On the Surface

On Monday, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer took to the stage to unveil Surface, a new tablet PC they’ve designed and built in-house and which they expect to set the stage for Windows 8 tablets to come. It’s an interesting move for Microsoft for a number of reasons and I think it signifies the start of something new from the company, having learned many lessons from both its successful Xbox and unsuccessful Zune line.

Name

There are three interesting things about the name ‘Surface’:

  1. They’ve actually already used the name Surface in an earlier product, the larger table-sized devices mainly sold to casinos or restaurants, which always felt more like proof-of-concept devices rather than full-fledged products in their own rights. Though the older Surface has since been renamed PixelSense, I think it’s safe to assume they’ve learned some lessons in touch control over the years (it should be noted, though, the Table-Surface devices used an entirely different mechanism for detecting touches, though there’s no reason interface paradigms couldn’t be shared between the two).

  2. The product name is completely devoid of the term “Windows”, a term for which Steve Ballmer appears to have a major crush on. Even their touch-based phone products can’t escape the Windows moniker, resulting in the Windows Phone 7 mouthful. Though the Surface will run Windows 8, they aren’t calling it Windows 8 Surface.

  3. I think it’s a great name, and at least initially, sounds way better than iPad (do you remember how ridiculous ‘iPad’ sounded when you first heard it? It still sounds silly today, but we’ve become used to it). Surface is clean and light (contrast with ‘Slate’) and calls out exactly to how we think to interact with these devices.

Design

The Surface is to ship with two different models, one with an ARM CPU and one with an Intel CPU. It’s not clear to me why they’re offering both and it feels like this was a design decision they’ve failed to make. If consumers can’t figure out why to buy one over the other, they won’t buy either.

The Intel model will presumably run faster, but that also means it will run hotter and have less battery life. I would rather have a slower CPU and get to use it more than a fast, but dead, CPU.

Both models share a very similar and sleek industrial design which looks similar-but-not-identical to the iPad and I think they’ve done well to differentiate themselves here.

One thing which really stands out is both devices will have heat vents along their perimeter, and heat vents mean fans and fans mean noise. This is an unfortunate tradeoff which means the device is probably going to be uncomfortable to hold (more on that in a second) and it’s probably not going to have that great of a battery life if the CPU is so hot (and thus power-hungry) as to require fans.

The device also comes with a built-in Kickstand (their term, not mine) to have it propped up for typing or watching video. I think Kickstand is a bad name as it makes me think of the flimsy metal dingus which never quite manages to keep my bicycle from falling over. Though the mechanism looks a bit more sturdy, it still introduces hinge to the device, another wrinkle in the simplicity. Will the hinge get loose and flap around? What happens if it breaks off?

Apple solves the propping up problem with their magnetic Smart Covers which clip to the side of the device and fold intro a triangle to support the device from behind. The cover is attached when you need it and quickly detached when you don’t.

The difference in propping mechanism, and the inclusion of hot CPUs thus heat vents lead me to believe the Surface is a device Microsoft does not intend its users to hold for great lengths of time, which I feel is a fundamental flaw of the device.

Apple encourages its users to touch and hold its devices. Holding the device in your hands gives it anthropomorphic qualities; we cradle our devices, pick them up and bring them with us. But when a device is just sitting on a desk, whether a normal notebook computer or a Surface propped up with a Kickstand, the device remains part of the Other—it’s just an appliance and we don’t have an emotional attachment to it. This is the reason why iPad has been so successful, it has succeeded in leaping into our hands, and even though it’s still just a computer, it feels much less like an appliance and more a part of our lives.

The Beginning

On the surface, Microsoft’s new device seems like a way for them to show other PC manufacturers how Windows 8 devices should look and function. But as I’ve looked a little deeper, it really seems to me like this is less Microsoft showing manufacturers and more showing up manufacturers.

It’s no secret the PC market has entered a big period of flux in the last year. HP is probably leaving the PC market while other PC manufacturers are struggling as well. They’ve been squeezed for margins ever since PCs became commoditized and it’s probably starting to sting more and more with each passing quarter, especially as Apple is usually the only one seeing any growth lately.

If all the PC manufacturers leave the personal computer industry, where does that leave Microsoft and its cash-cows Windows and Office? I think the Surface is evidence Microsoft has been watching this trend and has realized if it wants to keep its foundation of Windows it must give itself a platform, a surface to stand on if you will, in order to keep its other businesses alive.

Microsoft Surface is the start of that hardware product platform. It doesn’t have a price. It doesn’t have a launch date. It’s going to need a lot to make an impact. But it’s a start.

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