Surface, fanaticism and Steve Jobs

In the wake of Microsoft’s Surface announcement, some have lauded the company for a commitment to truly turning themselves around; others naysay Microsoft’s effort to enter the tablet marketplace.

I, for one, think this is great. Microsoft is making their strategy clear without the help of their OEM army. They’re blazing the trail for their licensees to create similar devices using their model. RT and ARM for the low end, 8 for traditional devices and x86 tablets. Microsoft’s own Surface has chosen a unique tablet form factor and demonstrates clearly that there’s still innovation to be had within the space without being a total Apple copycat.

It shows Microsoft’s commitment to their vision doesn’t go only as far as to instruct others. They are putting their own reputation on the line in order to communicate the story they want to tell with Windows 8. They’re leveraging years of research and development to make a splash with their very first true computer devices.

But, to borrow a phrase from the internet, haters are going to hate.

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Okay, okay. Post PC. But which model will prevail?

I’ve written at length about the things I really like about Windows 8. That’s not the whole story unfortunately. There’s this in-between area that clashes and doesn’t quite work for me. Microsoft hedged their bets by providing two distinct computing environments in one OS. There’s a problem there because it might be confusing for users. There’s a desktop like everyone’s used to but there’s also the Metro environment. Ideally, this will enable users to have a choice. Convertible tablets or ultra books could provide a desktop environment when docked and a touch-based experience when mobile. Pretty neat, right?

Windows 8 and Windows RT are based around the same software but Windows RT is compiled for ARM processors and comes pre-loaded on ARM-based tablet devices. It can’t run normal Windows software. Yet it retains the desktop part of the experience for some reason. Is it that familiarity factor? Metro does its best to be friendly, fast, colorful, legible and accessible to users. Will the desktop be hidden by default and only accessible if the app is pinned to the Start screen? Microsoft has gotten into some trouble with Mozilla over this decision to not allow third-party apps to run in the desktop side of things on RT. It’s obviously a move to keep the confusion to a minimum when Joe Schmo tries to hook up a USB DVD drive to his cheap WinRT tablet and install Photoshop and it *surprise* doesn’t run on the ARM hardware.

So, this plan obviously has flaws. But it also has advantages. If a user knows how to run something on a Win 8 PC, they’ll naturally know how to makes stuff work on their RT tablet. There’s no difference as long as you’re in the Metro environment. Apple’s approach is what makes me reconsider my years of Mac fanboyism and rabid loyalty.

Instead of trying to really push the envelope of UI/UX, Apple is essentially reskinning OS X to look and react more like iOS. With deep synching provided by iCloud, they’re betting the millions of iOS users will flock in even greater numbers to their desktops and laptops for the familiar experience provided by their iPad or Phone. The issue is that these shoehorned-in elements were designed to make touch less intimidating and they don’t really apply themselves well to the desktop (IMHO). Apple’s made it clear that the two worlds of touch and traditional PCs will remain separate.

Microsoft has been more strict with requirements but is typically laissez-faire about the whole thing. There will be x86 tablets both convertible and dockable. There will be touchscreen laptops. There will be stuff like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga, a laptop with a hinge that goes all the way back to fold the back of the screen onto the bottom of the keyboard.

I like that approach but I am also excited for the ARM-based Windows RT tablets. Given Microsoft’s propensity for pen-driven tablets in the past, I’m banking on a reasonably-priced, proper stylus compatible tablet. Since Windows RT devices come with Microsoft Office preinstalled, OneNote would be a great boon to those of us really wanting a productive tablet experience. It won’t be the Courier but it could come close. I miss digital handwriting recognition and Microsoft’s been perfecting theirs over the last 10 years. This could be a killer feature for Win RT devices. The only weirdness is that the Office suite will run on the desktop in RT which, again, is strange but only time will tell if this will cause confusion.

Apple’s solution seems to lack the flexibility that Microsoft’s does but that’s the way it’s always been. Microsoft wants users to do whatever they want however they want to do it while Apple famously dictates what they think is the superior method. But who will win? Apple’s walled garden or a less open, more flexible Windows? Will users understand that the Microsoft way is more flexible than Apple’s? Or will they flock to a familiar if inferior system that Apple has planned? I really hope that Microsoft back their approach to the fullest and hangs in there. Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8/RT feel like the future of computing. Big, friendly typography, well laid-out information and a chrome-free experience might be the way for the once-great company to return to prominence.