Microsoft Surface

I was at the mall today, and saw that a Microsoft Store had opened. My wife was clothes shopping, so I thought what the hell, I’ll go and look at the new Surface tablet.

The Microsoft store is obviously modeled on the Apple Store. It’s almost embarrassing how much they want to be Apple; it’s a bit like your dad putting a baseball cap on backwards and pretending to be ‘gangsta’. The ratio of staff to customers exceeded 1, and I was quickly approached by someone. I said that I was interested in seeing the Surface tablet that I had read about, and he showed me over to one.

I’d read about how the sales people were trying to avoid letting people play with the actual device, but if that was ever the case it isn’t any longer. The first thing he did was pick it up and hand it to me.

“It’s the lightest tablet on the market,” he said.

It clearly wasn’t. It felt significantly heavier than my Nexus 10, about the same as the original iPad. Not objectionable, by any means, but not something I’d want to use for reading e-books.

He ran through a bunch of features, pointing them out. The cameras, the magnetic power cable, the magnetic clip attaching the keyboard. I was eager to try the keyboard. He set the tablet up on its kickstand, and I began typing, using the fabric touch keyboard.

All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

I looked at the screen. Perfect accuracy. I have used a lot of touch keyboards, mobile keyboards, and rubber keyboards. This is the best keyboard I’ve ever used that didn’t have physical key switches.

He grabbed the other keyboard from another device, and swapped it over. No cables or plugs, just magnetic connectors. I could now try the physical keyboard. I typed a few sentences again. Even better. It’s surprising how much difference even a tiny amount of key play can give you. I imagine that typing on the fabric keyboard could be fatiguing on the hands and wrists after a while. Even though it’s accurate, it’s like you’re tapping your fingers on cardboard.

Lots of other details about the tablet are impressive. It has an SDXC slot, hidden away under the kickstand, so it’s both convenient and out of the way. The main camera is angled so that you can stand the device on a table and video record a business presentation, without needing a tripod. Similarly, the front camera is angled appropriately for video conferencing.

The sales guy showed me how to navigate around the UI, and that’s when I started to have doubts.

Back in ancient history — the 1980s — graphical user interfaces had a notion of discoverability. It was one of the biggest benefits of the Mac UI. The idea was simple: there should be no essential functions that were hidden away. Everything you could do should be represented by some sort of control on the screen, labeled to suggest its function.

Hence the menu, which set out all the things you could do, arranged into a series of drop-down lists. Icons, which represented documents and could be moved around to perform filing operations. Scroll bars, showing that there was content off-screen that could be brought on-screen by clicking and dragging on their buttons.

With the iPad, Apple ditched that fundamental principle. Menus were mostly replaced by buttons labeled with icons, and if you didn’t know what the icon indicated, there was no way to find out — no “hover over” tooltip. Functions like zooming and scrolling were made totally invisible, now performed using ‘gestures’ on the screen.

Surface takes the iPad approach to the next level. Where Android at least gives you a set of soft buttons for “back”, “recent applications” and “home”, Surface dumps you into an application with no apparent way to get back. To go to the home screen, you have to know to swipe in from the right side of the tablet to make a home button appear. Swiping from the left side rotates between currently open applications, not that there’s any indication of what applications are currently open. Swiping from the top does something else I forget, and swiping from the bottom does yet another thing I also forget. Oh, and you can also swipe in and back, which is different from just swiping. Do that on the left and you get a menu of applications, I think.

I’m someone who has space for about 10 arbitrary keystrokes or gestures in my head. That’s why I use Vim — you can get a lot more done with 10 Vim commands than with 10 Emacs commands, because Vim commands can be assembled into combinations. But I digress. Point is, I have problems with undiscoverable interfaces and remembering gestures. I’m pretty sure there are two-finger and three-finger gestures on the iPad, and maybe even on Android, but I don’t use any of them. I have a trackball with four buttons, but I only use two of them because I can never remember what the other two do.

I’ve a hunch that I would find the Surface UI frustrating. I’m pretty sure my mother would want to throw the whole thing out a window. I know that there are lots of people who have no trouble remembering gestures and keystrokes, and for those people I’m sure the Surface UI is fine, but for us average clods who forget which keystroke refreshes a window, it’s a bit of a disaster.

Another odd thing is the schizophrenic nature of the UI. You start off in the horizontal scrolling tiles metaphor, but once you launch an application you suddenly have a task bar again, just like good old Windows 95. It’s rather jarring, like someone taking off a suit jacket to reveal that they’re wearing overalls underneath.

The sales guy moved on to what he clearly felt (or had been taught) was the biggest selling point: Microsoft Word.

I don’t think I’ve used Microsoft Word in almost 20 years, but I know there are people who swear by it, and also a lot more people who swear at it. Many people seem to do both, which I find a bit mysterious, but I suppose it’s Stockholm Syndrome or something. Anyway, I’d seen video of Surface running Word and having trouble keeping up with normal typing, so I was curious to see how that would work out.

Well, performance may have been a problem once, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem now. Or at least, not with an empty document. The ribbon actually seems to make some sense when you have a touch screen. I’m sure Word gets bogged down once you have more than a dozen pages or so in your document, but it always has done, hasn’t it? Certainly Word on the Surface seemed as performant as (say) LibreOffice on my work laptop. All the other apps seemed to open and close smoothly and quickly too.

So, here’s the surprising conclusion: Speaking as someone who has disliked Microsoft’s software since the mid 80s and hated the company since the early 90s, I was very impressed by Surface. The hardware is excellent, if a little on the hefty side. There’s a lot of attention to detail in the physical design, though I’m not sure how resilient the kickstand and fabric cover will be in the long run.

On the software side of things, it’s Windows. If you live for Microsoft Office, then you poor bast er, you’ll love Surface. If I were a salesman traveling around writing Word documents and messing with Excel spreadsheets all day, I’d pick Surface over an iPad or an Android tablet, no question about it.

But I’m not, and that’s where the problem lies. Microsoft has always been about closed ecosystems; if you had a Windows CE phone, it was pretty much crippled unless you ran Windows on the desktop, and used Exchange for e-mail. Similarly, the Surface will connect to my Xbox and my Windows desktop and my Exchange server and read my Office documents… except I don’t have an Xbox, or a Windows desktop, or documents in Office format, and my e-mail’s all on the Internet. Once you step outside the ecosystem at all, the entire thing becomes a pain. That’s a winning strategy for keeping people loyal when they have to use some of your products, but there are increasingly many people who have realized that you can live a full and productive life and have a successful career without ever using Microsoft software. Surveys suggest that the main reason consumers aren’t interested in Surface is the ‘W’ word; while Microsoft itself is a somewhat tarnished brand, “Windows” really has no positive association with consumers at this point, what with Vista and Windows 8.

So ironically, Microsoft have their first decent portable offering in… well, ever, really, at exactly the moment when nobody is interested in what they’re doing any more. I’d feel sorry for them, except they have nobody to blame but themselves.