Monday, June 10, 2013

The Surface of No Compromises

I'm always perplexed when I read comments on tech sites that go something like this: "How can you complain about feature X? Isn't it better than not having feature X?" Many of these commenters work in STEM fields and claim to know something about the engineering design process; yet somehow they believe that the inclusion of one feature has no impact on any of the other features.

One recent example of this is the Microsoft Surface. Steven Sinofsky famously described Windows 8 as "no compromise," and many Surface fans have taken to describing the device the same way: as a tablet and a laptop with no compromise.

This no compromise talk is suppose to mean that the Surface is just as good a tablet as a pure tablet, and just as good a laptop as a pure laptop. But that doesn't seem to be the case. Let's start with the Surface Pro. As a laptop, it has the specs and price of an ultrabook, but there are certainly compromises in the form factor. Because of the design decisions that Microsoft made to produce a tablet/laptop hybrid, the keyboard isn't as good, the screen has a fixed viewing angle, and the Surface does not have a flat bottom. As a tablet, it is heavy and has a short battery life.

Some people counter that, if you don't like using the Surface Pro as a laptop when curled up on the couch, then just use it as a tablet. But I use Microsoft Office on my laptop on my couch all the time, and using the desktop version of Office on a tablet with an onscreen keyboard doesn't seem like a good solution; I'd much rather use a tablet-friendly and touch-optimized version of Office. And sure, the Surface Pro is far more powerful than almost every other tablet out there, but what good is all that power if there aren't any tablet apps that take advantage of it?

As for Surface RT, it is a perfectly good tablet, but it doesn't have the rich selection of tablet apps that the iPad or Nexus 7 have. And as a laptop, it is underpowered. It's more like a netbook than a no compromise laptop, and it only runs a handful of pre-loaded desktop apps.

I think it is interesting to consider the different approaches that Microsoft and Apple took with their operating systems. In Windows 8, Microsoft made as much of their OS tablet- and touch-friendly as possible. Anything that they couldn't get to in time or figure out how to make work better, they left in, simply dumping the user back to the desktop. In iOS, Apple made as much of their OS tablet- and touch-friendly as possible. Anything that they couldn't get to in time or figure out how to make work acceptably, they took out.

The Surface seems to have three addressable markets: (1) those looking to use the Surface Pro as their primary machine, (2) those looking for a laptop as a companion device, and (3) those looking for a tablet as a companion device.

My laptop is my primary machine, and I don't think that I could live with anything smaller than a 13" screen. In fact, I would prefer a 15" screen, but I'm willing to trade a little screen real estate for portability. I also want at least 256 GB of storage. My 2010 laptop only has a 128 GB SSD, but I'm bumping up against that constraint all the time; I have to use an external HD for video work and I'm constantly looking for files and apps I can delete to free up more space. My next laptop is going to have more storage. I feel like the only people who are going to be interested in the Surface Pro are those who travel a lot and are already in the market an 11" ultrabook, and I'm not sure how large that market is.

People who use a desktop computer as their primary machine might consider a Surface for when they are on the go. The Surface Pro is kind of expensive as a companion device, but if you can afford it, it is certainly nice. The Surface RT could have the same appeal that the netbook had, but the price is much higher. If you believe that the netbook craze was caused by the portable form factor and not the low price, then this could be a large market. But if the primary appeal of a netbook was its sub-$300 price point, then Surface RT is simply too expensive. It also may not run all of the desktop software that people may want. The rumor was that there was a high return rate on netbooks shipping with Linux for this reason.

Finally, there are people shopping for a tablet. Surface RT is more expensive than Android tablets and has fewer tablet apps than Android tablets or iPads. The one thing going for it is Microsoft Office. If that is a killer app for your tablet, then the Surface RT might be the tablet for you. I'm not sure if that many people want to use Office on their tablets, especially if it means giving up other things. I guess we'll have to see, especially when more tablet apps are released on the Windows Store.

I think that Microsoft did some nice work on the Surface and that the tablet/laptop hybrid might have a future. If a hybrid ever got to be 13" and under 1.5 pounds without the keyboard, then I could definitely see the appeal. But even under those conditions, there would still be compromises. There always are.

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