Last week I had a chance to briefly explore the first Windows RT device to appear in the wild. Although we’ve seen controlled onstage demos before, this was uninterrupted hands-on time. (You might have seen the videos.)
But let’s be clear: Holding a tablet with one hand and stabbing at the touchscreen with the index finger of the other hand while trying to keep both hands out of the way of the video camera isn’t a test of usability or productivity. It’s a peek under the covers, nothing more.
To be even more clear: the 20 minutes or so that I was able to spend with the Samsung ATIV Tab wasn’t nearly enough for me to make a thumbs up/down decision on it, just as my even more limited time with Microsoft’s Surface wasn’t enough to do more than catalog first impressions and speculate about the future.
But I’ve spent enough time with tablets (a decade, actually) and traditional PCs (three decades) to know what works for me. And an experiment I conducted out of necessity on the way home from Europe made one thing abundantly clear:
I wouldn’t want to use a tablet— iPad or Android, Windows 8 or Windows RT—as my only computing device. That pesky onscreen keyboard covers up a shocking amount of workspace, and it is rarely as accurate or as easy to use as a physical keyboard, with its tactile feedback and ergonomic design. And designing options for use with touch means simplifying them dramatically, often to the point of losing access to the full range of things you want to do. Compromises.
And yet there are times when a touchscreen is a welcome alternative to a physical keyboard that might be more suitable for everyday use. Like right now, as I sit on a trans-Atlantic flight in what should be called the Economy Minus section, with a seat pitch that seems to be measured in millimeters.
If I open my 13-inch Ultrabook so that the screen is visible, I have to pull it so close that the trackpad is practically in my gut and I can type only by using my vestigial T-Rex arms, tapping the keys with wrists bent unnaturally and elbows pinned to the back of the seat. No fun.
So I put the Ultrabook away and am writing the first draft of this post using the onscreen keyboard of a Samsung Series 7 tablet running Windows 8, with my words going directly into Microsoft Word 2013 on the Windows 8 desktop.
The entire exercise gave me an excellent opportunity to think about the strengths and weaknesses of tablets and of the future of the PC ecosystem as Windows 8 approaches.
One year ago, when Microsoft first began talking about Windows 8, the consistent message included the phrase “no compromises.” And in the past 12 months Microsoft’s critics have been quick to jump on any perceived flaw or limitation in Windows 8 as proof that “no compromises” is either an impossible dream or a big lie.
“No compromises” is, of course, an impossible dream. Every hardware and software project demands real-world design decisions that involve tradeoffs: physical constraints or hardware limitations define how some features are implemented, the economic realities of scarce development resources dictate others, optimizing for battery life influences still others. That’s certainly true of the iPad, which is arguably the only successful tablet on the market today.
Good engineering can find elegant solutions so those compromises don’t feel so painful or awkward. But sooner or later you notice the missing pieces.
Case in point: I’m returning from the IFA 2012 tradeshow in Berlin, where I came away with the usual selection of press materials on USB flash drives. If I had an iPad, I’d have no way to open those files without a separate PC or Mac or some sort of custom peripheral—iPads don’t have USB slots. That’s a pretty big compromise.
By contrast, every certified Windows 8 and Windows RT machine must have at least one USB slot, which means I can use those files. But USB slots add licensing fees, require chipset support and drivers, and take up space on the device itself. More compromises.
This particular thumb drive has a collection of images in JPEG and PNG formats, some Word documents and PDF files, and a bunch of Zip files, all organized into some 27 folders.
So how do I browse those files on this tablet? Even if I could figure out a way to open it on the iPad, there’s no native way to browse the file system. That compromise was made in the name of usability. Likewise, there’s no equivalent of File Explorer in the touch-centric Windows 8 environment. Files search on the Start screen doesn’t find files on removable drives. I can pick photo files from the Photos app, and browse for PDF files from the Reader app, but there’s no Windows 8 app that handles Word or Excel documents. Compromise.
But I can browse, copy, open, and manage files on that flash drive by going into File Explorer on the desktop. It’s not exactly touch-friendly, but I can get the job done with minimal frustration. Would I want to organize hundreds or thousands of files that way? Of course not, but the imperfect option to browse those files and copy the ones I needed is welcome.
At any rate, I was able to write a 500-word draft of this post in Word 2013, on a tablet, using nothing but the onscreen keyboard. It took a few minutes to adapt to the layout and feel of the keyboard (something that is equally true when switching between different designs of physical keyboards). I didn’t find the experience frustrating; on the contrary, the more I worked, the more comfortable I became with the mechanics of entering, selecting, editing, and formatting text.
When I got home, I put the tablet in its docking station, with a keyboard and mouse attached. I’m using that hardware combo right now to polish the draft I composed at 36,000 feet, expand its arguments, and insert links to online content. In a few moments, I’ll paste this into ZDNet’s content management system and hit Publish.
I was able to do all of that on one device, which acted as a tablet on that tiny airline tray and as a full-fledged PC back in the office.
That’s the basic idea behind all the new hybrid PC designs I saw in Berlin last week. In fact, that is exactly what the designers of Windows 8 have meant by “no compromises” all along.
Earlier this year, in a novella-length post on the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft’s Jensen Harris explained:
We designed Windows 8 to take into account the desire to have a PC that works the way you do—whether you want a laptop with a permanent keyboard, a tablet with a keyboard you can attach (wired or wireless), or something in the middle. Touch works across all of these form factors, and you choose which input method to use when. This is what we mean when we say Windows 8 provides a no-compromise experience.
That isn’t revisionist history, either. The August 2011 post that introduced Windows 8 included the exact same message:
You don’t have to compromise! You carry one device that does everything you want and need. You can connect that device to peripherals you want to use. You can use devices designed to dock to large screen displays and other peripherals. You can use convertible devices that can be both immersive tablets and flexible laptops.
And now, finally, we’re seeing third-party hardware and the Windows software come together to express that vision almost exactly as laid out a year ago.
At IFA 2012, I saw at least a dozen hybrid devices designed to bridge the gap between touch-based devices and conventional notebooks. I know which ones caught my eye, but until we have a chance to actually use them, we won’t be able to see which ones are truly promising and which are a collection of compromises.