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Almost Genius

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.