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I Don’t Think I get Microsoft Surface, Yet

I’ve been reading about the Microsoft Surface Tablets running Windows 8, which Microsoft unveiled yesterday afternoon. I don’t think I get it yet.

I’m not going to bother trying to give a balanced picture of this product. If you want that, there is plenty of other coverage, including the two articles I linked to above. I’m also not going to try and craft a unified argument, because frankly, I’m still gathering and processing information. Instead I’m just going to dive in an run down the things that puzzle me.

What’s with the “widescreen” display on a tablet? I know that the form factor has taken hold amongst makers of Android tablets who are trying to find a way to distinguish their offerings from the Apple iPad, but its strikes me as something that’s only really useful for watching movies, at the expense of other uses. Of course, watching movies hardly requires a full-blown version of Windows, which is supposed to be one of Surface’s advantages over an iPad.

Microsoft thinks that Surface and Windows 8 will appeal to people because they can run existing Windows applications, but a tablet isn’t really ideal for those legacy applications, and its not great for Microsoft’s cash cow, Microsoft Office, which is why the Surface is available with a screen cover that doubles as a keyboard and a trackpad. Actually, they have two versions of the cover, one that tries to feel like a traditional keyboard, and another that is more of a touch-sensitive multitouch surface. Here is the thing, the trackpad looks tiny and cramped, quite the opposite of the only trackpads I’ve used that don’t suck, the big ones on Apple’s MacBooks. Further more, the whole arrangement looks completely unsuitable for use on, well, a lap.

Actually, its not quite true that people can run legacy Windows applications on the Surface Tablet, because there are two versions of the Surface, one with an ARM CPU, running Windows RT, and the other with an Intel CPU, only the Intel version can run legacy Windows apps.

Microsoft has given no information about the run-times of these devices, but it is reasonable to guess that the ARM version will have longer battery life than the Intel version. I’m sure they are shooting for something close to the 10 hour battery life of the iPad, but their silence on the subject makes me think that they are having trouble getting there. As for the Intel tablet, it has a larger battery, but also a higher resolution display. My guess is that it will be, at best, 66% of the battery life of the ARM tablets.

If I step back, it looks to me like the ARM version of Windows RT is the “purest” product. It should have the the best battery life, and it will only run applications that are consistent with Windows 8’s Metro User interface, but it has that widescreen display that is awkward for most uses beyond watching movies and, perhaps, using a spreadsheet. On the other hand, the ARM version apparently won’t support any of the features that companies use for large-scale management of Windows computers.

And then there is the Intel version, which seems like a computing frankenstein. It can run legacy Windows applications, but they will look and feel out of place on a small tablet. There will be a keyboard and trackpad, but you’ll have to use it on a hard surface, and the trackpad is probably going to suck. Companies will be able to manage them centrally, but they’ll have to pay more for machines with worse battery life.

Perhaps I’ll see things differently when I have a chance to use one, but that’s another problem. As best as anyone knows, it is going to be 3-4 months before these things actually start shipping. By that time, Apple will have shipped a bunch more iPads and iOS 6, and a new round of iPads will only be a few months away.

One last comment: This seems to be a mortal blow to transitional PC makers. In the short run, Microsoft still needs them, but they need Microsoft more, so they have little alternative than to dutifully ship Windows 8 PCs and laptops. In the long run though, Microsoft has shown that it doesn’t think it needs them, which is really no surprise, since they’ve pretty much been squeezed dry between Microsoft and Intel.