A William Tell moment?


Microsoft Surface
Image © Microsoft


Disclosure #1: As is inevitable for any IT professional, the author has used Microsoft’s enterprise products at many points during his career. As is inevitable for any sentient inhabitant of planet Earth, he has used their more broadly targeted software on a daily basis for longer than he can remember (many of the images on this site were created via the combination of Visio supplemented by the non-MS – and horribly old school – PaintShop Pro). He has no direct holdings in Microsoft, but undoubtedly must have some interest in the company indirectly via pension or investment funds; something that would probably also hold for all of Microsoft’s main competitors.

Disclosure #2: Beyond this, the author has been featured in a Microsoft Business Intelligence video; but this did not relate to the endorsement of any Microsoft product.

Disclosure #3: The author can proudly state that he has never owned any Apple product, but does periodically use a corporate iPad and has occasional access to an iPhone owned by someone else (doesn’t everyone?). Rumours that he has three stars at all levels of Angry Birds Space have not been independently verified.

Disclosure #4: The author has neither seen directly, nor further still touched a Surface – though if Microsoft wanted to remedy this situation, he would at the very least guarantee them a thorough (and professionally neutral) review.


It’s somewhat odd to report that I am rather excited by an announcement Redmond’s finest (with apologies to Nintendo America). Like many people I have had a love / hate relationship with the Washington behemoth for more years than I care to remember; having lived through the hype and subsequent let down of every MS O/S since 95. Come to think of it, as my girlfriend suggests, that would be a great slogan: “Microsoft – disappointing expectant millions since 1995!”

Maybe my general take on the firm’s recent output was best summed up by another noted industry commentator:

Perceptive tech industry commentary

“My new computer came with Windows 7. Windows 7 is much more user-friendly than Windows Vista. I don’t like that.”

However, having had to put up with umpteen technology industry commentators sycophantically parroting Cupertino’s “the PC is dead, long live the tablet” mantra over the last few years, it is gratifying to think that there may (and I stress may) soon be a tablet available that is also a proper computer; i.e. one that you can actually do useful things on, rather than fashion accessory cum entertainment centre with a bad browser and support for only for the type of games that you can play equally well on your Facebook page. Please don’t get me wrong, as I mention above, I’m as much a fan of Angry Birds as the next guy, but as a lapsed gamer myself I can hopefully tell the difference between a gaming platform and an amusing diversion.

The ubiquitous iPad has been touted as bringing computing to the non-technically literate masses. Instead it has brought a grossly watered down ability to conspicuously consume at the expense of any support for creative activities. In my opinion, the oft repeated phrase that “there’s an app for that” tends only to work when “that” is a pretty narrow range of activities. I’m on my iPad; I want to update my Facebook status – tick; I want to upload an un-edited photo I just took – tick (on some models at least); I want to tweet something (maybe even including a URL I have copied from elsewhere) – tick (fiddly as this might be); I want to write a lightly formatted blog post without too many typos and which includes a couple of images I have either lightly-edited, or created from scratch – um…

Smarter than the average iPad user?

That’s where most types of tablet seem to hit their limit, Android as well as iOS (and undoubtedly Amazon’s offering as well); casual surfing (be it browser or other app based), checking mail, watching a movie, working out what street I am on, simple social medial interactions. These things are all OK and all are light on content creation. Anything else (even a lengthy e-mail – something I specialise in) quickly becomes a chore. Pointedly, all of the things that I have mentioned working well on tablets, also work at least to close to as well on a decent sized smart ‘phone, which also has the benefit of actually being portable and also (at least in most cases) of being a ‘phone.

So, given my zeitgeist-busting lack of whelmedness with tablets, where does that leave Ballmer’s latest offering. Well, let’s discount the ARM-based, “me too” version (with apologies to my fellow inhabitants of Cambridge; East Anglia, not Massachusetts) and focus on the Ivy Bridge-powered Surface Pro. This is (as far as can be discerned from the [limited] information that Redmond have thusfar divulged) where the real attention will inevitably focus. As the BBC’s (oft lampooned) technology correspondent states:

“At one small business this week – my excellent local optician – I learned that the owner plans to replace all his PCs with Surface tablets when they come out. Why not go straight to iPads, I wondered – only to learn that just about every ophthalmic application was Windows-based.”

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-18626087

I.e. there are an awful lot of proper, grown-up applications out there which only work on the dreadfully uncool WinTel platform. Indeed, outside of the creative industries (like other parts of industry can’t be creative?) and parts of science that rely upon tuned-up versions of graphical software that emanates essentially from the former (or which were provided “free” back in the day by those awfully nice Apple chaps), most business-focussed software (that is not already web-based) is WinTel based.

A long long time ago / I can still remember how / That gadget used to make me smile / And I knew if I did my tricks / That I could save those people's clicks /  And maybe they'd be happy for a while...

The idea of a proper computer that can (as far as we can tell at present) support all of the above, plus coming in a conveniently portable tablet-like package; but – crucially – with adult input devices like (shock-horror) a keyboard and track-pad and (even more shock and even more horror) a DisplayPort port for those tasks (like many of mine) where at 10” monitor is way too small and (Nightmare on Elm Street levels of horror) a USB 3.0 port; sounds awfully like the tablet concept coming of age (or, for those with an historical bent, fulfilling the vision that Bill Gates originally outlined for the device, long before the late Steve Jobs imbued it with his irreplaceable and inimitable coolness).

Many much wiser commentators than me have stated that the Surface will live or die based on the quality and extent of the app ecosystem it develops around it. For me the Pro has all the apps you could ever need, the Windows ones that people use to actually do things.

Of course the devil is in those (perhaps worryingly as yet undisclosed) details. What will the precise specs of the Surface Pro processor and RAM be? What is the screen resolution? How long will the battery last? How good a keyboard substitute will the Type Cover be in practice? Why on Earth does the RT come with Office and the machine set up to run it properly apparently doesn’t? Will Metro be pleasurable to use in those (infrequent) moments when all you actually want is an entertainment platform? These will all become clear in time no doubt, and there is obviously more than enough scope for Microsoft to disappoint me again. However, at present I am holding on to the glimmer of hope that this time they have got it right. If they have, the Surface could be very good indeed. As Don Maclean never sang:

  So bye bye to my Pad with an ‘i’
Get a Surface in to yer place
Won’t you give it a try
Those Angry Birds may may just have to fly
Singing this could be the tablet I’d buy
 

 

4 Responses to A William Tell moment?

  1. Lars says:

    Peter, hoping for the best but I think we will still keep the I. Its intutive to the highest level, more than just tablet and for MS to achieve that it would take a new way of thinking and I think it would take the a very long time to attract the people with that approach, taking in mind the huge market share the I has taken in relatively short period of time, I think MS has been jump started and that might not be good enough. Lars

    • Peter Thomas says:

      Hi Lars,

      Ironically replying via iPad :-o.

      I don’t much care whether the Surface is a mass market hit, I just selfishly think it might work for me :-).

      Peter

    • Peter Thomas says:

      Though perhaps I should add that I’m mainly using the iPad as the battery on my laptop is shot – and I’m neither looking to replace it or get a newer PC as I want to see whether the Surface Pro is worth trying :-).

      Peter

  2. […] in July 2012 in A William Tell Moment? I got a little carried away about the potential convergence between tablets and personal computers. […]

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