Though I saw it all around
Never thought I could be affected
Thought that we'd be the last to go
It is so strange the way things turn

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Struggling up to the surface

With all the "buzz" around Microsoft's Surface tablet, I keep hearing about how it will take over the market from Apple's iPad. I just have a few things to remind people of. First, remember the Zune? Next, Microsoft will run the tablet with Windows 8 and its RT variant (which haven't been released) which is based on their mobile phone interface. How well have Microsoft mobile phones been in the marketplace? And finally, this isn't the first Microsoft tablet computer. Yeah, you probably never heard of that one either. Their most successful hardware/software integration project, the XBox, wasn't doing that well (financially) until they released Kinect. As I've read it, the people responsible for that haven't been included in the Surface.

That's not to say Microsoft isn't doing some cool things with the surface. The integrated keyboard looks quite nice (however, I'm not convinced it'll be a success, but people's tastes in keyboards is changing). But with that, I'm not sure what the difference would be between the tablet and a netbook. The option of greater memory is a nice differentiator, but on a tablet, not so much. Again, a netbook is cheaper and just as powerful. USB Ports are nice, but you actually can connect a USB to the iPad, it's just nobody is making devices for it, because why do it? This question goes to the heart of what a tablet computer is and what people are using it for.

Microsoft is lusting after a market they have no stake in at the moment. Unfortunately what they're not seeing through the dollar signs is that this isn't their market. It's not their strength. Because their customer base looks at those dollar signs as well, but mostly as something to stay away from.

This doesn't mean I don't see a device that could take Apple on in this market. I've complained about how using the iPad is a little bit of a pain for those of us who have complicated and personalized filing systems. The paradigm of not having a hard drive is something I'm still struggling with. But I don't think the Surface will actually address these points.

So what I see is an initial flurry of people buying the Microsoft tablet just because it is a Microsoft tablet. If they don't integrate this into their business ecosphere, it'll die quickly (like before a second Christmas). If they're able to tie it into their server technology, fully functional (encrypted) email, access to server drives, etc, it will be a moderate success. If any of those are missing, their major customers, corporate IT departments, won't adopt it. If enterprise can't find a way to tie it quickly and easily into their managements' critical needs, they won't buy more than a test unit or two, or a geegaw for some executive. And if they won't buy them, it won't be around for long.

But, hey, I could be wrong about it all. It's been known to happen once or twice.


Eric said...

I'm excited by the existence of this product. I'm not running out and buying it, but there need to be alternatives to the iPad, and Microsoft is bringing together a number of technological strengths on this: they've been investing a lot in touchscreen technology and interfacing; the Windows 8 interface is much better as a touchscreen interface than as a PC interface (frankly); the Windows Mobile platform has (from what I hear) undergone massive improvements. There's probably an et cetera in there.

What the Surface potentially has over the netbook is something that may (I hate to say it) be a netbook killer: portability combined with usefulness. I love my netbook and cart it around a lot. But I find myself often doing something I specifically planned on not doing: carting around my netbook and my Android tablet, because the tablet is just so much more convenient for doing things like reading e-books or playing light games, while the lack of a useful keyboard (and a lack of a good Android word processor) makes the tablet useless for writing, etc.

There's an interesting thing about Steve Jobs' style of genius: he had a special knack for seeing what someone else didn't know they had, e.g. realizing what Wozniak had in his garage or Xerox had in their PARC lab. But his ability to see this kind of thing also kind of blinkered him in a way. Something I mention because Jobs' contempt for keyboards and styluses is something that hinders the iPad's usefulness as a tool as opposed to being a mere content channel.

Which is what the Surface might bridge, if Microsoft manages to pull it off. The Surface is stylus and keyboard friendly--i.e., it's something they hope people will do things with and not just to.

