Microsoft's Tablet Could Be Great, But There's A Whiff Of Redmond's Worst Instincts

Microsoft is so close with Windows 8, but they still can’t help being the poster child of indecision.

"What is a tablet?" It’s a question the industry wrestled with for years. Everyone could agree how it looked—the thing was a tablet!—but how would it work? What could you do on it? Apple answered that question the best, first. They said "It’ll just be a big iPhone!" with a confident bravado. The world listened. Google, Amazon and every hardware manufacturer on the planet began to copy the approach.

Everyone…except Microsoft, actually. Whereas an entire industry was convinced that tablets were just big phones, Microsoft had another idea. They’d make all of Windows 8 touchable. Their desktop product would be just as comfortable on couch-friendly tablets as it would be on work PCs. They were making tablets into full-blown computers…or they were making the computer into a mobile device.

Yesterday, Microsoft announced what that tablet would look like. We’d seen it coming for a while in Windows 8—with the Metro UI that supports a swipable, media-forward interface. But it was yesterday that they showed the tablet they’d cooked up, not just the answer to the iPad, but their vision for computing in the era of touchscreens, how Windows 8 could change everything. And in a moment of extreme self-doubt, they said, "Um, well what do you want a tablet to be?"

They showed off not one, but two Surface tablets. One was lighter, lower resolution and less powerful. The other was thicker, with a faster processor and a nicer screen. And, in pure defiance of their unique vision—one in which rich computing could be seamless across platforms—the Surface would run different versions of Windows 8—one meant for mobile apps (RT), one meant for desktops.

With two flavors of Windows 8 on the same platform, Microsoft undercut their unique vision for a simpler, more powerful future. Two tablets running different OSs is also just stupidly complicated. Imagine if Microsoft sold an Xbox that couldn’t play half the games in the 360’s library—would the Xbox still be the top selling console of today? Would we even know what an Xbox was?

The reason that the Surface is a bit infuriating as a product is that it’s not a product. It’s a two-product product category, one that, from its announcement, has introduced a schism of fragmentation between both what Microsoft sees as the future of mobile computing, and what consumers see as Windows 8. I can see the scene at Best Buy now. A family surrounds a blue-shirted employee, asking what makes these two tablets different. The Best Buy guy responds with some pithy "well how do you plan to use it?" assessment to save himself the technical explanation. The family, more confused than ever, just walks out with an iPad because "it runs all the apps."

The Surface’s other notable features are 16x9 resolution—a carryover from desktops that Apple’s always eschewed—and a clever case, much like the iPad’s Smart Cover, that reveals a keyboard for easy text entry. This keyboard is apparently pretty special, universally loved by the tech press, constructed with some mojo that just makes it feel right. And ironically, it may be just the peripheral to sell touchable computers to the masses. The Surface flips out a kickstand, connects the keyboard and becomes a laptop in a pinch.

Is the idea of a tablet keyboard a bit backwards? Maybe. But I’d argue that it feeds into Microsoft’s vision of the universal Windows 8 platform, their brandable concession to the fact that no one has solved text entry on tablets yet. If a tablet is going to be as powerful as a desktop, it needs a keyboard. Can anyone practically argue otherwise?

It all just makes me think…Microsoft, it’s really not too late. Take that cheaper Surface prototype into your hands—yeah, remove the keyboard first—and smash it against the nearest wall as hard as you can. Got it? Good. Now forget that big smartphone ever existed. Listen to your gut; listen to what the architects of Metro thought Windows 8 could be, a universal OS for all imaginable devices, not fodder for a million SKUs—besides, Asus will fill those pricing gaps for you anyway.

Finish off just one weapon on your workbench, the one you’ve been working for all this time that no one can call a me-too product. Then fire a full-blown Windows 8 tablet at everyone else at the industry. And even if it fails to explode, well, at least you know that you gave ‘em your best shot.

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33 Comments

  • Faye Kane, homeless brain

    I must say, thus column is a REALLY polished, pro way to take bribe money from Microsoft's marketing department without making it as blatantly obvious as some of those OTHER sleazy shills!

    Let me remind you of  the universal opinion from almost every other reviewer (and ALL the honest ones):

    "Whoever designed [Windows 8] should be imprisoned", and "That does it.  I've had it with Microsoft.  I'm buying a Mac, and all it took was one look at Windows 8".

    Those were professional O/S reviewers in major computer industry publications.  Google them.  Or any other review that's not a ridiculous, over-the-top MS advertisement from you, Ziff-Davis, or someone else who sells his integrity for Lexus money.

    I must say though, you certainly did do a good job of hiding your faux-fanboy fawning over Ballmer's Wonderful Vision for the Platform of Tomorrow!   Even I might believe you if I hadn't tried using that grotesque Windows 8 for myself.

    -- faye kane

  • Some Dude Over There

    I wish that the higher end Surface was more like the MacBook Pro with Retina display (i.e., crazy fast, crazy screen, great battery, etc., etc., etc.) but with the ability to be a tablet and remain as thin, light and cool as it is. 

