I was at Houston’s Galleria mall during the Thanksgiving weekend and got a chance to spend some time in both the Microsoft and Apple stores there. I had read a few articles praising the device, such as Jeff Atwood’s piece (which fairly gushes), but was skeptical. I’m not at all an Apple Fan Boy nor a Windows Fan Boy. There are things I like about each platform and things I don’t like. I loved the 17″ Mac Power Book I had at my last job, but hated its lack of Del and other keyboard keys I’m used to as well as its $4000 price tag (the reason I didn’t buy one after leaving and probably the reason they didn’t let me keep theirs, LOL). I love my iPad and my iPhone, but I stubbornly stick to having the most-powerful Windows machine I can buy (actually build) on my desktop. I really dig the Apple monitors, and will eventually have to deal with writing the check for one to attach to my crazy homebuilt PC. You get the idea–I’m all about Best of Breed for each device.
Putting that all aside, I walked into the Microsoft store with an open mind and low expectations. The first bit of good news and bad news was there weren’t many people there so I got to spend a lot of time with the Surface RT and equally I had a very helpful salesperson do a demo so I didn’t have to struggle learning all the secret gestures folks are complaining about. It didn’t take long to figure it out and once having done so, I don’t think I’d mind Windows 8 at all. The biggest issue with it is what others have already said–it’s intended to be used in a touch environment and if you don’t have a touch screen, you’ll be left continually wishing you did. The bad news was that there weren’t many people. I went from the Microsoft store to the Apple store within the span of about 45 minutes and the Apple store was completely mobbed. The big attraction was the tablets, and I got a good look at the new iPad Mini which was also very cool, but I didn’t get to put hands on to any of the pads. There was a line everywhere I looked. Clearly the world is thoroughly pre-conditioned at this stage not to bother even stopping in at the Microsoft store, which is a major problem they will have to fix.
Getting back to the Surface RT, I spent a good 20 minutes with it, including the demo. I got to try both keyboards. The short story on the keyboards is that they’re both light years ahead of Apple’s touch screen keyboards which I universally hate and avoid unless I absolutely have to get text into one of the devices. The iPad is truly read only for me. I will triage email so that anything requiring more than a sentence is left starred in Gmail and waiting for me to get back to my desktop. With the Surface RT, not only could I type without a problem on either keyboard, but I was doing so in Microsoft Word. What a joy for someone who writes as much as I do! The Touch Cover is the thinnest and comes in all those crazy colors. It’s actually not to bad and I found I could touch type decently on it. I had read complaints about keys being in weird places and such, but didn’t really notice a problem there. However, the Type Cover was a revelation because it is a real keyboard. I had to keep lifting it up to check how thin and light it is because I couldn’t believe they could build that nice a keyboard without having it weigh down the Surface too much. It’s not a problem. By all means, try out both, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll want the Touch Cover.
The overall device is super slick. Apple has little or nothing on Microsoft in terms of the hardware aesthetics. The touch screen looks great and works great. I know it isn’t a retina display, but frankly, it looked fine to me. I loved having access to MS Office, and the demo person was quick to point out that there is a tile that corresponds to the Start menu, so all that gnashing and moaning about the demise of the start menu seems unfounded. I suspect there are probably some subtle differences that will occasionally be maddening, but it all seemed to hang together really well.
Based on this experience, there were really only two issues I could identify with the Surface. First, this was a Surface RT, and you really want a Surface that’ll run any Windows software. That’s coming, and the demo person actually steered us to think hard about waiting for it. She was very straightforward about trying to understand what we wanted to use the device for, and one of us was looking for a much lighter and slicker alternative to a laptop. When further queried on which apps she runs most of the time, the salesperson told us the upcoming device would be much better for her. I think that’s probably true for me too, so I’ll be waiting for the “real” Surface to make a purchase.
The second issue was the troubling difference in traffic to the Apple Store versus the Microsoft Store. It doesn’t matter how great the device is if nobody knows about it. It’s early days yet, but I’ll make a prediction. Once people start seeing the Surface (and not the RT) turning up in work situations and people find it is far lighter but works just as well as a laptop, that’s when it will take off. It’ll be the workhorse device for what we all used to call Knowledge Workers. I think Microsoft will have a very nice level of success with it if they handle it reasonably well. There are shades of the old, “Microsoft wins with the Third Release” rule, and this time it is taking 2 releases as the RT is not the winner. It’s just kind of a placeholder platform that shows the potential.
The real interesting story will be watching how Apple responds. Despite all the kvetching about Windows 8, Microsoft now has a unified platform that spans devices. Yes, it has a UI tuned for tomorrow’s PC’s moreso than today’s through it’s extensive optimization for touch, but historically, betting that tomorrow will get here sooner than expected has been a good bet. Steve Jobs had been known to roll those very same dice more often than not. Apple has the challenge that OS/X and iOS are not a unified platform. They’re vaguely similar platforms. For now and some time, they have the luxury that their installed base is so large most developers will build for iOS first. Win 8 has the luxury that a ton of software is already built for it. It also has the luxury of potentially being the best corporate or business platform.
The other interesting story will be watching who patented what. Clearly Apple and Microsoft both have huge patent portfolios. If Apple can patent rectangles with round corners maybe Microsoft can patent tablets with built-in keyboards. If one gets a decisive patent wedge in, that’ll make it much harder for the other. I hope there isn’t too much of that because I am firmly in the camp that patents stifle innovation.
(Cross-posted @ SmoothSpan Blog)