When is a Tablet not a Tablet? When It’s a Surface

on November 2, 2012
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Let me start this column out with some context on Windows 8. My mind has changed to a degree about Windows 8 and in particular touch based notebooks and UltraBooks. Several of the Windows 8 PCs I have been using are pure notebook form factors with solid touch-screens. I was never as negative on the addition of touch screens on notebooks as others in the industry, primarily because for over a year now, I have been using my iPad heavily in many work contexts with a keyboard accessory. So the idea of having a keyboard in front of me and touching a screen rather than using a mouse is an everyday way of life. I genuinely believe that many will welcome and enjoy the addition of touch in Windows 8 on many notebook form factors.

I’ll also add this point, Windows 8 may be one of the better Windows releases, if not the best I have seen in some time. I’ll write more on that later and I realize I may be in the minority with that statement.

But now I want to turn my attention to Surface, and more than just Surface, Windows 8 on devices that look and feel more like a tablet.

Just Because You Touch a Screen Doesn’t Make it a Tablet

Simply because a piece of hardware has the ability to touch it, does not make it a tablet. The traditional metaphor of a PC is the desktop / notebook mode. In this mode the screen sits on a desk, or a lap, and is used at arms length. Tablets on the other hand blow that paradigm wide open because they are built to be used while being held—mostly one handed— and operated solely by touch. Tablets are designed, and their experience is designed, to be more intimate and more personal. This does not mean the addition of a keyboard to a tablet is not useful, only that it is not required for most common tasks.

Steve Ballmer made a specific statement about Surface that I want to point out. He said:

Windows 8 is the greatest example of the PC meets the tablet – Steve Ballmer

This quote is a prime example of the way Microsoft thinks about Windows and computing. It highlights that they are still using the old school PC metaphor of computing being done on a desk or lap, at arms length, while stationary. And the Windows 8 platform, as well as the Surface, and many other tablet centric Windows 8 PCs fully conform to this metaphor.

Just look at how Surface was designed and where its value is being positioned. With a kickstand (to prop it up), and a keyboard, AND in landscape mode. All the same features of a notebook. In reality the Surface is a unique new form factor, but it is still largely dependent on the traditional PC computing paradigm. It is designed to converge these two experiences rather than innovate on their differences.

It is important to add here that I am a mature tablet user. I have been using the iPad since the beginning and have it fully melded into all areas of my life in key ways. I also heavily used many tablet PC devices well before Surface. Many writing about Surface rightly point out that it should not be compared to the iPad. I agree, for many of the reasons I point out above, and more to the point that I am not convinced Windows 8 is actually a tablet OS—yet. But to the extend comparing is necessary, it is because the iPad is the gold standard of a tablet experience on the market today.

Ballmer said that Windows 8 is the PC meets a tablet. My response to him is that the iPad is the re-invention of the PC.

That Tablets Advantage is Portrait Mode

I firmly say, and stand on my conviction that the iPad has not only re-invented the PC but changed the computing paradigm for a few reasons — Portrait mode and touch computing (accomplishing complex computing tasks that once required a mouse and keyboard via touch).

I wrote a long analysis on computing in Portrait mode, where I highlight the many advantages of this mode of computing for things like writing, reading, browsing the web, etc. I use portrait mode primarily on my iPad. Only some things like games and a few other apps use landscape exclusively. The iPad, and nearly all of the 275,000 tablet apps and growing not only support both portrait and landscape but they are built uniquely to take advantage of both modes.

Conversely, Windows 8 and Surface, appear to be built primarily for one mode—landscape. Given that Windows 8 is built for a 16:9 format this is not surprising. The software was architected for landscape. Although, the screen can be used in portrait mode, doing so presents a far less enjoyable experience than in landscape. For some this may not be a problem but for me it was a fundamentally counter experience to what I consider a pure tablet experience. Many popular apps, including MSFTs own app store, are built only for landscape mode. A mode that while leaning back in bed, or a couch, etc., is just not comfortable to hold for long periods of time.

I’ve been adamant that browsing the web in portrait mode if far better than in landscape. As is reading books, magazines, etc,. Take a look at the side by side screen shot of the NY Times on Surface and on iPad. Both in portrait mode.

Click for larger image

What happens when you orient Surface to portrait mode, due to the 16:9 aspect ratio, is that everything gets smaller. Where when you flip the iPad, and even Android tablets, the text size stays the same in some cases, or shrinks slightly in others. What you get in portrait mode is more text on a screen, that even when smaller is not crunched or impossible to read. You are able to see more of the web page on the Surface because of 16:9, only the text was much harder to read. Of course you could zoom in or tap in, but that required some time to get the web page consumable. Not a deal breaker, but also not ideal.

Oddly enough two experiences I had were not horrible in portrait mode and you will be baffled by one of them. The first was the Kindle app, which just as I described about the iPad never changed the text size when flipping from portrait to landscape. Which being able to view significantly more text on the screen than the iPad in portrait was a welcome addition. The other experience was with the desktop version of Internet explorer on the Surface. I pointed out a few weeks ago the odd solution of having two different versions of Internet Explorer. In that article I complained that the desktop version of Internet Explorer was not as touch friendly as its Windows 8 app brother. However, it turns out that desktop Internet Explorer is more portrait mode friendly than its Windows 8 app brother. When using Internet Explorer on the desktop, the web operates more like the iPad. When you flip the screen between portrait and landscape the text stays the same size and you simply see more on the screen. Go figure.

Landscape obviously has its advantages in many scenarios like movies, some games, etc. But, in a broad set of tablet use cases portrait is equally and sometimes more important. A true tablet in my opinion provides an excellent experience in both landscape and portrait modes.

All of that to say that there may some hope for Windows 8 from a pure tablet standpoint. Some apps gave me hope while others caused me to shake my head. Portrait mode in Windows 8 will require some specific software approaches from companies and developers who understand portrait and landscape mode and the key tablet use cases for both. It is simply not there yet holistically.

Conclusions

There are more things I like about Surface, and Windows 8, as PCs but not as tablets. I believe that those consumers in the market for a tablet, are not in the market for a PC. Therefore for the tablet market, I am not convinced Surface, or either flavor of Windows 8 is a solution. We will see if this changes or not.

I know many happy Surface customers and many of them have never really used an iPad and are fully in Microsoft’s ecosystem. This may be the recipe of success for Windows 8 PCs.

For Apple, it means they still have no true tablet competition, particularly with the iPad.

Don’t consider this column a review of Surface. That is coming, as their are many things I like about it as a touch based PC, gestures in particular. The main point I am trying to get across is that we need to think about PCs and tablets differently.

When it comes to the tablet discussion, we will need to dive deeper into the 7” form factor role. A form factor Microsoft is avoiding. If Microsoft wants to be serious about tablets, they will need to think long and hard about how to approach the 7” form factor.

I’m sure there is a market for these type of converged devices, but the question is how big? I can see people buying the best pure breed tablet and a very low cost notebook as an equally compelling solution. A solution which actually may be the best of both worlds not a compromise of both worlds.

There is still more to be said in this discussion. Things like how does the iPad stack up to the Surface as a PC? Especially if one does not care about Office. Some may say you can’t compare the Surface to the iPad in terms of a tablet and I may not totally agree but I see their point. However, some may also say you can’t compare the iPad to the Surface in terms of a PC. For that I say we will see.