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

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.

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TOPICS: Windows
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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

Topic: Windows

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222 comments
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  • Rhetoric

    "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"

    Name the "one" app. Was it developed by ZDNet?
    Tim Acheson
    • a

      most likely its their app .. and that is why is not working .. because they get free i pads and they have to badmouth the Surface and Win 8
      Doru Rusu
      • Not drooling praise over the Surface so much be paid by Apple? Pathetic.

        While I do not like Windows 8 and have no plans to get one I hope the Surface does well as we need some competition in the market to keep driving iOS and Android. What I found very funny about the review though was to get to the positive experience of using the Surface RT he had to violate the Office license by using it for commercial use.
        non-biased
    • Dear oh dear...

      Poor old Cowboy Tim. Dissembling as usual. Yeah, let's shoot the messenger and burn all the books. RT is great - the reviewers don't know what they are doing, the media are lying, it's all a conspiracy bought and paid for by Apple/Zdnet bloggers....
      Just ROTFLOL
      MS has failed with RT v1 and you can't bring yourself to admit it. The Swiss Army Knife RT tablet is the least useful tool in the box built on tech already 2 years behind and even the MS owned shills are universally calling out 'Meh - what's it for?'
      One Mississippi, two Mississippi...
      frogspaw
      • MS has failed with RT v1?

        I think that is presumptive to say. It is like saying Microsoft failed with Xbox v1...

        At the time, Sony was on top of their game as an electronics manufacturing retailer selling frequently proprietary-laced consumer electronic devices with top end build quality, reputation, features, aesthetics and premium price tags.

        How quickly that worm turned. Microsoft has a track record of delivering like this. The WORLD may not want a Wordbook first, an iPad second, but there are a lot of business consumers and enterprises for whom this may be a compelling solution. All they need is *enough* of those people to hold out until version 2... maybe version 2.5 - and some faltering from a complacent industry leader... maybe something like a high profile security exploit aimed at the dominant market share that the leader has...

        And the RT v 2.5 may end up being something like the 2nd generation Xbox 360...
        dcolbert@...
        • ... or the Zune.

          Oh yeah, I remember THAT one well.

          If what the author says is true, then I am _utterly_ disappointed in MS. And to think I almost.... _ALMOST_ believed Steve Ballmer's words.... what was I _THINKING_ ??
          theanimaster
        • Or...

          "I think that is presumptive to say. It is like saying Microsoft failed with Xbox v1..."

          Or like Zune v1...
          Or like Vista v1...
          Or like Kin v1...
          Etc., etc., etc.
          Harvey Lubin
          • Vista didn't fail

            They made money off of Vista, and changed the kernel to improve security. You wouldn't have Windows 7 without Vista.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Yes it did

            the fact that Windows 7 refs Vista is irrelevant... Vista was built off XP, was built off W2K, was built off Windows NT 4.0, was built off Windows NT 3.51... etc etc.

            You got an actual point in there somewhere? Vista was a dud. Everyone knows it.

            As for the Surface, yes, Microsoft usually gets it right after a couple of versions. Which is why I will gladly pick up a v3. That doesn't make me wrong for staying well away from this one, though.
            Mac_PC_FenceSitter
          • No, Microsoft is a business

            They made money from Vista.

            It was a success to Microsoft, it wasn't a failure.

            Windows 7 was just Vista with performance tweaks.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Emphasis on the word 'Business'

            Yes Microsoft is definitely a business and in business anything that makes money is a success no matter how foolish, illogical or inoperative that 'something' may be - like Vista. When I worked at MS for internal support 'Windows ME' was just such a product - the first melding of Windows 95 and Windows NT. What a piece of artwork that was - so bad that Microsoft stopped supporting it inhouse before they stopped selling it to the public. That's how bad it was, but to their credit they did give some customers free upgrades to XP when it came out. XP was a complete rewrite - a fresh start that incorporated the best parts of Windows 95 and Windows NT without making it a server based product. Vista was a divergent product from NT - the next 'big' thing. Unnnnnnn - sound of buzzer - wrong - it was crap.... Windows 7 was the answer to Vista - another rewrite - without any of Vista's internals... Completely different animal.
            mikeg@...
          • Windows 7 wasn't a rewrite

            Whoever told you that is lying to you.
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Failed in the business world

            Do you know why Microsoft made money on Vista? It came with a new computer. Bundling. Outside of the blinded fan base, nobody was running out saying "I NEED Vista! It's so awesome!" When you are the monopoly business desktop OS, if you DON'T make money on your product that comes bundled with nearly every PC sold, you really have to be clueless. Vista failed in terms of mind-share and marketplace (businesses wold NOT deploy it and upgraded to XP) for many reasons (which would take too long to explain here.) Windows 8 will be in that same boat mainly because MS took away the traditional desktop on the desktop and replaced it with something inappropriate to use in a traditional computing device.

