The Microsoft Surface Was Made For Surfaces…But That’s Not What Tablets Were Made For

by John Kirk   |   October 16th, 2012

The first Microsoft Surface Ad is out. It’s called “The Surface Movement” (although it probably should be called “Click”). In his article entitled: Marketing Surface and Windows 8, Ben Bajarin focuses on what the ad communicates to potential buyers. My focus is on what the ad communicates about Microsoft’s attitude toward tablets.

HOW MICROSOFT DEFINES A TABLET

Even before the ad aired, industry observers had picked up a theme:

The message we seem to be getting from Microsoft with its Surface tablets is that you need a keyboard with your slate to take full advantage of Windows. ~ James Kendrick, ZDNet

Microsoft is really is focusing on the keyboard as what enables the Surface to work equally well for consumption and creation. ~ Mary Jo Foley, CNet

It’s all about the keyboard and it’s all about using the keyboard on a flat surface.

WHAT DEFINES A MICROSOFT SURFACE

The Microsoft surface has five characteristics that distinguish it from the iPad:

– Windows 8 user interface;
– Windows desktop applications;
– Kickstand;
– Upturned rear-facing camera; and
– Attachable keyboard.

The last four of those five characteristics are most useful when employed on a flat surface…

…but that’s not what tablets were made for.

WHAT DEFINES A TABLET

The tablet has two defining characteristics: It is touchable and totable.

The tablet was made for standing, and walking; for moving from room to room, and moving from door to door; for sitting back and leaning forward; for remote locations and touch occasions. The tablet was made to be touched and toted. The Surface was made for a surface.

The Microsoft Surface goes on sale on October 26th. We’ll soon see what really defines a tablet.

John Kirk

John R. Kirk is a recovering attorney. He has also worked as a financial advisor and a business coach. His love affair with computing started with his purchase of the original Mac in 1985. His primary interest is the field of personal computing (which includes phones, tablets, notebooks and desktops) and his primary focus is on long-term business strategies: What makes a company unique; How do those unique qualities aid or inhibit the success of the company; and why don’t (or can’t) other companies adopt the successful attributes of their competitors?
  • Grwisher

    As usual, right on!

    • FalKirk

      Thank you, Grwisher.

  • krabbie

    It seems like the Surface is where the puck was when netbooks were in vogue. If this device is so table centric, it will be a looser in the mobile world, magnets, kickstand and all.

    • FalKirk

      “It seems like the Surface is where the puck was when netbooks were in vogue.” – krabble

      I’m actually thinking of writing a short article on this. Maybe this response will do instead. :)

      When Steve Jobs introduced the iPad he wondered aloud whether their was room for a tablet category between the smartphone and the notebook. Now we know that there was PLENTY of room (but we didn’t know that then). Seven inch tablets are trying to squeeze in between smartphones and 10 inch tablets. And Microsoft is trying to create a category between 10 inch tablets and notebooks.

      The difference is interface. phone, seven inch tablets and ten inch tablets all use touch. Ten inch tablets use touch and notebooks use pixel specific inputs (mouse, stylus). Apple doesn’t believe that the two mix. Microsoft thinks that they mix just fine. We’re about to find out who’s right and who’s wrong.

  • TheEternalEmperor

    It’s something else. I looked at tablets for a while before 2010. I never saw anything that made me pull the trigger. When HP announced their tablet before the iPad, I thought about it. Then, I picked up a book, roughly the size of a 10″ tablet and “used” it like I thought I would use the tablet. Trying to “use” to navigate Firefox was enough to convince me that full blown Windows on a tablet was bad. You simply can’t lean back.

    And how would you hand off with that keyboard intact? The “Hey, check this out!” motion seems to have been completely nullified by both the kickstand and the keyboard. I have a bluetooth keyboard. It comes out when I need to type something long. I just lean forward, turn it on, type, then resume leaning back.

    I guess it will come down to just how necessary is the keyboard and perhaps the mouse.

  • http://www.tumblr.com/blog/his-divine-shadow His Shadow

    Yeah, not much more to add to that. Microsoft may have wanted a tablet, but what they made was a gimmicky netbook.

    I’m sure there are Microsoft die hards that will buy this, just as they are Apple supporters who have one of everything Apple ever made. But toi compare this to the iPad is folly. Microsoft’s own product demo revealed a device that they believe is useless without a trackpad. There is simply no way that this device, despite it’s similarities can be meaningfully compared to an iPad given the iPads purely mobile touch GUI.

  • diddler

    I forget which one of you guys said it, but there is nothing quite like showing you have failed to grasp you are dealing with a touchscreen than putting a trackpad on your device. i used one on the Transformer and the mixed paradigm is genuinely offputting.

    • FalKirk

      A trackpad on a touchscreen device. Dumbfounding.

      • steve_wildstrom

        A touchpad makes sense within Microsoft’s frame of logic. Their thinking is that Office is Surface’s strategic advantage. But Word and Excel do not work very well without a pixel-precise pointing tool, hence the touchpad. Now you can fault Microsoft–and I do, a lot–for failing to design a true touch-enabled version of Office. But within the framework Microsoft has chosen, the touchpad is the right choice. At least it’s better than a stylus if you are using a keyboard.

        • diddler

          I agree that they had no choice given that the Office team seem less than enthused by touch input, but do you think that Apple would accept that. They would have got their heads beat together until they could think of a way to do it that did not rely on a small cursor. IF (big if) MS ports office to iPad it will be a much more touch friendly interface than on their own tablets because they know users will not have a pointing device other than the one poking out of their shirt sleeves.

