Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Has Microsoft learnt from history with the new "Surface" tablets?

Microsoft announced their new Surface tablets this week. Having spent the last week or so living the 'Post PC' reality (having had my primary computer away on repairs) I was interested to see the details on what Microsoft was planning to offer here. Reading the specs for the Surface, the general internals and parts listed for the most part appear to be a solid offering.

As things go what it appears Microsoft has delivered here has resulted in what potentially may result in a case of one step forward and two steps back again for the Windows platform within the mobile realm. Microsoft's investment in supporting their existing developers has clearly never been a bridge they have been willing to more than singe, but it's also a bridge that has kept them under water on far too many occasions. It has time and time again prevented them from making a clean break and moving forward.

One brand to rule them all?
With one of Microsoft's new tablets they are doing what may have been previously inconceivable and making that break from legacy titles available previously with their Windows RT ARM-based 'Surface' tablet. Unfortunately, this is not their only offering here, they are also, in a move that is sure to dilute this new brand also offering an Ivy Bridge Core i5-based Windows 8 Pro mobile device, which as things go is also called the 'Surface'.

As such for consumers looking to purchase this device, the distinction between the two may result in frustrated consumers, particularly where one's spouse/partner/company purchases the devices on their behalf and orders the wrong one. Further to this issue, for a consumer of this device looking for supported apps, when a developer says their app / game supports 'Microsoft Surface' tablets will the consumer end up purchasing something that does not then even support their hardware?

Ports, Ports, Ports!.. Keyboards, trackpad and more!
Whilst anyone whose used a touch screen device will be aware one of the primary factors that is perceived to affect productivity is a lack of a physical keyboard integrated to the device. The integration of the keyboard into the cover is in itself, in concept a really smart idea.

How useful that keyboard will ultimately be is yet to be seen, but as anyone who has ever purchased one of those iPad covers with an integrated keyboard can testify, more often than not it turns out to be better in theory than it does in practice. In fact the use of a real wirelessly connected keyboard would actually be a far better option in terms of genuine productivity here.

With the Surface though, Microsoft didn't stop there, they also integrated a trackpad, a couple of USB ports, a Mini-DisplayPort, a card reader (and more?!). All of a sudden you end up with a mobile device which is acting like it's a laptop computer, except for its odd lacks of any kind of cellular support (being Wi-Fi only).

Whilst some competing tablets could in my opinion offer more than just a single port, the number of available ports here has gone in the opposite direction. Anyone seeking what is a truly portable laptop would be far better served with a PC Ultrabook or a MacBookAir rather than this if their primary purpose is to use a desktop-oriented system. A well designed mobile device is one that does not try to be all things to all people but rather a focused device that delivers a specific experience.

So what's with the trackpad?!
The presence of the trackpad though (and any potential support for USB mice) is however what I consider most troubling for any device that claims itself to be a modern tablet. A modern tablet requires content that is primarily designed for touch screens, by providing the option to return to using a mouse it negates the requirement for a developer to create anything touch screen specific there at all. As such it still is bringing the old desktop paradigm along for the ride.

Windows RT, Windows 8 Pro, Desktop, Metro, ARM, x86?! Surface??
Microsoft's refusal to drop legacy support in Windows 8 on tablets, even if it is limiting the number of applications it can run at once it still drags the desktop paradigm further along. Anyone who has attempted to use Windows 7 tablets will know what limited joy the touch screen experience with desktop designed applications is like, likewise anyone with an iPad or Android tablet who has used a remote desktop/VNC like tool such as 'Splashtop' will have experienced how 'natural' this experience isn't on a touch screen.

As such you would've hoped they would've learnt from this and only supported 'Metro' applications when it came to tablet devices, but as things go, for the Windows 8 Pro tablet this hybrid mess remains where legacy and Metro apps will be available.

If Apple had attempted such a thing with their own devices, then it would have been a fair bet to say that this lack of focus would have negatively impacted on any success the iOS platform would have received. As such they kept the worlds of iOS and OSX separate. Likewise Amazon's Kindle Fire's focus in providing a superior reading experience has (as with the rest of it's Kindle line) resulted in the popularity of such devices.

Also, what of developers who have delivered apps on competing tablet platforms, platforms that utilise ARM-based CPUs? Porting between operating systems is one thing, re-coding for a different CPU to support a device such as the x86-based Surface would potentially be another matter all together. Also will they support a legacy oriented UI so they can maintain a universal UI across mobile and desktop devices or go all in with Metro? One has to wonder whether this devision will also result in them having created an instantaneous fragmentation of their own newborn platform and whether this lack of focus on a unified platform with a unified hardware platform will come back to bite them.

And so we wait...
As these new devices are released to publications we will undoubtedly learn more about them and as Windows 8 grows closer to release Microsoft may still have a trick or two up its sleeve to address some of the concerns listed above. Only time will tell now whether this will be another case of history repeating itself or if Microsoft really is taking a brave step forwards into this Post-PC world.

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