            Now - on to this article. If the killer app is Word, why is the Surface better than an ultrabook? Answer: It's not. It will fail just like the the Zune failed. Having cut my teeth on a TRS-80 Model 1, I've worked with just about every platform out there. Tablets in general escape me. Once you get past the "gee wiz" phase, the reality is that you are better off with a real computer if you want to get any work done. When I'm working at my desk, I don't want to touch my screen. Ever. I don't want smudges all over my screen. I want to work right from my keyboard and mouse using minimal efficient movements. Using a finger on your screen to navigate is like using a shovel to stir your coffee. Tablet computing has this idea of full screen apps. That doesn't work for me, where I need to work with multiple information sources and act on them - I need to keep this stuff on the screen and move data back and forth easily. I can't do that with any tablet. In fact, the whole cut and paste concept doesn't work well on any tablet device I've seen. Fingers make horrid pointing devices as the tip of your finger covers what you are trying to work with - and 20 other characters you don't want. has anyone used a tablet not experienced the constant mis-clicking on links just navigating web pages? Or are you going to lie about it and say it never happens? I can see tablets augmenting your computing device portfolio, but I will never see a case where they can replace a traditional desktop / laptop as a primary computing device and provide a good efficient experience.
            NixRocks
          • Vista, Vista, Vista

            Or is that Marcia, Marcia, Marcia, and tonight Jan is played by Vista as she talks about older sister XP.

            Microsoft couldn't get Vista onto the Netbooks, too big, so they had to keep XP active way longer than they wanted.

            Now, it's water under the bridge, and I think this will be the last time I intervene in a Vista bad or good debate.

            My question, during the years 2006-2009, did Microsoft activate more Vista or XP licenses? Netbooks drove the pc makers' growth in 2007 and 2008. When Windows 7 came out, how many (in percentages) Vista users upgraded and how many XP users? It wasn't long after 2009 that Win7 had a higher percent of the install base than Vista. It was just this year that Win7 passed XP.

            So, couldn't be used on their partners' cash generators. Abandoned faster. Vista may have been a monetary success - and maybe that is all that matters - but by virtue of being THE operating system on new computers, any Microsoft os will be a cash generator, so, I don't think the profitability point matters.

            I think Vista has to be called a disappointment. It had some ambitions about the internals and propelled the ecosystem to a more secure one, so, in some sense, it had to happen. But, Microsoft's shipping it in 2006, before the partners were ready, was a decision driven by stock price concerns, as Wall Street was beating up the stock because Microsoft wasn't answering Google, Apple had the unanswered iPod, and Redmond couldn't ship a new os. Fair? Probably not. But execs and shareholders do pay some attention to The Street.

            Disappointment and failures mean two different things to me; perhaps this all about semantics. Vista could have been more profitable (all the Longhorn dead-ends should be charged to Vista), more flexible and should have made laptop and desktop users giddy at the thought of throwing XP off of their machines. Developers should have been writing applications which blew users away when running on Vista's apis. The new windowing system (The Wow, as it was marketed) should have been able to run on existing hardware. Not a failure, but it wasn't a shining moment.
            DannyO_0x98
          • An Amplification

            I wrote "I don't think the profitability point matters."

            This might be better expressed as "I don't think the profitability point is as significant as it is in other discussion, such as phone os share."

            Profit always matter, but Microsoft would have to work very, very hard to put out an os that wasn't profitable, so in discussions about XP or Vista, profitability is an assumption we all agree on, and I say we look to a different point of reference for ranking the oses as a product from a business.
            DannyO_0x98
        • fanboys keeps bringing the X-box

          but the mobile space is a very different playground. And, you must admit, Microsoft had failed miserably. This is not a game "we pour billions every year, for 10 or more years".
          Now, in the world of today, MS is strangled for cash. The cash cow is dying; they know it, you know it, everybody knows. Open Source Software is winning. MS was not able to get any traction in mobile because for most consumers Windows has a bad reputation. And Windows mobile is a kind of joke. Remember PocketPC? Years ago Microsoft tried to rule internet. They failed miserably. Now they want to be the big dogs in mobile. They failed. As Jobs said, talking about MS, they don;t get it. MS DNA is to dominate and control a market, not to deliver quality.

          And Windows ReTard is the last failure, too bad, or too good. Me, I'm enyoing it...
          theo_durcan
      • FUnny...

        I haven't experienced any of that nonsense in my brief usage. I also wouldn't be horribly heartbroken if those apps he named didn't work at all though, seeing as there are apps pre-installed on the surface that perform all of their functions from the get go. I also like how he jumped straight to the conclusion that it was Microsoft's fault and not the programmers of the applications, without actually providing any proof.
        mrefuman
        • British reviewer

          Hey, they guy is from the other side of the pond. They also drive on the wrong side of the road, so what would you expect?
          simul8guy
          • British reviewer

            Other side of the pond? Wrong side of the road? You forgot English speaking, articulate, educated, intelligent, informed, worldly, comparatively slim...
            These are all undoubtedly plus points. Your point is what, exactly?
            pvandck
        • Did you read the article?

          He thinks it very likely is something the developers could have done better with... if they'd had any actual access to Windows RT on ARM, that is!
          Mac_PC_FenceSitter