Microsoft’s Strange Tablet Launch

I don’t normally write this sort of thing, as I prefer to keep this site focused on my everyday life, but I watched the Microsoft Surface keynote video this morning and have been thinking about what I did and didn’t see. And although I am a long-time Mac user, iPhone user, and iPad owner, I was and am very interested in this type of technology and what Microsoft is able to do with it.

So I’m sorry about this, and I promise I will get back to beer and road trips soon.

Let’s start with the basics. Names. They’re calling the tablet “Surface”, which would be great except they already had a product called Surface, and other than touch this really isn’t the same thing at all (notably, they changed the name to PixelSense, another questionable name, before launching the tablet).

Even stranger though, they chose to call the screen “ClearType HD”. ClearType has been around a long time, but it is not a hardware product. It was (is?) Microsoft’s subpixel antialiasing text rendering engine which is now over 10 years old. It doesn’t really make sense for them to try to shoehorn this name onto to display for their new tablet, but they did.

And of course there is the discussion of whether it is really fair to call the Windows RT system “Windows” when it has none.

But what I didn’t see was far, far more interesting.

While Microsoft spent a lot of time talking about the design of the hardware, they failed to clarify some of the key details. Claims for pricing and availability were so vague as to be nearly useless. Screen resolution was implied but not stated. They never even mentioned battery life. How long do these things last? That’s important.

Over and over the presenters discussed how “like a book” the Surface is when the keyboard cover is attached, but they never showed it held like a book, or being read like a book.

Over and over the presenters discussed how with the keyboard attachment the Surface could be used for Real Work, unlike some other Tablets That Will Not Be Named. Ignoring the silliness of that claim, why were there no demonstrations showing Real Work on the Surface? Not once did any presenter show any Real Work on the ARM tablet, and all we got on the Intel machine (which is more like a traditional PC) was a very brief demo that Lightroom will run.

The show spent so much time talking about the keyboard covers and yet we never once saw anyone typing with them.

They didn’t even show what may have been the most obvious demonstration for this: reading and responding to email. This would have showed off the Windows RT system’s Metro mail client (being used for Real Work, of course) and would have supporting the claim that the keyboard cover really is easy to type on.

And there’s more!

We never saw web browsing (other than an embarrassing system crash). We never saw email. We never saw a calendar. We never saw book reading. We never saw a video or media player other than Netflix. We never saw a news reader. We never saw note taking. We never saw Office, or any Office-like program. We never saw even the most basic blank window with text being typed into it. We never saw an onscreen keyboard. We never saw a photo viewer or a photo editor. We never saw games. We never saw maps of any kind. We never saw the device in portrait orientation. We were told about the cameras but not shown video chat or Skype, which they own.

The things we never saw far outnumber the things we did.

We were told many things about Surface, but we were never shown any of them beyond the hardware itself and a few nearly static screens. It’s not enough to just be told. For this to have weight we must be shown. When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone and later the iPad, he spent real time playing with them. He used the keynotes to show what we could do with these amazing new devices, not just how nice they looked.

The kind conclusion is that Surface is unfinished. I think it is so far from being ready, software-wise, that they chose to avoid showing us the software as much as they could. And that’s really unfortunate because a good tablet is, fundamentally, nothing more than a window into the software it runs.

— Steve

Posted on 21 June 2012