The Microsoft Surface is (French) Toast

The Apology

Please allow me to begin by apologizing for the saucy language you are about to encounter. There is simply no way for me to tell the following joke without cursing. I really don’t like cursing (although, I do so love using it for effect), so I’m going to employ a substitute for the curse word. I trust that the savvy and discerning Techpinions reader will be able to pierce the veil and see through my little euphemism. Enjoy!

The Joke

On a Saturday morning, three boys come down to the kitchen and sit around the breakfast table.

Their mother asks the oldest boy what he’d like to eat.

“I’ll have some firetruckin’ French toast,” he says. The mother is outraged at his crude language. She hits him and sends him upstairs.

When she calms down, she asks the middle child what he wants. “Well, I guess that leaves more firetruckin’ French toast for me,” he says. The mom is livid. She smacks him and sends him away.

Finally, she looks at the youngest son and asks him what he wants for breakfast.

“I don’t know,” he says meekly, “but I definitely don’t want the firetruckin’ French toast!”

Excerpt from: “Jokes Every Man Should Know

The Analogy

• The mother in the Joke represents the computer buying public.

• The first two boys represent any one of the several PC hardware manufacturers who made tablets running the Windows 8 software but who have since been booted from the market.

• The youngest boy represents Microsoft.

Microsoft – like the youngest boy in the Joke – has gotten the reaction of the public (the mother) all mixed up. The boy thinks that the mother is upset about the French Toast, not the cursing. Microsoft thinks that the public is upset about Windows 8. So Microsoft has been quick to swear off (see what I did there?) Windows 8 and move on to the brand, spanking, new Windows 8.1. That’s going to fix EVERYTHING!

Or not.

‘Cause the real problem – the problem that Microsoft doesn’t see or get – is with Microsoft’s accursed tablet philosophy. Microsoft thinks that what people REALLY want in a tablet is a PC. And Microsoft thinks that what people REALLY want in a PC is Windows. Thus and therefore, Microsoft thinks that what people REALLY want in a tablet is a PC that runs Windows – a hybrid, that does it all and is all things to all people.

Until Microsoft’s outlook (oh my, yet another obscure reference) changes – and I think it’s unlikely to change anytime too soon – Microsoft, like the youngest boy in the Joke, is going to keep on getting slapped around without a clue as to why it’s happening.

Paul Thurrott’s Analysis

Paul Thurrott, in his article entitled, “Can Surface be Saved?“, is seemingly critical of Microsoft’s tablet efforts but, in the end, he erroneously sides with Microsoft’s take on why Windows 8 tablets are failing in the marketplace.

The Surface Is The New Zune

The parallels with (Surface and) Zune are interesting. In both cases, Microsoft established a new (well, recycled in the case of Surface) brand for a new family of hardware products. In both cases, Microsoft adopted a coopetition model in which it sought to have it both ways by both supporting partner devices and then competing with them head-on with their own.

The fear at the time of the reveal event was that Microsoft would alienate these partners by making its own hardware. ~ Paul Thurrott

Microsoft’s move to “co-opetition” is quite interesting. When Microsoft announced the Surface, the pundits seemed to fall into one of two groups. The theorists suggested that by making their own hardware, Microsoft would harm their relationship with their hardware partners. On the other hand, realists looked at the market and concluded: “Harm their relationship? Nonsense. Where are the hardware manufacturer’s going to go?”

In a way, the theorists and the realists were both right. If the Microsoft Windows 8 Tablet program is the sinking Titanic, Microsoft’s PC manufacturers are the lifeboats and those lifeboats aren’t so much paddling toward anything as they are simply madly paddling to get AWAY from the sinking ship that is the Surface. ((Paul Thurrott: First, of the few PC and hardware makers that voiced support for Windows RT last year and the subset of those that actually shipped devices, virtually all have completely and publicly backed away from the platform. Indeed, the most successful Windows RT device, by all measures, is Surface RT. And that device required a nearly $1 billion write-off because of poor sales.
Second, more and more PC makers are turning to free Google platforms. Not just Chrome OS, which is a super-cheap/low-risk bet, but also now Android.))

Redefining “Superior”

Killing off Surface would just deprive customers of some of the only truly superior PC hardware out there.

