Why Surface looks like the tablet Microsoft built for itself

Anyone can buy a Surface but in many ways this tablet is a device designed for Microsoft's own employees.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor

There's a test we use when trying to understand the products and strategies of technology companies. Who, we ask, is the real customer? The answer isn't always what you expect and it's always revealing.

For Apple, the answer used to be Steve Jobs. Now it's the internal model of Jobs, perpetuated by the people who used to act as gatekeepers for him and by those trained in the Apple University in the ways of what he would have wanted.

READ THIS: Microsoft Surface review

For Google, it's the search-and-place-ads-against-results algorithm. When the algorithm runs out of massive data sets to learn on, Google Drive finally ships. When spammers start tainting the inputs to the algorithm, the translation API gets turned off almost overnight. Users of Google search are part data source, part beneficiary.

It's interesting to see how good a match Surface's strengths are for what Microsoft needs internally

And for Microsoft, rather too often, the answer is that the customer is the 80,000 to 100,000 Microsoft employees, plus associated contractors and service companies. Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint and Word and OneNote and Exchange and Windows and Windows Server and Visual Studio and SQL Server are all useful to lots of other companies, but they all have features that solve a problem at Microsoft.

The Ignore feature in Outlook 2010 and 2013 is there to deal with endless discussion on the massive distribution lists all Microsoft employees are on. DirectAccess in Windows Server is to let Microsoft employees get to their SharePoint document libraries on the road without a VPN that doesn't work on random hotel networks. System Center manages every PC inside Microsoft.

The problem is that while Microsoft is its own best customer, it's not the same as its other customers. Running IT for Energizer was a way to understand how other businesses use their PCs, which are often not running the latest release of software. And running BPOS and Office 365 and Azure are helping the product teams feel the pain of external customers, because if you're a developer on Exchange and there's a problem at 3am caused by your code, you get woken up at 3am to deal with it.

For Surface, just as for all its other products, Microsoft will have conducted focus groups and user testing — but it's probably been even more limited than the tablet use tests for Windows 8 that involved a few dozen families in the Seattle area. And while the Surface team will certainly have aimed to design a tablet with broad appeal, Surface suits Microsoft employees so well it gives you pause.

Take that fleece covered keyboard. It's waterproof so it can shrug off the omnipresent rain. It's comfortable to grab hold of as you carry it around campus — and if you live in Seattle, you probably wear a fleece almost every day.

Desirability of an Apple product

Joking aside, Surface delivers what Microsoft employees want and need. It's a thin and light tablet that has the visceral desirability of an Apple product. That means employees can and will carry it around instead of an iPad as they head to meetings around campus or take the shuttle buses to other offices.

It's got a built-in TPM security and cryptography chip that can be used as a virtual smartcard, so they can still connect to secure internal resources. At Microsoft, the smartcard you log into your PC with is also what you pay with in the cafeteria — and it might even be the ID card you use to get into your building.

The same TPM means the data is encrypted, but if your kid keeps trying to unlock your picture password, the device won't get wiped, leaving you frustrated because you can't get your work done and you can't get at the photos of your kids and having to make one of those expensive calls to the helpdesk to get it fixed.

Instead, Surface just throws away the encryption key and you can unlock it yourself using the recovery key it stores on SkyDrive when you set it up with your Microsoft account.

It runs Office on the desktop because Microsoft runs on Office. Of course most businesses run on Office, whether they realise it or not. The new Office apps are HTML5 based because that means they will work on Office on Windows RT, which probably matters more to Microsoft users than to most other companies. Lots of people find Office useful but for Microsoft employees, a tablet with Office is indispensable.

Surface's weak spots

What about the things Surface doesn't have? If Surface is the tablet for people who work at Microsoft, why doesn't it have a better mail client? The Mail app is improving. Until the Windows 8 launch, it didn't even have threaded conversations. But there are still no tags or categories or tasks. The answer isn't third-party apps.

EziConnect does tasks alongside email and we're eagerly awaiting TouchDown from Nitrodesk bringing its excellent experience from Android and iOS to Windows RT. But for Microsoft employees there's another option — Outlook Web Access in offline mode with Exchange 2013.

If Surface is the tablet for people who work at Microsoft, why doesn't it have a better mail client?

With Exchange 2013, Outlook Web Access looks the same and works the same as Outlook on the desktop, with an interface that's a huge improvement over Outlook Web Access today — and it works for email and calendar when you're offline. Even in the Metro IE interface — which doesn't work on iPad or Android.

And that makes sense of the aggressive schedule for Office 2013, with Exchange finished back at the end of September. Yes, that meant the Exchange team could go to the Microsoft Exchange Conference in late September to talk to Exchange admins, but it also meant Microsoft could start running Exchange 2013 for employees in time for when their Surfaces arrive in mid-November. Office 365 starts moving users to Exchange 2013 from the middle of November too, although some servers won't get the new version until January.

The new version of SharePoint makes features available in the browser and in Explorer, an excellent reason for keeping Explorer on the desktop. SharePoint team sites have a new wiki-style tool for keeping notes in. It's actually OneNote so you'll also see it in OneNote on the Surface desktop.

Many Microsoft internal apps are web services, such as the expenses system which seems to be used to prototype every new development technology Microsoft comes up with. We're expecting a Windows Store app for expenses and Microsoft will use an employee portal created in System Center 2012 SP1 or Intune 4 to host those kinds of apps, which means they'll be in use at Microsoft soon — so we might hear about a beta or CTP soon after.

Other Microsoft tools

But what about all the other tools Microsoft employees need to do their jobs, such as Visual Studio and Blend, or whatever CAD package they used to design Surface?

Surface is a companion device, so Microsoft users will still have a PC and they can connect to it from Surface using the Remote Desktop app. Or they can get individual virtualised programs from a server using RemoteApp, which is how you get Visual Studio or AutoCAD on a Surface.

Microsoft has all that infrastructure set up already so streaming applications will be easy for its employees. Other businesses might have to do the same amount of work to get that up and running as they'd have to do to virtualise applications with Citrix for iPad.

Surface isn't only designed for Microsoft employees, by any means — and it's certainly a great device for a wide range of home and business users. But it's interesting to see how good a match its strengths are for what Microsoft needs internally — and how the company already has all the solutions to get past limitations in Surface that may trip other business users up if they try to use it as more than a great companion device.

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