    I don't think it is really that, though.  MS is so close to a device that could be a game changer, but it feels like they didn't go the extra mile to actually get there.

  • DaMarico Fowler

    This is the idea on the bench; the first clear step to it anyway. I'm sorry but there is more than one way to create a tablet. I like the iPad, and Android but their success doesn't invalidate what Microsoft is doing with Windows 8.  I get it, Apple is the king, the end all be all and nothing will take that away from it; but no one has had any success sticking with the Apple model. If Microsoft just put out a phone OS people wouldn't pay serious attention; with this people are talking.  

  • ss95ss

    For those who haven't used Win8 yet, you don't understand.   I resurected my 4year old HP-Mini for a Win8 test drive.  It's a new machine all over again.   Fast and light weight OS, apps run beatuiful and a quick move to the desktop and I'm back in the familiar Win environment to run my older, but necessary software.  Sure there's some getting used to using a touch OS with a trackpad mouse, but really it's no big deal    

    The surface will be the best of both worlds, along with the other combination ultrabooks and tablets.  Snap on the keyboard for legacy apps or extended typing, most of the time pure tablet mode.   The business world will eat these things up, and if my little netbook is any hint at the future, the ipad is already gathering dust.

  • VasyaPupkinsan

     Yeah, sure, like you have no idea that people usually don't care and don't give a sh.. about any ugly idiotic undecypherable design. "Designers" who came up with this are most likely color-blind and live on a bench close to a highway.

  • Brian Alexandrowicz

    Looks good on paper; I'm excited to see how it does in the real world. My only concern is that this seems like a product with an identity crisis. Is it a tablet? No, it's more than that. Well is it a laptop? No, it's not quite that either. The idea behind Windows 8 is exciting--a single, cross-platform OS to unite all devices--but I don't think that there's anything wrong with having a clearer division in what their products are. Remove the keyboard/trackpad options on the ARM-based tablet, make it cheap, and give it good battery life, and I don't see any problems selling this. 

  • Nick

    Errm, I'm wondering if you know anything about Windows 8 development eco system at all.  The fact you can write entirely cross platform code for Windows Phone 8, Windows 8 Pro, Windows RT and XBOX 360 kind of blows your main argument away really doesn't it?

  • 4c Design

    I have a Nokia Lumia 800 that runs the same Windows 8 operating system, I have to say it is the most fully thought through phone software I have ever been fortunate enough to use. Given this tablet is also using the same OS I have to say I am really looking forward to its release, with the right marketing it cant fail but be a massive success.

    Microsoft seem to be doing a great job of quietly turning themselves from the bad guys into the good guys. I no longer have the same level of respect for Google and Apple that I once did, but that trust is shifting towards Microsoft.

  • Xzarcx

    Sorry Dude, the Windows 8 running on the Lumia 800 (Windows Phone 7) is not the same as the Windows 8 running on the just announced Surface tablet (Windows RT). Note that the Surface Pro also runs a different OS. 

  • John Sherwood

    Errrm, looks like Microsoft have created a laptop that can't support it's own weight and a touch screen device that is uncomfortable to use. It's neither laptop or tablet, maybe it's the future...maybe not!

  • VasyaPupkinsan

      , keyboard off will not make it a "comfortable" ipad LOL.

    It will remain a piece of plastic cause they don't believe obviously in wireless keyboards. This is a failed product.... Uhm, sorry, this is not a product, this is vapor.

  • Esteban Jobs

    Why "uncomfortable to use"? just snap the rubber keyboard off and you hold it like the "comfortable" ipad.

  • wwwwwwwww

    They did make two versions of the Xbox360. The cheaper arcade which did the basics, and the full version. It indoctrinated a whole group of indecisive consumers into Xbox culture and services, and then disappeared.

    Perhaps Microsoft are repeating this process with the Surface.

  • LaMuertePeluda

    What about viruses? On Windows systems you *need* an antivirus which protects you against the millions of worms, malware, etc but also slows your computer down (and may be drains your battery on such a small device). I'm a bit skeptic about this device! May be they'll just make it cheap to compete vs the iPad.

  • Fabian Galon

    I haven't had an anti-virus program on my Windows machines for over 10 years and have yet to encounter a virus that can overcome commonsense.exe

  • divad

    What is the explanation of the trackpad?  Indecision?  Lack of confidence in the Surface's touch-ability?

  • LaMuertePeluda

    I also don't understand this. Looks like looking back to the past decade (well, Microsoft has always had something so "nineties" in their design in my opinion), jsust to make elderlies feel comfortable. But I'd rather prefer having no trackpad and bigger keys!!!

  • Evan Jacobs

    The trackpad is part of the multitouch keyboard cover. It doesn't have to be used... it's just there so the user can decide how they want to interact with the device.

    If the kickstand is open and the Surface is at an angle, touching it won't be as easy as when it's flat or you're holding it at an obtuse angle.