And these devices really are superior. We can debate specifics around battery life, the keyboard choices, the number of ports, the non-adjustable kickstand, or whatever. But these are beautiful and well made products. ~ Paul Thurrott

Okey dokey then. Let’s take a step back for a second and examine that bit of analysis. I have no argument at all with the hardware quality of the Surface. Beautiful and well-made? Yes. But nothing is truly “superior”unless it serves its intended purpose.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. ~ Peter Drucker

The “Pro” Tablet

I previously described (the Surface) as what a “Pro” line of iPads might look like if Apple were to make such a thing. ~ Paul Thurrott

This is where Paul’s analysis and Microsoft’s tablet philosophy go right off the rails. They both think that what the world wants – that what the world needs – is a “Pro” line of tablets.

…I still believe that this kind of hybrid device—one that combines work and play thematically and tablet and laptop physically—is the future of the PC. Not just the Ultrabook, but the PC. The ability to use and travel with just a single device that does it all is still a dream today. ~ Paul Thurrott

Yeah, not so very much.

I can see the appeal of Paul and Microsoft’s “dream”. But – as Microsoft has demonstrated – merging a tablet with a PC is not a “dream”, it’s a nightmare.

Not One Hybrid, But Multiple Screens

Ironically, Bill Gates predicted the future of computing back in 2007:

I don’t think you’ll have one device.

I think you’ll have a full-screen device that you can carry around and you’ll do dramatically more reading off of that – yeah, I believe in the tablet form factor…

…and then you’ll have the device that fits in your pocket…

…and then we’ll have the evolution of the portable machine. And the evolution of the phone will both be extremely high volume, complementary–that is, if you own one, you’re more likely to own the other.

[pullquote]The one, unifying computer is not the hybrid, it’s the Cloud.[/pullquote]

What’s actually happening is that we’re moving toward owning multiple windows (Ironic, eh?) to view and interact with our centralized data in the Cloud. One screen for our pocket (smart phone), one screen for the desk (PC), one screen for the wall (TV) and one screen for walking and lounging about (tablet). The one, unifying computer is not the hybrid, it’s the Cloud.

So if Bill Gates predicted this so very long ago, why doesn’t Microsoft get it? Well, as Upton Sinclair so rightly put it:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

A hybrid computer that runs Windows is not the consumer’s dream, it’s Microsoft’s dream. And the bulk of the computer buying public is having none of it.

Black or White Thinking

Am I saying the the Surface isn’t good for anyone? Absolutely not. There are literally millions upon millions of users who will need it, love it, absolutely adore it.

But that’s not enough.

In today’s marketplace, millions of computers is a niche. The goal is to sell in the BILLIONS. And I’m not being hyperbolic. Android is closing in on a billion activations fast. And iOS isn’t that far behind.

The pertinent question isn’t whether Windows 8 tablets are good or bad. Like all products, they’re good for some people and bad for others. The pertinent question is one of proportion. Will enough people want enough Windows 8 tablets to make them a majority or even a plurality? All the evidence to date says that they will not.

The Surface Is Firetrucked

So let’s tie this into one nice, neat package and put a ribbon on it.

In the Joke, the mom’s problem isn’t with the French Toast. It’s with the kids’ cursing.

In reality, the public’s problem isn’t with the quality of the Surface hardware or about tweaking the Windows 8 software. It’s with Microsoft’s cursed belief that tablets really want to be PCs.

As long as the kid in the Joke doesn’t understand the problem, he’s going to keep getting smacked around by his mother.

As long as Microsoft doesn’t understand the problem, they’re going to keep getting smacked around by the marketplace.

If Microsoft doesn’t start getting the joke, instead of being the joke, their tablet ambitions are going to end up as (French) toast. ((Urban Dictionary: Toast – Destroyed, terminated, ceased functioning, ended abruptly by external forces.))

Windows 8.1: A Step Forward, a Ways To Go

Windows 8.1 has arrived, at least in preview form. And while it shows that Microsoft has made significant improvements in the eight months since the original version of Windows 8 shipped, it also shows just how far the software has to go before it becomes a truly useful advance.

I have been running 8.1 for the past week on a Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, a convertible design that gave the experience of using it both on a more-or-less conventional touchscreen laptop and on a standalone table. I would also have liked to try it on a Hewlett-Packard Envy x2 convertible, but the current preview edition does not work on the Envy’s Atom processor (the Helix is powered by an Intel i5.)

Microsoft seems anxious to have as many people as possible try 8.1, an unusual approach to software that has not been officially released. While Apple is restricting access to the preview version of OS X Mavericks to registered, paid members of the Mac development program, Microsoft is advertising 8.1 to all comers in the Windows store. It’s a big download, over two gigabytes, but the installation was painless.

