Technologizer

My First 23 Questions About Microsoft’s ‘Surface’ Windows 8 Tablet

I don't claim to be psychic, so I'm not embarrassed by my utter failure to predict what Microsoft would announce at its mystery event in Hollywood.

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer speaks after the new tablet called Surface was unveiled during a news conference at Milk Studios on June 18, 2012 in Los Angeles, California.

I don’t claim to be psychic, so I’m not embarrassed by my utter failure to predict what Microsoft would announce at its mystery event in Hollywood on Monday (click here to check out photos from the event). I was seduced by the scuttlebutt that the company would unveil a Kindle Fire-like media-consumption tablet with Xbox and Barnes & Noble Nook-related features, running something that might not be Windows 8. It sounded more plausible than other possibilities.

Wrong! Having decided to sell tablets under its own name, Microsoft went for the gusto. Its Surface tablets are nothing less than the hardware equivalent of Windows 8 itself: A radical rethinking of the PC for the post-PC era.

Microsoft isn’t going to let Windows 8 fail because the hardware it runs on isn’t ambitious enough, and it apparently doesn’t trust the major PC manufacturers to do the job. After 31 years of writing software for other companies’ computers, it’s building its own PCs, its own way. Even if Surface doesn’t work out, it’s a moment of enormous significance for the company and the industry.

Here’s the Microsoft event in its entirety, as uploaded to YouTube by The Verge–if you care about this stuff and have 47 minutes to spare, it’s well worth watching:

Judging from the initial response to the LA event, people are dying to learn two bits of information which Microsoft didn’t fully answer: When will Surface be available and how much will it cost? I don’t find those issues all that interesting. The company says that Surface for Windows RT (which runs on an Nvidia Tegra processor) will arrive with Windows 8, which I’m guessing means October of this year or thereabouts. Surface for Windows 8 Pro (a more powerful version which uses an Intel Ivy Bridge processor) is due 90 days later–very late 2012 or early 2013.

As for price, Microsoft says that both versions will be similar to their closest competitors; I don’t think it’s going to undercut anyone, and it’s too smart to price these so high that nobody will buy them. Seems straightforward.

But oh, do I have other questions about Surface. At the event, Microsoft was allowing only the most cursory of examinations of the Windows RT version of the tablet. I lifted and touched it, ran my fingers across the keyboard and tapped at one app. That’s hardly enough to form true hands-on impressions. So mostly, I’ve been running the implications of Microsoft’s bombshell through my brain.

I’ve been asking questions such as these:

1. How’s that keyboard, anyhow? Microsoft’s Touch Cover has a built-in keyboard that’s roomy, but molded out of one piece of plastic, with no travel. It looks like the legendarily awful keyboard on the Atari 400. But Microsoft says that it’s full of advanced technology that makes it a pleasure to type on: It’s pressure-sensitive and understands gestures. One Microsoft employee at the event said that he was almost instantly able to type at the same speed he can on a conventional full-travel keyboard. My fingers remain skeptical until they’ve typed on it for themselves.

Even if the Touch Cover is no comfier than an on-screen keyboard like the one on the iPad, it has one major virtue: It frees up all of the screen real estate for content. And Microsoft will also offer a Type Cover that’s a bit thicker but which has real keys.

2. What’s the deal with the touchpad? Using my iPad with keyboards such as Logitech’s Solar Folio, I’ve found that using a keyboard and touchscreen in tandem works better than I would have guessed, at least on such a small screen. But Microsoft is equipping its keyboard covers with touchpads. I’m not sure if that’s because it thinks that people won’t want to use the touchscreen in conjunction with the keyboard, or whether it just wants to provide options for everybody.

3. Is anyone going to use these without the keyboard? Microsoft devoted a huge amount of the event to discussing the keyboard and emphasizing that it wasn’t an afterthought. It may turn out that Surface feels less like a tablet that you can use as a notebook, and more like a notebook that you can use like a tablet.

4. How well will Windows work on a screen that small? The two flavors of Surface both have 10.6″ screens. That’s roomy for a tablet but cramped for Windows, at least by historical standards. Apps with the Metro interface may work fine, but one of the major selling points of the Windows 8 Pro Surface is its ability to run traditional Windows programs, too; if Office feels unacceptably claustrophobic, Surface won’t be a serious productivity tool.

5. What’s the battery life? I care more about that than I do about price or shipping date. If the ARM variant of Surface can’t run for eight or nine hours on a charge, it’ll greatly diminish its appeal as an iPad alternative.

6. What’s the deal with wireless broadband? Microsoft didn’t mention built in 4G connectivity. I’m not too worried, though: I think there’s a good chance it’ll announce it’s working with AT&T and/or Verizon closer to Surface’s ship date.

7. How are HP and Toshiba and Dell and Acer and Sony feeling right now? Steve Ballmer told AllThingsD’s Ina Fried that the big PC companies knew Microsoft was working on “something…in this space,” which suggests that they didn’t know the level of ambition that Surface represents. As a consumer, I’m tickled that Microsoft is doing this; if I headed a PC company, I’d be vacillating between depression and anger.

8. What will other hardware makers’ Windows 8 machines be like? They’re not just going to produce tablets–they’ll make more conventional laptops and desktops and other sorts of systems. So Microsoft didn’t just render their still-unannounced product lines irrelevant. But it is calling Surface “the ultimate stage for Windows.” And it’s possible that computers from other manufacturers which would have looked perfectly decent if Surface didn’t exist will now come off as clunky and boring.

