Thursday, December 06, 2012

No, Compromises: The Microsoft Surface

 “Oh, my God, we have so, so many of them.”

The exasperation in the associate’s voice told me all I needed to know about Surface sales—this was not a supply chain success story. No, the Microsoft store had a lot of Surface tablets, and it wasn’t supposed to. Digitimes reports Microsoft cut component orders by half, Piper Jaffray recorded zero sales in a two-hour observation period on Black Friday, and the blustering Steve Ballmer even called sales “modest.” After my own two hours playing with and testing the tablets, I haven't seen a single Surface sold yet, either.

This disappoints me because the Surface with Windows RT (and Windows 8 generally) fascinate me. They offer an interesting and unique vision of touch computing (if not of “tablet” computing). I believe that good design is almost always opinionated—even the “right” design, or a design with broad appeal, will say No! to some ideas and some users. Apple clearly knows this; they prioritize design, and remain polarizing even as they grow ever more popular. Microsoft on some level gets this, as the new Windows overflows with opinions. But it also fails to deliver on Microsoft's “no compromises” boasts. 

The Surface feels boxier than the iPad, echoing the distinction between iOS’s rounded edges and textures and Metro style’s flat, spare square designs. The thickness, squared edges, and elongated design seem to give it more physical presence than its 1.5 lbs suggests (it doesn’t help that I first held a Surface and an iPad mini on the same night). The magnesium alloy shell has a different character from the iPad’s carved aluminum, but feels pleasantly solid. The screen looks better to my eyes than pre-Retina iPads, and closing the kickstand or attaching the Touch Cover result in satisfying clicks and snaps.

The kickstand and the central role played by the Touch and Type Covers highlight the opinionated design of the Surface. In contrast to the various laptop docks pioneered by Asus and others, these keyboards don’t physically support the screen, and the kickstand works best on a flat surface (pun intended). The Surface almost becomes a highly portable desktop computer, rather than a laptop replacement or a tablet. Other factors constrain tablet-style usage, as well. The placement of the Windows button under the screen suggests landscape orientation; the angles and placement of the kickstand, cameras, and keyboard connection demand it.

Video looks immense on the 16:9 aspect ratio screen when compared to a letterboxed view on the 4:3 iPad. But holding the Surface aloft in portrait mode feels awkward—the content becomes too tall and narrow for comfortable reading, and the size and shape are even less one-hand-able than full-size iPads. That said, the widescreen aspect ratio looks more clever here than on 16:9 Android tablets. In the Surface’s main usage scenario (with keyboard and kickstand), a 16:9 shape minimizes the distance between the keyboard and the top of the screen. This limits arm fatigue from reaching out to tap a vertically-oriented screen.

And users will definitely want to reach out to the screen. Windows RT includes a rich gesture language: swipe down through the bottom of the screen to close an app, in from the right to trigger the search and sharing “charms,” or from the left to switch apps. I worry about discoverability—I only found the gestures to “snap” a second app alongside the first through trial and error, and only tried because I knew the feature existed. Scrolling and zooming were smooth via screen but jerky via the Touch Cover trackpad. Keyboard shortcuts rarely worked on the first try.

Clunky or not, the keyboard covers help with the included Windows desktop and Office suite. Here, the heavily-opinionated Start Screen experience and physical design give way to the classic Microsoft approach: include everything, well-done or not. Office apps all launched quickly and felt responsive enough, and did everything you expect (unless you expect to run macros). However, window controls and Ribbon icons haven’t been visibly redesigned to be touch-friendly, and I had a little trouble placing the cursor or selecting ranges of cells. The apps are useable, but leave me wondering why there isn’t a true touch-first Office UI.

Other apps were fine, despite some glaring omissions. I didn’t road-test directions, but the maps app worked smoothly—in a few seconds of pinches and swipes, I found my house in Kansas and Disney World in Florida. The weather app was attractively flat and Metro-styled, a strong contrast to its iOS counterpart. Switching among apps was fast and easy, and the ability to view two apps side-by-side seems like a strong competitive advantage (making good use of the 16:9 screen). Angry Birds Space and other apps downloaded from the Windows store all worked as well as on other tablets.

But is that enough? I use Windows all day at work and an iPad as my primary computer at home, so the Surface sounds great in theory. But I can’t justify buying a Windows PC of any stripe that can’t run Microsoft’s Visual Studio. I am also going on four years as an iPhone power user, and iTunes would still be handy (and would be a must for my wife, if we bought a Surface for her). As of today, the Surface RT can’t run these—or any—legacy Windows apps.

True, iTunes barely runs on today’s Windows hardware and creating a useable ARM-based version  of Visual Studio 2012 probably constitutes a massive engineering feat (if it’s even achievable). The x86 “Pro” version is coming soon, but I don’t want to pay the Intel penalty in thickness, weight, heat, noise, battery lifeor price. Do I ask too much? Perhaps, but it was Microsoft’s Steven Sinofsky and Steve Ballmer who said of Windows 8, “No compromises.” Yet here we are, unable to perform core computing activities on the current Surface—and coping with a large variety of weird design tradeoffs. Surface shifts the emphasis—not “No compromises,” but rather: “No, compromises!”*

* - Credit where credit is due: I stole this joke from The Simpsons. When confronted with an ad that reads "WORKS ON CONTINGENCY   NO MONEY DOWN," shady attorney Lionel Hutz claims it's a typo and adds punctuation to change it to "WORKS ON CONTINGENCY? NO, MONEY DOWN!"