The two most talked-about changes in 8.1 turn out to be no big deal. A simple change in Taskbar properties gives a number of new startup options, including booting directly to the legacy Desktops instead of the new Metro-style startup screen. But since all it ever took to get from the Start screen to the Desktop was a single click or screen tap, this isn’t exactly a revolution.

Similarly, the return of the Start button has been greatly exaggerated (though, in fairness, Microsoft has been making it clear for some time what the new Start button would do.) What’s new is a Windows icon at the far left of the Taskbar, where Windows 7’s round Start button used to be. Tapping it has exactly the same effect as pressing the Windows key on the keyboard or swiping in from the right and tapping Start: It brings up the Start page. If the appropriate property is set, it will take you to the Apps list instead, which is kinda, sorta like the old Start menu. (If this option is chosen, it affects all three methods; all will bring up the Apps list instead of the Start page.) But I never considered the absence of the Start button as anywhere close to the heart of Windows 8’s problems, so I find the value of this change to be modest.[pullquote]I never considered the absence of the Start button as anywhere close to the heart of Windows 8’s problems, so I find the value of this change to be modest.[/pullquote]

Far more useful is a major expansion in your ability to configure and control your system from within the Metro interface. In the original version of Windows 8, all but the simplest tasks required opening a Desktop control panel. 8.1 lets you do most of the chores you encounter with any frequency by tapping the Change PC Settings option you are offered with the Settings charm, from adding or modifying a user account to choosing accessibility options. This is a considerable benefit when working without a keyboard in tablet mode; those Desktop control panels are very difficult to handle with touch. One area where the new approach falls short, though, is networking; dealing with any real connectivity issues, including any troubleshooting, still requires going to Desktop.

Another significant change is greater flexibility in showing more than one app in Metro. The original version let you open a second app, but it was restricted to a vertical strip of a quarter of the screen on the left or right. Now you can choose among a quarter, a third, or half of the screen and, on big enough displays, you can open three apps. But they are still restricted to non-overlapping vertical strips, an arrangement far inferior to traditional windows on larger displays. Choosing which applications get to share the screen is also an unnecessarily fiddly process.

Many of the annoyances from the original Windows 8 remain. The need to switch between Metro and Desktop modes is reduced but not eliminated, regards of your choice of primary mode, and Desktop is still mostly unusable in touch. (Lenovo’s inclusion of a stylus with the Helix is helpful, but at the same time an admission of failure.) And after eight months, the lack of third-party Metro remains a huge problem. The necessity to switch to Desktop could be greatly reduced if there were more native apps available.

There’s also the problem that Windows 8 does not let you chose different default apps in different modes. Where Metro versions exist, they are the defaults; for example, clicking on a picture file in Desktop opens the Metro Photos app rather than the Desktop Photo Viewer. There’s no way to set separate defaults for each mode if that’s what you would prefer. The exception is Internet Explorer 11, where the appropriate version opens in each mode. But only if IE is your default browser. If you switch to, say, Chrome, you will get the Desktop version of IE in both Desktop and Metro. Go figure.

The real test for Windows 8 will come this fall, when Microsoft plans to unveil a touch-optimized version of Office. Its big selling point for Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets such as the Surface Pro and Surface has been the unique availability of Office. But Office, even with the touch enhancements of Office 2013, is a deeply unsatisfactory experience on a tablet.

Tabletizing Office is no easy task. To work well with touch, its interface has to be simplified radically, meaning that many features will have to be eliminated or hidden. With a 20-year history of Office applications providing every option, bell, or whistle that any user might want, this sort of pruning runs deeply against the grain. But including too many features will, ironically, seriously compromise usability. It will be very interesting to see what choices Microsoft makes.

Finally, a plea to Microsoft and its OEM partners: Please fix the behavior of touchpads in Desktop. Laptops designed for Windows 8 generally come with large, no-button touchpads. MacBooks set the standard for these some years ago: A one-finger tap acts like a normal mouse click, a two-finger tap brings up a context menu. This works on Windows touchpads but, in keeping with the Windows philosophy that there must always be more than one way to do anything, a tap on the right side of the touchpad, with one or two fingers, also brings up a context menu. This is disorienting, unnecessary, and symptomatic of Microsoft’s inability to ever let anything go.

Lenovo, to its credit, offers its own solution. A tab buried deep in the Mouse control panel lets you restrict the right-click effect to a small area of the pad. It even lets you set the area in the lower right corner when you are using the touchpad as a pointer and in the upper right corner when you are using the ThinkPad eraser-head TrackPoint. It’s a rare win for traditional, flexibility, and convenience. Windows 8 could use a few more of these.

