About two years ago, shortly after Apple's original iPad
arrived, I found myself in Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's office,
taking notes on the new tablet, which I propped up on an attachable
keyboard. Ballmer strutted in, took one look at my contraption, and
said: "If you work hard enough, you can make anything into a
And on a Monday night in Los Angeles, sitting 20 feet away from
Ballmer as he stood on stage to introduce Surface, a tablet
manufactured by Microsoft, running a version of Windows 8 designed
for a tablet user experience, with a built-in kickstand and a
magnetic cover that doubled as a keyboard, making the entire
contraption look like a PC…a voice tempted me.
But I refrained.
During the past two years, I have stood firm in my belief that
Microsoft has been making compelling moves, from its acquisition of
Skype to its evolution of Azure and its investment in Nokia, even
as critics disparaged the company as the industry's has-been, even
in the face of dismal mobile market share numbers.
I have sung the praises of Windows Phone 7--since the beginning,
really. I've been excited about Windows 8--not only the
functionality, but also the possibility and promise of a seamless
experience from the desktop to the tablet to the smartphone. As
Microsoft's Windows president, Steve Sinofsky, said about Surface
on Monday night: "A tablet that's a great PC; a PC that's a great
And Surface seems like a very good tablet. It's exciting that
Microsoft is launching it with Windows 8. But even if Microsoft
has, as Ballmer pointed out, a long hardware history (mouse,
keyboard) and some success (Xbox, Kinect), Surface represents a
distinct change in strategy. It may give the company's fledgling
operating system a boost out of the gate, but it may also do
irreparable damage to a partner ecosystem Microsoft has taken great
care to build and nurture.
What little I saw and touched, if ever so briefly, seemed
competitive, inviting, even if Microsoft responded stoically to
repeated requests for details. The Windows 8 RT Surface tablet
carries an Nvidia chip--quad core, one hopes, but Microsoft
wouldn't say. The Windows 8 Pro Surface tablet uses Intel's Core i5
Ivy Bridge processor--maybe dual core, maybe quad core.
Both models have 10.6-inch ClearType displays, and they've been
designed for wide-viewing mode (16x9). But Microsoft wouldn't
reveal the screen's resolution, nor what it meant that the Windows
8 Pro Surface is "Full HD." Microsoft VP Michael Angiulo said it
meant: "A combination of a very specific pixel geometry, render,
and an optical bonding process, that together create the effect
that your eye can't distinguish between the individual pixels at
normal viewing distances." I see.
Nothing on battery life, nothing on camera resolution, nothing
on memory capacity.
But isn't it likely that the Surface tablets will be comparable,
specification-wise, to other tablets? The connectivity options are
solid--both include 2x2 MIMO antennas for extra strength Wi-Fi, and
the Pro version includes pen input. Both are thin and light,
according to the published specs. The Windows 8 RT Surface is about
the size of the current-generation iPad, and although it felt just
as light when I held it, it sure seemed more thick than 9.3 mm.
I'll have to measure the Surface and the iPad side-by-side when I
get the chance.
Microsoft said the price of the Windows 8 RT Surface will be
comparable to the price of other consumer tablets, while the price
of the beefier (and heftier) Windows 8 Pro Surface will rival the
price of Ultrabooks.
Microsoft, of course, doesn't want anybody to think these are
your standard tablets. Company executives went out of their way to
lavish praise on the engineering quality of the Surface, an
annoying and mandatory industry habit that's starting to sound like
carnival barking. Sinofsky bragged that "it feels natural in your
hands," that it's the first PC to be made from magnesium, that its
"liquid metal is formed into an ultra-rigid, ultra-light frame." He
said that it's "airy" and "finely balanced" and that the case is
made from a "physical vapor deposition process." Fancy.
Angiulo talked about the tablet's vent, describing what he
called perimeter venting, for uniform distribution of air, which
somehow makes the device comfortable to hold.
Panos Panay, a member of the Microsoft Surface design team, gave
us more, saying that the design goal was to make the hardware "fade
into the background." He talked of seamless, perfectly formed lines
and case mold thresholds. Talking about the built-in kickstand, he
said with some drama: "We knew that if we did not get the kickstand
perfect, this device would not work. We could not take any
chances." Talking about the custom hinges on the kickstand, he
said: "They were spec'd to feel and sound like a high-end car
"You're going to want to hold it, I promise you," Panay said. I
don't know about you, but there are some things I want to hold (a
basketball, a fork full of lasagna, a stack of Benjamins, the hand
of a loved one) and some I don't really need to. Just sayin'.
The kickstand, which is sturdy when in use, hidden when not, is
nifty. The Surface covers are creative. They protect and decorate
the device, and their underside serves as a keyboard. One version
is a multitouch keyboard, with track pad and keys for the Metro
user interface. It has no tactile feedback and felt a little
antiseptic to me. The other version is a very thin keyboard for
touch typists. These covers also have accelerometers, so the
Surface knows what mode they're in (keyboard, flipped back,
covering the display). Great ideas.
My early read on Surface: long on hype, short on details, but
plenty of promise.
However, as intriguing as it is in the short term, it's also
confusing, and ultimately a mistake. Not only does the product seem
unnecessary in a very crowded field, it seems harmful to
Microsoft's fragile ecosystem of partners--on which the company's
fortunes have long rested. I can see no transformational gain,
where the integrated system approach (see: Apple) outweighs the