7 Jul.

Wiping The Dust Off Microsoft’s Surface

Microsoft’s recent announcement of their own brand  of ARM and Intel based devices have certainly caught many people, myself included, by surprise. While it is too early to really dig too deeply into the hardware itself, there are certainly many questions that need to be asked, and like many other people out there, contribute my own speculation and opinion to the mix.

Why Would Microsoft Do This?

Over the years Microsoft has released a number of hardware devices that most people don’t even know existed. A good example of this is the Windows Sound System audio card. Microsoft entered this market to prompt the incumbents into improving the audio quality of their lineups. Are the Surface devices primary reason for existence to nudge Microsoft’s hardware partners in the right direction? It’s possible, but it doesn’t seem like a legitimate reason to me, they could have supplied these as reference designs for others to build upon.

To me it seems more like Microsoft wants to see how it fares when it controls more of user experience ownership. They have done this for several years by providing the option for the Signature Windows install on devices sold from their stores, but they didn’t control the hardware design. Now Microsoft has taken complete ownership, and it will be interesting to see if the minutia that they would have considered will really make a big impact on the user experience.

Why Would I Want A Microsoft Branded Device?

These devices do look much better than other Windows tablet and slate devices that are in market at the moment, and I’m guessing they look better than many of the devices that are planned for launch with Windows 8. If the ergonomics of the two keyboard options satisfy a wide user base, these could really be a success for Microsoft.

There will also be be limited “value added utilities”, aka craplets installed, which is something that many OEMs still need to learn about. I understand that OEMs make money from pre-installing trial versions of applications onto PCs, but they are ignoring what their customers want.

This means you will have a machine with faster startup and shutdown, faster sleep/resume times, less clutter, and something that is noticeable on systems with smaller SSDs is that  there will be less drive space used. The absence of constant prompts to convert trials versions into paid editions is the icing on the cake.

What Are The Risks With These Devices?

Microsoft does not have a track record in the PC market, so there are many variables around quality of support, handling of warranty and repairs etc. They do however have these elements addressed with Xbox, so it wouldn’t be a stretch.

f Microsoft wants these to have widespread enterprise adoption, they will need to ensure that they provide the appropriate warranty and parts replacement options that an enterprise requires over the lifecycle of the device.

With the Windows RT based devices, the primary risk I see is that it’s a new OS that won’t run existing Windows applications. I’ll give details on my views on Windows RT below.

Why Would I Want One Of These Versus an iPad?

Because I want Windows apps. Because I want Side by Side application in Metro, Because I want a keyboard that works the way I expect it to work. Because I want full cut and paste capabilities. The list goes on. The counterargument though is that I want an iPad because of the range of applications that are iOS only at this stage. As a recent owner of a “new iPad”, I can’t say am I particularly impressed with the capabilities of the device, but the form factor and battery life are great.

Why Is The Name Surface Giving Me Déjà vu?

Microsoft has already used the Surface branding on two generations of interactive touch screen tables, but most of the world’s population wouldn’t know this, and would have never have seen one. Most of those that had seen them would not even realise what they were, as they usually ended up in as interactive display and signage scenarios.

Windows RT or Windows 8

Even though I have warmed to the concept of Windows RT running on an ARM processor, I am still struggling to see a long term future for it. It has recently been boosted in my opinion by the announcements of Windows Phone 8 being based on the Windows kernel, giving Windows (RT or Phone) on ARM a much better story. However… do you want your companion device (currently occupied by an iPad for many) to run a cut down variation of the OS on your laptop?

The reason why I struggle with a long term vision is based on my opinion that this OS wouldn’t even exist if Intel or AMD had an x86 processor and chipset option that matched ARM’s low power consumption and performance. This is something that I expect they will address, which means that you can get full Windows 8 (or Windows 9… perhaps) on a device with similar performance and battery life. In this scenario, you only need a device like the Surface and your phone, rather than an extra device that sits somewhere in-between.

What Questions Still Need Better Answers?

There are quite a few, but there is no information yet on the screen resolution. We can assume the minimum screen resolution will be 1366*768 to allow side by side in Metro. The management of Windows RT also hasn’t been discussed in great detail yet, but at least the Windows Intune team have given a nod of approval at TechEd. The performance of Windows RT tablets is also an unknown, and until sample units are in the wild, I suspect there will be other limitations of Windows RT that won’t be discovered. Even though Windows RT includes a version of Office, don’t think of this as a full version of Office, and don’t think of it as compatible with the different office add-ins you may be using, even if you aren’t aware of them. The number of Windows RT applications that will be made available is also a huge question, and it could be a chicken and egg scenario.

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