Windows 8.1 Does Little to Boost Holiday 2013 Sales

Last week, I tuned into Microsoft’s Channel 9 to listen to keynotes and developer lectures for MS BUILD, Microsoft’s developer conference. BUILD attracts Microsoft devotees from its developer community for PCs, phones, servers and even XBOX.

The biggest item on everyone’s mind was Windows 8.1 and how Microsoft planned to breathe developer life into the platform. The conference was set against a backdrop of flagging PC sales and a PC ecosystem that is one edge, anxious to decide where they should be making their future investments. When BUILD concluded and the smoke cleared, my takeaway was that Windows 8.1 is a step forward, but will do little to boost holiday 2013 sales. Ironically, the hardware could make a difference. Let’s start with what 8.1 brings to the table.

Windows 8.1 was about two things- making Windows 8 more comfortable for traditional Windows desktop users and completing the base Windows tablet experience. Here is a list of the top features making it easier for desktop users:

  • Adding back the Start menu: While in the desktop app, clicking on the white Windows flag takes you back to the start screen in Metro. Right-clicking the flag let’s you shut down the system and access key desktop settings.
  • Boot to Desktop: Windows 8.1 let’s you boot to the desktop app, which is essentially the Windows 7 experience .
  • Remove Charms: Allows users to disable charms when you place your cursor in the top right or bottom right corner of the display.
  • Jump to All Apps: Upon pressing the Windows flag in desktop, this can take you to the All Apps page. If selected in settings, this means users will never have to see a Live Tile unless they want to.

So literally, if you don’t want to see much of anything that Windows 8 brings over Windows 7, Windows 8.1 will let you do that. Let’s move to the Windows 8.1 features that signify completion of the base Windows 8 tablet experience:

  • 8″ tablets: Windows 8.1 supports 8″ tablets, the volume driver in its category.
  • System-wide search: Instead of choosing between searching for apps, settings or files, the new search searches everything. This reminds me of Windows 7 and of OS X, but is arguably a better search than 8.
  • Basic photo and video editing: Windows 8 had no photo or video editing, obviously a feature left on the cutting room floor given every major OS has this already, including Windows 7. Windows 8.1 brings some basic and touch-optimized tools to the table. I really like the dials in photo editing.
  • Improved App Snapping: Windows 8 limited users to simultaneously display two apps, one occupying 75% of the display and one occupying the other 25% of the display. This limited the amount and kind of apps users could run. 8.1 adds up to 4 windows of varying sizes. This is a big step but I find it still difficult to get the windows in the right place.
  • Miracast: This enables 8.1 devices to wirelessly share their display when connected to a Miracast-certified devices listed here. This really helps plug the AirPlay hole. I have yet to test this feature pervasively, but I hope it is nearly as solid as AirPlay or it won’t be widely adopted.
  • Tile customization: Tiles can be 4 different sizes and similar apps can be assembled together with header names. This isn’t as clear as folders but extends the platform and makes it simpler than before.

[pullquote]All of these improvements to the desktop and tablet mode are a real step forward, but unfortunately won’t make a big difference on sales in holiday 2013. [/pullquote]

Why? You first have to understand what’s holding Windows 8 back in the consumer marketplace.

As I have been very consistent on, I am a believer that the closer the PC gets to the tablet, consumers will be more likely to buy a new PC. It won’t be one watershed event, but a long term evolution of the PC into the simple, always on, always updated, snappy, thin, light, reliable, with many apps, and 10+ hour battery life device. Many users appreciate this today in the the iPad, Nexus, Galaxy, Kindle Fire, etc.

The clear majority of Windows 8 PCs shipped up to this point, however, were quite different than the optimal. Most delivered three hours battery life, were heavy, difficult to use versus a tablet, weren’t touch-based, weren’t always-on or always connected, a bit lethargic and didn’t offer the consumer app library. Either that or they were expensive if you couldn’t use them as a “2 in 1” device (some usage models yes, but not all). What problems does Windows 8.1 help solve? Let me give 8.1 credit where it is due- 8.1 is simpler and more robust than 8. For the other consumer issues outlined above, 8.1 doesn’t improve a whole lot of anything. While I was initially excited about the prospect of an 8″ tablet, it was squelched by the awful reviews of Acer’s 8″ tablet. I didn’t sense confidence after listening to BUILD that tier 1 and 2 apps will grow in numbers, even though I was excited about Facebook coming to the platform.