9. Will Microsoft be happy or sad if other PC companies out-Surface the Surface? When you compete with your own customers, as Microsoft will be doing, the dynamic is weird. The company clearly did everything in its power to make Surface better–or at least far more forward-thinking–than current PCs. But it’s not rooting against other PC makers; every time they sell a computer, Microsoft sells a copy of Windows. If Surface startles the industry into being more inventive in hopes of minimizing its success, it could put more money in Microsoft’s pockets than it’ll ever make from sales of the tablets themselves.

10. Is Microsoft going to keep this up? It’s timing Surface to appear alongside Windows 8 when it arrives, and it presumably wants these computers to help the new operating system get off to a strong start. But if Surface is going to be around for the long haul, Microsoft is going to have to release new version after new version–forever. We don’t yet know how its follow-through will be; one of the things that doomed Zune was that it kept falling further and further behind the iPod.

11. Will it make other sorts of PCs? If Surface sells well, Microsoft might decide to try its hand at more conventional laptops. Or all-in-one desktops. Or types of PCs yet to be invented. Or maybe it’ll avoid all of those form factors in the hopes of not ticking off other PC makers too much.

12. What about that Kindle Fire-type tablet? On Sunday, over at TechCrunch, former TIME.com technology editor Peter Ha reported that his sources were telling him that Microsoft’s Monday announcement involved an entertainment-centric tablet with Nook e-books and Xbox Live games. None of that turned out to be true. But it doesn’t mean that Microsoft might not be interested in putting Windows on such a device–either one it builds itself, or one made by somebody else.

13. Is there any chance at all that Microsoft will become the dominant maker of PCs? It’s not going to happen immediately. Odds are that it won’t ever happen. But if tablets overtake traditional PCs eventually (not unthinkable) and Microsoft becomes the dominant maker of Windows tablets (also not unthinkable) we could see the day when the company is a computer maker which also happens to license its software to other manufacturers.

14. What does this mean for the Microsoft Store? Surface is going to require some explanation, and it’s probably going to be more impressive if you see it in person. Microsoft’s own chain of Apple Store-like retail establishments will be the only place you’ll be able to try it out; all of a sudden, the notion of Microsoft ramping up the quantity of stores to Apple-like numbers doesn’t sound quite so whacko.

15. What does this mean for Best Buy? The nation’s largest electronics retailer has bigger problems to fret over. But it can’t be happy about the prospect of being denied a significant PC. I’d love to know whether Microsoft plans to expand Surface distribution rapidly, or keep it as a Microsoft Store exclusive.

16. What does this mean for Apple? Surface feels more defensive than offensive–less an attempt to crush the iPad than a move to make sure that Windows PCs aren’t crushed by the iPad in the coming years. I doubt anyone at Apple is panicky about its arrival, but if it does well, it could quickly turn into the iPad’s most serious rival. The iPad’s dominance is so complete at the moment that we don’t really know how Apple would behave if its tablet had a strong competitor.

17. What does it mean for Ultrabooks? Intel has poured vast amounts of energy and money into positioning the thin-and-light Windows notebooks known as Ultrabooks as the next great PCs. At the Hollywood event, Microsoft pretty much admitted that the Surface for Windows 8 Pro will compete with Ultrabooks when it said that it would be priced like them. If Surface sells well, Ultrabooks could come off as backwards-looking legacy machines rather than the PCs of the future.

18. Where does this put Android? Let’s just say it: Android on tablets has been a huge disappointment to date. Google is apparently going to start selling its own Android tablet–it will likely debut at next week’s Google I/O conference in San Francisco–but current wisdom says it’s going to be a cheap Kindle Fire competitor. Surface doesn’t have to be all that successful to knock Android tablets into third place; it’ll be fascinating to see if Google is OK with that happening, or whether it strikes back aggressively.

19. Does any of this mean much without killer Metro apps? Good hardware is important to Windows 8′s fate. But great apps–both ones from other platforms and ones that aren’t available on any other platform–are absolutely essential. Worst-case scenario, it’s possible that Surface turns out to be a very nice device that doesn’t do well simply because the software support isn’t there.

20. Will Surface be the Tablet PC that the Tablet PC never was? Surface for Windows 8 Pro supports a stylus as well as finger input. It’ll permit note-taking and sketching and all the other applications that were supposed to make Microsoft’s Tablet PC a landmark device a decade ago. I remain doubtful that there’s a critical mass of people who want to read their own handwritten notes on a computer, but there’s something almost touching about Microsoft revisiting the Tablet PC concept at this late date.

21. What if Microsoft had begun work on all this a half-decade earlier? Surface borrows its name, certain user-interface principles and perhaps some technologies from Microsoft’s pricey table-top computers. Those machines were announced back in 2007–here’s a piece I wrote about them at the time–and I suspect that the company sincerely thought they’d be everywhere by 2012. Instead, they never amounted to much. It’s tempting to fantasize about an alternate reality in which Microsoft skipped the Surface table research and proceeded directly to the Surface tablet. Instead of rushing to catch up with the iPad, the company could have rendered it less of a milestone by releasing a great tablet first.

22. Will Surface eliminate the distinction between PC and tablet? Microsoft’s press release only describes the Surface machines as “tablets” once. Otherwise, it calls them PCs. That reflects Microsoftian thinking, of course–when you dominate PCs, everything looks like a PC. But I think it’s healthy for everyone involved if the sharp distinction between tablet and PC goes away. Both Surface and the iPad are intensely personal; both let you perform computing tasks. They’re both PCs.

And here’s my last question for the moment:

23. What are your thoughts on Surface? See you in the comments.

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