          • steve_wildstrom

            This is a key difference between Microsoft and Apple. Apple is highly centralized, perhaps just a bit less so than when Steve was alive, but still power is held by a small group at the top that keeps everyone focused on common goals. Microsoft is a collection of fiefdoms that protect their own turf. I had thought the ascent of Steven Sinofsky, who came out of the Office group, might break down the walls, but it doesn’t seem to have happened.

  • http://www.facebook.com/davegregg David Michael Gregg

    The solution to your dilemma with the Surface is in your article. You said it yourself: the Windows desktop isn’t for tablet mode. That means the Windows 8 Start/Metro interface and apps will be in focus when the Surface is “toted” and “touched” (i.e. when someone is holding it like a tablet). You don’t need to take “full advantage of Windows” when you’re standing on the bus in commute or laying in bed ready to watch a show. So Surface gives you a tablet interface with email, browsing, social networking, games, video, music, ebook reading, quick note taking, and all the other stuff you would have used a tablet for — but now you can do more than just those things with your “tablet” when you need to.

    People don’t want to carry around two devices: no more laptop + tablet OR tablet + wishing this danged thing had a keyboard so I could properly type out this long business email that needs to be sent in thirty minutes. The point: the Surface is adaptable to your situation. That’s where it’s heart is, and it is positioned to that much more effectively than an iPad (or Android tab) with a third-party keyboard, because it doesn’t matter how much you make it look like a laptop, the current iterations of the iPad (or Android tab) will never give you desktop app functionality.

    For people looking only for a laptop, the Surface is an option. For people looking only for a tablet, the Surface is an option. AND for people looking for both, the Surface is an option.

    • FalKirk

      “People don’t want to carry around two devices.” – David Michael Gregg

      I think this makes common sense, but I also think it is also wrong. The trend is towards multiple screens with different screens being used in different places and often used simultaneously. This is an argument I’m ready to defend in the comment section, but I am thinking of writing an article on the subject. Stay tuned.

      “For people looking only for a laptop, the Surface is an option. For people looking only for a tablet, the Surface is an option. AND for people looking for both, the Surface is an option. – David Michael Gregg

      Can’t agree with this. For people looking for only a laptop, the Surface is an inferior option to a laptop. For people looking only for a tablet, the iPad is probably the better option. For people looking for both, the Surface is an option. But that group may be smaller than you think.

  • Siuss

    I don’t know, I sort of have high hopes for the Surface(s). Then again, I had high hopes for Windows Phone and oh boy! look at that runaway success . . .
    I find it interesting how the ad barely made a reference to how (well?) the device works without the keyboard attachment, which in essence helps define it as a portable tablet device in my eyes. I mean, the product in the video looked nice, but oh look dancing with it is just as super neat!
    The kickstand looks solid and wonderfully clicky, and I see it as a nice feature to have.
    One more note: “Click in at microsoft.com” You mean I need a clickety click computer mouse to use it too?? But there wasn’t one in the ad . . . ?
    In other words, I think they seriously need a better slogan/catchphrase.

    • FalKirk

      I seem to be in the minority, but I like they ads. I don’t think they need to show the purpose of the device. At this stage, their goal is to introduce and draw attention to the device. At that, I think the ads succeed.

      My objection is to the focus on keypads. Keypads are a wonderful accessory, but they’re not the essence of what is the tablet.

  • Luke

    Is this thing made out of cheap plastic? Wouldn’t surprise me if it was.

    • steve_wildstrom

      I don’t think anyone will complain about the hardware construction. The case is solid magnesium with a Gorilla glass display.

  • http://www.facebook.com/guy.nicholas Guy Nicholas

    Having only had my surface for about a week and a half I hadn’t noticed the rear camera was tilted. I disagree with the author that it makes it a table based device. I have been to many a kids sporting event where I see the parents awkwardly holding their iPads in front of their faces as they filmed the action. I argue this feature is better regardless whether the tablet is held or set on a table. I will give you that it is required for it to be used while tabled, but I would also say that little to no camera use will take place while the device is tabled, and not knowing the timeline of the design, I question whether it was tilted to make general picture taking, or because they had a stand and were force to.

  • Huan

    I don’t really understand… The Surface can be as tablet-like as the iPad or the Kindle or any other tablet. It can be used while standing and be touched, etc. It’s just designed so that if the user wishes to be more productive, then yes, they can use it on a surface. Just because the option to use it on a surface is available doesn’t mean it was made for a surface.

    • steve_wildstrom

      This is true if you can stick exclusively to the Metro interface. But once you’re in Desktop, the keyboard becomes a necessity.

      • http://twitter.com/huan_7 Huan Chen

        That’s a valid point but what I’m trying to emphasize is that the desktop is just an option. Users can stay within the Metro interface if they wish, making the Surface as tablet-like as any other tablet device in the market now. So while it’s true the Desktop was designed to be used with the keyboard, the Desktop is optional and so is the keyboard.

  • yogiyoga

    nobody mentioned that the nice Asus eeePAD has a version called “pad transformer” (the one I’m using at this very moment) with a detachable chicklet keyboard adding 8h autonomy, an SD port, 2 USB ports and enabling tablet users to continue to use keyboard shortcuts (Ctrl-F for find, Ctrl-arrows for word jumping, for instance, because controlling the caret (text cursor) with fingers is really a pain) and control the device’s settings more easily than with the “setting” icon.
    There is also the “Slate” Asus eeePad device.
    Open your eyes, Microsoft only tries to catch the train en route…