The funny thing is, I'm not sure I wish Microsoft well with Surface, so much as I wish them well enough. That is, I really hate Microsoft, and I don't necessarily want them to gain market dominance, and I don't want the market for netbooks to erode to the point they actually die completely. On the other hand, introducing technology that introduces competitive pressure is a good thing. I wouldn't mind seeing iPad becoming more useful, even though I'll never buy one because I don't like its ecosystem. I'd really love to see Samsung et al. put out some really competitive Droid tablets that crib features from the Surface, and to see Google introduce some improvements to Android and third-party software writers similarly rise to the occasion (sigh--this is what's so wonderful and awful about Android's ecosystem, is that because you're not beholden to one vendor, you kind of end up dependent on all of them for anything to work).

The personal note here: my tablet aspirations remain surprisingly humble--I really would just be happy for LibreOffice to get their long-promised Droid port into Google Play, at which point I could leave my netbook at home more often because my tablet would be more suitable for light word processing if I got a keyboard for it.

Anyway, my two cents.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Take a look at the Fujitsu Stylistic Q550 for a Win7 Pro tablet -- they're giving a free folio with Bluetooth keyboard this week.

Dr. Phil

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Eric, thanks for chiming in. Just as an FYI, the iPad does work with styluses. But not many people use them because it's just another thing to carry (and get lost). And most things are built around finger gesture control.

While I would love to have a tablet computer as a production machine, some people are already using the iPad that way. For me it doesn't work all that well (but that may just be my curmudgeoness). I have suggestions on how to make it work better, but it would require some major changes and advancements on several fronts. One of the major drawbacks is the reliance/need for mobile processors (which aren't as powerful). The Surface comes with an option for one (and that might be a differentiator), but it's to be seen what that does to the battery life, weight, and cost.

But I'm just not convinced that the UI of the Windows Mobile platform (of which Win 8 is based) is a winning way of using a computer. But then, I'm not a major user of social media (of which I think the tiles would work well).

I would love to see tablet computers come into their own (for those people who have read Bladesman, they know why). Microsoft is offering some things that could help move us closer to the goal posts. I'm just not sure it's far enough of a move to be useful, or that people will begin to see the potential.

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Dr. Phil, that looks interesting. I'll have to check it out more when I'm at work tomorrow.

Phiala said...

It certainly won't work for everyone and everything, but I've found that the iPad has almost entirely replaced the netbook for me. There are a number of factors that figure in to that:

- the prettiness and readability of the retina display on the new ipad.

- my small hands and good typing skills. I'm not as fast as on a standard keyboard, but I can touchtype on the iPad screen keyboard in landscape mode. I've already written a couple of short stories on it.

- my great aggravation with the current version of Ubuntu.

- the lightweight iPad, even compared to the netbook (my daily commute is a four-mile walk; this matters).

It won't replace the netbook for me, since iPads can't run R and I need a portable device that does (teaching software only from screenshots sucks).

But for note-taking, mind-mapping (touchscreens rock for this), reading journal articles, light-to-moderate writing, and all sorts of internet stuff the iPad almost immediately became my go-to device.

The filesystem problem quickly worked itself out for me through a combination of Goodreader and Dropbox. Those are the core; it doesn't really matter where anything else is stored. There are certainly things I don't like about buying into the One True Apple Way of Working, but I can deal with them to get the other benefits.

I have a stylus, and use it occasionally while working on vector diagrams, but mostly I use my fingers because of the multi-touch.

Most of all, I had no idea how much having a note-taking app that seamlessly let me include text, diagrams, annotations, photos, screenshots of web pages or images would revolutionize my workflow. Seriously amazing for doing research: snap a photo of a plate in a book, add a diagram, type in some text, clip a web page.

Steve Buchheit said...

Hey Phiala, I'm trying to integrate Dropbox into my workflow. Some apps have good integration, some are iCloud only. And I was really hoping Scrivener for iOS would be out by now (as I think that would solve some of my problems with their integrated file system).

Phiala said...

I simply don't use apps without Dropbox integration, or at least something not iCloud (eg SimpleNote).

I'm waiting eagerly for iOS Scrivener, but in the meantime the SimpleNote interface is working reasonably well, as is the OPML import: mindmapping on the iPad, import into Scrivener on the Mac to create template, export to SimpleNote so I can tweak bits on the iPad as the spirit moves me. It's not a pure iPad workflow, but that's okay with me for now.