Microsoft Surface: I'm cautiously optimistic

22:32, Jun 19 2012

Two blogs about Microsoft in one week, what is this, 1998?

I'm quite a Microsoft fan, I should say that at the outset. Despite their missteps, arrogance, Ballmer, Vista, all of that, I still think they have the capability to deliver outstanding software. I am also somewhat of a realist, so while the announcement of the Microsoft Surface tablet definitely excited me, I'm not about to go out and buy their stock. Colour me cautiously optimistic - the iPad desperately needs some real competition, so why not the old enemy?

Here is a my list of disorganised thoughts.

- That keyboard/cover. Yes please. Microsoft knows that people don't want to lug around laptops or even netbooks any more - but they also know that typing on touch screens still isn't ideal, at least until something like this makes it to the market. Even John Gruber seems to kind of dig it. While I'm not so sure about the kickstand, I guess it is kind of necessary. The idea of a cover that doubles as a keyboard is very smart, especially since it comes with the device instead of riding along as an expensive add-on. I will hold back on lots of the praise because I haven't actually used it, though, and as John Pague writes, two-piece devices have never really caught on.

The OS and App Availability. No, I don't know what RT stands for (I think maybe "real-time"? I think it's supposed to be like XP) and that name is stupid. The name relates to the ARM based (more battery life, thinner, less heat) version of Win8, which only runs in the Metro/touch friendly mode, not in the classic Windows-7-like mode. Hey, at least there are only two versions. We still don't know a whole lot about these things, not even a release date, but I'm focusing mostly on the RT version in this article, as that is the "consumer" device, and using an OS designed for a mouse and keyboard on a tablet will be hell. Now that they have my most used app (Google Chrome) on the Metro side, I'm pretty keen. The only company which has ever enticed more developers to its platform than Apple is Microsoft; let's see them try to do it again. Windows 8 in general looks to be as snappy as ever, but I'm still a bit worried about the OS on the whole - the complexity and the fusion.

- The hardware and its software cohesion. Microsoft completely made this device. They have never made a computer before, unless you count the XBox**. It isn't HP in partnership with Google or anything like that - it is pure Microsoft.* They even trademarked some new kind of metal to make them out of, and people seem to like the feel of them. Microsoft is being really cagey about actually letting people use the device, but copying Apple and going with software/hardware cohesion is a good plan for making a reliable device, with fewer driver issues and a faster overall experience. I'm hoping it lives up to that dream. This is bad news for the Microsoft's traditional hardware partners, but they are still free to make devices, as long as they pay the licensing fee. Also, a USB port! Glorious! As for the Kickstand, I'm not so sure - while it might be necessary I hate things that slide out or pop out of devices - I worry that they could easily break off. I hope the Kickstand is sturdily connected. As a last note, it is apparently 1mm thinner than the iPad, which lets them say "thinnest". 

-  A stylus? Really? And I was almost thinking Microsoft "got it".

- They didn't release specs. Not properly. (Here is what we do know.***) I think they get that most people don't want to know that much about the processor, they want to know how much space it has and whether it will do blah fast. I'm guessing that closer to release we will get more specs, but they could at least tell us if it has a 3G/4G.

- I'm not sure that they are actually going after the iPad. People who have already bought iPads are probably a lost cause for Microsoft, unless this tablet/Win8 is crazy good. This seems to be more about the low-end laptop market - people who still want to write things and multitask heavily on a device, but don't want to lug around an annoying little netbook or ultrabook. If both versions (obviously the pro will be able to do this - it can basically use Windows 7) can do this well, it could do very well with people cautious about diving in the deep end of the iPad. If you want a tablet to complement your laptop, it might not be the right device - no matter how hard they try the iPad will still have that "simple" factor.

There is a whole lot more to talk about with this device, and the viability of Win8 in general. Hopefully we will get some more details soon. It is a bit early to make sweeping predictions. I doubt this is going to seriously challenge the iPad sales behemoth, but the tablet market has room for a serious alternative, especially for "pro" users, who like Office and whatnot. What do you guys think? Another failed iPad contender, or does it have the potential?

* Guess they should be called Microhard now hurr hurr hurr, I am so sorry.
** Will the Red Ring of Death be the new bluescreen?
*** Microsoft sure love their dubsteppy ads right now.

Email Henry or follow him on Twitter.