Steve Ballmer has famously used the following Woody Allen quote from Annie Hall:
A relationship, I think, is like a shark, you know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies.
The only problem is that Microsoft, for the longest time has not been executing on this idea. Other than the Xbox and Windows Phone division, execution of innovation has halted to nothing. However something happened on June 18, 2012. Microsoft has entered the tablet market with their very own hardware, the Surface. There are still many open questions (pricing, exact availability date, etc) but this is undoubtedly an exciting development. This might be a much larger deal than what appears on the surface.
Before we discuss anything else though, we need to talk about how confusing this lineup is. I was following the live blogs and got completely derailed when they said that there were two versions of the Surface. There is Surface for Windows RT and Surface Windows 8 Pro. Windows RT (Run Time) is powered by the ARM architecture and Windows 8 Pro on Intel. The real difference for the user is that Windows RT runs exclusively in the Metro environment and legacy software (or hardware) is not supported. Windows 8 Pro on the other hand is very much like an evolution of Windows 7. So why is Microsoft making a Windows 8 Pro version of the tablet? I understand the need to support customers (particularly businesses) that care about legacy compatibly but this differentiation is hard to understand to me. I had to read numerous explanations to understand what they were doing here. If someone like me has a hard time understanding, how is an average consumer going to understand ARM vs Intel or RT vs 8 Pro? I think having just the ARM Surface would have been ideal. Less confusion, and support the platform that's moving forwards.
If I'm being too naive and making two tablets makes sense, I would have created a bigger differentiation between them. Even showing traditional Windows apps running in the press shots for the Windows 8 Pro model would help enormously with the messaging. Or maybe put a bigger differentiation between the branding of the two operating systems. Having RT just be called Metro and Windows 8 Pro be called just that. And what's the point of having Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro? It's sad that Microsoft still has so many branding holes that create confusing stories. Design is very much about story telling, and though Microsoft is getting better, they're no Apple.
On a brighter note, I think Microsoft is a dark horse hardware manufacturer. They've always had great hardware. Even flops like Zune and KIN had beautiful designs. And ofcourse, they have the infamous XBox and mice divisions.
The Surface is made from vapor-deposited, injection molded magnesium (VaporMg as they call it). I've never liked the feel of Magnesium, it feels too light and almost plastic-like. I'll have to feel the Surface in-person though. The kickstand seems to be engineered quite well with tolerances that are Cupertino-worthy. Though I can't make any final judgment from just the press-photos and keynote, it really does seem like a beautiful product. I still remember the first time I held the Zune 80, it made me realise that it was the first jukebox to come close to the iPod's build quality. Microsoft getting serious about hardware is great news.
I was about to make fun of the Smart Cover knock-off but BOOM, keyboard.
This was the first thing I said while following it live. Though I've never felt the need for a physical keyboard on my iPad, I know that there are many that like them. We'll have to see how good these feel but the pressure sensitivity demonstration was convincing. Having a trackpad and mouse buttons feels a bit convoluted in the RT version - is there even a cursor in Metro? I can't get over the feeling that these are slightly close to the smart-cover for comfort though, particularly the color options and magnetic hinge. Regardless, this is an addition many will appreciate and is quite an engineering feat. More importantly, Microsoft is sending a message that the Surface with a keyboard cover is their vision for what a personal computer is for the next generation of Windows.
I think recycling the "Surface" name is brilliant. The original Surface was brought out as a futuristic concept and the Surface tablet makes it feel like the future has finally become mainstream. The name sounds good, is known by the more nerdy crowd and has good connotations. Love it.
One of the most interesting developments is how Microsoft has ended up directly competing with their customers, Asus, Acer, Sony, etc. They seem to be aware that Apple's holistic approach is the best way to go on about developing a device. They've dabbed at it numerous times with limited success but hopefully it'll work this time. I think Surface is incomparably more attractive than the solutions from the other hardware manufacturers. Things like the way Metro changes color when swapping keyboard covers is a nice touch and something only they can offer. Microsoft's own vision is cleaner and more focused making Windows 8 feel like it belongs on Surface. It's the dream device you imagine every time you hold a poorly done Samsung tablet at BestBuy. I question how many Microsoft is planning to sell as they've only mentioned selling them at their stores and online. We'll see.
It is also fascinating to see the different approaches Apple and Microsoft are taking with their tablet products. Apple has created iOS, a platform that is completely contrasting to the Mac. Microsoft has decided to take a less shocking transition by making their tablet devices more like a transitionary device into the post-PC world. Though I'm still upset at the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, it's intriguing that it could be bought as the main computer for most Windows users. I'm sure that with time and more apps, Surface for Windows RT could also act as the main computer too. Currently, Apple is just simply dominating this space. I want a strong competitor with a great design sense to really compete with them. Google's vision has been confusing and fragmented as ever but Microsoft is showing a level of design, focus and willingness to control their partners (see Windows Phone) that I can really get behind. I want Surface to sell like crazy. I want Apple to be scared. We all need to be scared to improve and the King has had nothing to be scared of for too long.