Surface by Microsoft. It seems fresh and exciting, heralding a new way forward for Microsoft. Yet it seems entirely possible that Microsoft’s self-imposed shackles will prevent Surface from achieving what it needs to achieve.
Let’s put aside the fact that the hands-off “demonstrations” mean the Surface probably doesn’t work remotely well at this point. Microsoft had to rush out an announcement after Apple’s WWDC (to not get lost in the press wave) but before Google I/O (to pre-empt Google’s own tablet reveal). Let’s assume at the unspecified point in the future at which Surface actually ships, it will work as suggested by Microsoft. This is not the problem I have.
The problem I have is the way Microsoft is telling you to use it. They’re making their “tablet” as much like a laptop as possible so they can stay in their comfort zone. Microsoft’s talk of PC-plus instead of Post-PC reveals it all: they can’t let go of the PC. And make no mistake, Surface is definitely a PC.
As far as I can tell — and still a month after the announcement, there’s not much more information available — Surface comes with a keyboard, a stylus, and a kickstand. All of these accessories are available from third-party vendors for the iPad; it’s not the existence of them that is the real problem. The problem is that Microsoft is including them with Surface, and as such is dictating ways to use Surface. Sure, you can take it and carry it around, touching the screen like an iPad. But the inclusion of these specific accessories says that Microsoft really thinks you should be sitting at a desk with the kickstand out and the keyboard attached. Just like you’ve been using their product for years.
Microsoft has taken what could be a worthy iPad-competitor and shackled it with the existing laptop form factor.
Maybe that’s fine; a lot of people don’t care about Post-PC and just want a touchscreen laptop. But catering to these customers is not realising the potential of what should be a Post-PC device. Blurring the lines between a laptop and a tablet certainly serves Microsoft well when it comes to comparing with Apple’s marketshare, but I believe Microsoft’s decisions about the hardware will cause the software platform to further stagnate.
Looking at the front of the iPad, there is no correct way to hold it. This approach seems to be unique amongst tablet makers: Apple’s competitors all have a logo or some text on the face that reveals a “correct” orientation. Sure, the Apple logo on the back of the iPad suggests a portrait orientation, but this doesn’t dictate the screen’s orientation to the user. Even once it is turned on, the image rotates to whatever orientation you are holding it at. The device itself doesn’t demand an orientation: the current app does. And that’s what gives developers a great deal of freedom in exploring ways to use the iPad: the device melts away and just becomes whatever the app requires.
It’s true that certain apps (mostly games) demand either a portrait or landscape orientation. But this is exactly what I’m driving at: if Apple suggested the correct way to view an iPad was in landscape mode, would games like Where’s My Water and Cut the Rope have adopted portrait as their preferred orientation?
With the iPad, Apple gave us a blank slate (if you’ll pardon the expression). It was unencumbered with any pre-conceived notions about how apps on it should work. As a result, we have a golden age of application development, with developers pioneering new and exciting ways to use these pieces of hardware.
What I don’t like about Surface is that Microsoft’s suggested way of using the hardware doesn’t lend itself to any of the creative ingenuity we see with iOS and Android apps. Microsoft is, in a way, asking for more of the same sorts of software we’ve been seeing for the past few decades. With access to the old-fashioned Windows shell underneath the Metro coating, Microsoft is saying it’s also fine if you don’t want to think about a new UI philosophy, let alone a new orientation. With Microsoft already at a disadvantage when it comes to exciting apps, this doesn’t help.
At first glance, it looks like Microsoft is interested in moving into the Post-PC world. But their design choices reveal they’d much rather pull us back into the PC world. Some find it comfortable and familiar in that world, but I find it stifling and old-fashioned.