Surface Thoughts

Lots of discussion around about the new tablet coming out from Microsoft. They are calling it the Surface and while competing with the iPad, they are taking a fundamentally different approach to the device.

Philosophically, MS has shown their usual penchant for completely missing the point. Anyone who has enjoyed using an iPad, especially lately, should find the Surface confusing and clunky. Anyone who has avoided the iPad and calls tablets toys to discount their use will probably be surprised at how ackward both the hardware and software is on the Surface. Here’s why:

The Surface is designed for a sitting on a table or a desk, in landscape mode, with keyboard folded out in front of it. This is the same usage-model as a laptop. The average iPad user is rarely in this setup, unless they work on their iPad at the coffee shop, sit stationary in meetings all day, or use it as a 2nd workstation as they develop on a laptop – which is the only time my iPad is sitting in laptop stance. Microsoft, with their combination of dangling keyboard covers (landscape only), kickstand (landscape only), and the advanced touch keyboard on-screen (landscape only) has shown their preference for the device. iPad’s are almost always marketed in portrait mode, like a notebook or hardcover book, not leaning back in laptop mode.

The magic of the iPad is that’s it’s a bigger mobile device – it’s always on, always ready to google, youtube, post, check email, get recipes, display fixit instructions, review a website, etc. It’s ready and willing at all times and it likes living in your hand or hands. People like to touch it and hold it and trust it. It rarely if ever crashes and gives you instant information. There is no setup, no wake time, no packing it back up to move it. It just rolls around with you with minimal fuss, like your phone. It’s like a smartphone that lives in your bag or on your desk, always ready for interaction, no connections or cords or fuss needed.

Also, Apple took the design philosophy that the entire device becomes the app it’s running. This gets attacked by geeks as ‘a lack of multitasking’ but it’s actually a key design element to the product’s success. See, every gadget we have that multitasks that isn’t our primary communication device is a big waste. Most excellent products are purpose-built to do their suite of functions correctly and efficiently without distraction — ie. your stove doesn’t check twitter, your car doesn’t hook into your toilet, and your coffee cup doesn’t water your lawn.

The iPad is one of the few devices out in 2012 that actually increases concentration. It’s an excellent reading, browsing, and gaming platform because of this lack of distraction and intrusion. If the iPad is doing recipes in the kitchen, that’s what it’s doing – the whole screen, the whole device. Yes there’s apps in the background doing things, but to get to those you need to switch to them and focus on them. Hold it any direction, pass it around, whatever, it just keeps doing it’s thing. No commands, computer skills, or confusion needed.

[Aside] Yes, sometimes I want to bring 2 apps on the screen at once. On my laptop I’ll run a 2nd monitor and have 6 apps open and viewable at once. But that’s my workstation and I can’t run off to the porch or the pottie with it in my hand. It also is too delicate to get thrown around a house full of toddlers like a hardcover book – but thats exactly how iPad’s flourish. Beat them, ignore them, treat them like nothing more than a mobile browser and the few apps you find helpful. Millions more feel like you and have their apps they live off of.

Microsoft is either ignoring this usage, or they have convinced themselves that the people don’t want portability, flexibility, and full concentration on a task, they instead want a weird version of a laptop that can be carried around easier. I just don’t see it as that compelling. I bet when the Surface finally ships you’ll find that the macbook air is smaller, lighter, and faster, while the iPad is 100x easier to use for beginners and people who actually get up from the desk once in a while.

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