obviously recognisable as a classical PC-class computer.

WordBook?

For me, my whole experience of Surface has been to try and understand what it actually is -- i.e. what's its raison d'être. I've been following Microsoft's progress at producing Windows 8, Windows RT, the Surface hardware, and the software development model in Windows Store apps and WinRT for a little over a year. It's at this point that everything should come together with crystal-clear clarity.

What I think is apparent now is that everyone expected Microsoft to build a competitor to the iPad, then we saw a lot of fervent activity, and throughout we assumed that building an iPad was exactly what they were doing. Now that I hold the Surface in my hands, I'm not sure that's what they were doing at all.

Amateur and professional pundits have been vociferous in how they feel about Windows 8's duality -- this idea that you have Old Windows and New Windows sitting alongside each other in quite an awkward way. This is, I believe, something you get used to and more importantly it was the only way for Microsoft to square the circle of keeping the PC relevant as the PC slips into terminal decline.

There's now an additional duality highlighted with Surface. We can now see decisions that the market forced Microsoft to make -- with the market's incessant demands to keep throwing cash at Apple in exchange for iPads.

Just looking at how Surface operates: Everything that we see in the reimagined Windows -- the UX, the Start menu, Windows Store apps, the Metro design aesthetic -- all of this is secondary to the primary goal of getting Office to run on an ARM-based tablet. It's "Office" first, "compete with iPad" second.

The Office side of this is perfect. Everything else that will make Windows RT and Surface attractive in the consumer and business markets is playing catch-up. You should only invest in Surface if your an ardent early adopter and are aware that the experience of using this thing is, as I mentioned, like using an 18-month-old Android tablet.

For me, the Surface is a "Wordbook", a new device form-factor for running Word in ultra-portable, cloud-connected mode that also happens to be one degree away from a market ready post-PC tablet.

Remembering that the PC market has been in decline for a good while now, and that Apple keeps selling iPads like they're going out of fashion, the question has to be this: has Apple got it wrong? Does the market actually want a device that runs Office first, and does all the other tablet tasks second?

Hardly.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Image credit: Wikimedia

Topics: Windows

About

Matt Baxter-Reynolds is a mobile software development consultant and technology sociologist based in the UK. His latest book -- "Death of the PC" -- is available on Amazon now.

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