Does this mean the industry should pack it in for holiday 2013 and go home? Absolutely not, as hardware could help turn the tide for Holiday 2013. Between Intel, AMD, Qualcomm, Nvidia and their OEMs, they have the ability to bring the required touch-based snappiness, always-on, always-connected, thin, light, with 10+ hours battery life to tablets and convertibles, all at a decent price. Think of the irony for a second; hardware helping save software. Sad, but true nonetheless. This isn’t to say Microsoft’s efforts won’t make a different for the holidays, because they will. But I believe their latest retail strategy will make a much bigger impact than they made with the improvements made in Windows 8.1.

Apple and Microsoft Desktop OSes: Two Models, One Winner

When Apple and Microsoft contemplated software for a new world in which tablets were taking over much of the work once done on traditional PCs, it quickly became clear that they were following very different paths. Microsoft opted for an approach that would unify the user experience of tablets and PCs. Apple chose to keep the software environments, and the user experience they produced, distinct.

Early on, I was skeptical about Microsoft’s decision. Today, as the post-iPad, post-Surface versions of Windows and Mac OS X move into their second generation, there is little doubt that Apple was right. Windows 8 is a critical and, so far, a business flop whose problems may be mitigated but are unlikely to be solved by the forthcoming Windows 8.1. Apple, meanwhile, is readying the promising OS X Mavericks (named for a famous surf break in Half Moon Bay.)

Apple’s philosophy is to introduce successful features from its iOS mobile software into OS X when its makes sense while keeping the overall experience of using a Mac very different from the iPad. So Mavericks will gain an enhanced approach to real-time notifications that borrows heavily from iOS. And it will share with iOS a cloud-based system for storing and managing passwords across devices.

When Apple injected a heavy dose of iOS thinking into Mountain Lion, the version of OS X introduced last year, many Mac fans publicly fretted that Apple was on its way to dumbing down the Mac, that OS X would become indistinguishable from iOS. Mavericks, which will ship in the fall, makes it clear this is not going to happen. [pullquote]Today, as the post-iPad, post-Surface versions of Windows and Mac OS X move into their second generation, there is little doubt that Apple was right.[/pullquote]

The late Steve Jobs introduced the iPad in 2010 with a simple metaphor: PCs, whether Windows or Mac, were trucks while the iPad was a car. Most people want cars, though trucks are indispensable for certain kinds of work. Mavericks is designed for the needs of the truckers of the computing world (Apple also unveiled a new 18-wheeler, a long-overdue and radical redesign of its high-end Mac Pro.)

For example, the sort of users who find traditional PCs indispensable are likely to have lots and lots of files and documents, arranged in intricate hierarchies of folders. Mavericks introduces two new power-user tools to help simplify management. One is a new browser-style tabbed interface that makes it easier to examine and rearrange files and folders without opening multiple Finder windows. The second lets you tag files with keywords (shown in the screenshot at top), which facilitates search and ad hoc grouping of files based on this metadata regardless of what folders they reside in.

Apple’s renewed commitment to OS X and the Mac heightens the challenges facing Microsoft. Windows 8.1 is due out in a public preview version at the end of June. Based on what Microsoft has revealed, 8.1 includes some concessions to traditional PC users, including the option of booting directly to the Desktop and a slightly easier way of finding and launching applications from the Desktop environment. At the same time, it will reduce the needs of tablet users and others who favor the new, for lack of a better name, Metro environment from dropping into Desktop. But it fails to change Windows 8’s fundamental flaw: It is a two-headed beast that both PC and tablet users find unsatisfactory.

If Windows 8 fails to recover from its early swoon, it will be a much more serious threat to Microsoft’s future, especially as a consumer operating system, than was its previous flop, Vista. There were a lot of little things wrong with it that annoyed users in a variety of ways, but in many ways it was a large improvement over Windows XP. The problems were fixable without major changes to the underlying OS, and they were fixed in the successful Windows 7 release. The flaws of Windows 8 start with the mistaken idea that a single OS can succeed on both traditional PCs and tablets. Repairing this misconception requires going back to the drawing board, which would not only be a monumental admission of failure but would probably require a couple years of development work. So I expect Microsoft will instead try to muddle through as best it can.

This has serious implications for the marketplace. Sales of PCs as a whole are shrinking and there doesn’t seem to be anything on the horizon that will reverse this trend. But sales of Windows PCs are falling much faster than Macs. For example, in the quarter ended March 30, IDC estimated that worldwide Windows PC shipments dropped 13.9% from the year-ago quarter, which Apple reported its Mac sales were flat. This means that Apple’s market share is growing. And Apple, with its dominance of the high end of the PC market, is continuing to rake in the profits, while makers of Windows PCs are struggling and increasingly contemplating a post-PC world.