Greetings, hippies. To be honest, I was going to simply ignore Microsoft’s unveiling of the Surface tablet. I mean, tablets. As much fun as it’s been to poke fun at Bill & Ballmer’s Excellent Adventure through the years (and it has been fun), it just feels so 1996. Besides, the Redmond gang is making a much better run at things than I seem to be, so who am I to judge?
I know, a two-bit blogger. I’m supposed to judge.
Let’s start with the positive aspects of the Surfii. Yes, they exist, even in the eyes of a dedicated Macolyte. The new tablets aren’t ugly. Not to damn with faint praise, but Microsoft took an admirably minimalist route in the hardware design department. Sure, you could describe them as a bit plain, but I think most folks would rather Microsoft err on the side of bland than on the side of Clippy. Sometimes, the design needs to just get out of the way and let people work, which this one seems to do.
The Surfii also possess actual ports in the form of a microSD, USB 2.0 and micro HD video on the "consumer" RT and microSDXC, USB 3.0 and Mini DisplayPort on the "pro" Pro. I’d probably trade the display interfaces for HDMI, but maybe MS has a form of AirPlay in the offing to make such matters moot. The heft and girth of both tablets is fine. The Touch and Type Covers could be really cool. Each incorporates a keyboard into what is basically Microsoft’s version of a Smart Cover. The former is flat (good luck touch typing) and the latter is a quasi-normal keyboard. But since no one has stumbled upon one of these at a Redmond-area watering hole, we don’t know if they are truly awesome advancements in the field of tablet keying or simply make the Surfii feel like Atari 400s.
All in all, theses tablets seem decent enough if you’re pining for a Microsoft-blessed tablet experience. Which is where the real problems lie.
Microsoft is not known for their masterworks in the fine art of simplicity. At last count, over 1,859 versions of Xbox 360 bundles exist—and that’s just counting the ones that include Halo. There are six different versions of Vista. Although that’s according to Wikipedia, so your own estimate may be more valid. Sadly, this tendency to create a product for every niche and a niche for every product has extended to the Surface.
First, as you may have noticed, there are two Surface models, the RT and the Pro. And their differences aren’t just a matter of RAM, storage or processor speed. The RT sports an ARM architecture and runs Windows RT. The Pro sports an Intel Core i5 (okay, that’s cool) and runs Windows 8 Pro. So do you, Joe Bob Consumer, want the tablet that acts like a tablet or the tablet that acts like a touch-enabled MacBook Air with a sproingy keyboard? That answer might be easy for you, but I doubt it’s so crystal clear to the great tablet-buying throngs. Microsoft could have avoided this problem by either going with one architecture or two separate product lines. Yes, I know the latter seems to go against the simplicity mantra, but it’s better to be perfectly clear than overly simplistic.
Second, both Surfii run versions of Windows. Well, duh, of course they do. But in a tablet landscape dominated by iOS and Android, is there room for another ecosystem? I dunno. Maybe. But even Microsoft will have a hard time getting people to switch from one or the other to its particular brand of finger-poking fun. Who wants to re-buy all their apps just to use Windows? Even die-hard MS fans and Apple haters may balk at the idea of forsaking their Android apps for yet another buying spree. Unless you buy the Pro, of course; then you just install all your desktop apps. I think. Right?
Third, what do these things cost? Much has been made over Microsoft’s inability to set a firm release date or reveal pricing. Nothing takes the wind out of a new product announcement quite like, "And we’re gonna get it to you guys just a soon as we can which will hopefully be soon and for a reasonable amount of money." I’ve seen Kickstarter projects with more definitive timelines.
(Also, what’s up with Microsoft making folks download a PDF of the spec sheet? A rather flimsy one at that? That’s just poor form.)
So, are the Surface twins the great iPad killers gadget bloggers have been slavering for since the dawn of 2010? Of course not. Do they totally suck? I seriously doubt it. Do they have what it takes to become a real player in the market? Unless Microsoft has its own, pull-a-hammy-while-shifting-the-paradigm "one more thing" waiting for a launch-time reveal, I wouldn’t bet on it.