Nobody asked me about my Surface. I tried flashing it all over the place. But despite my best efforts, no one seemed curious.
At Victrola Coffee Roasters in Seattle, I sat in the front window, with a hot pink Touch Cover attached, intentionally conspicuous. Nobody mentioned it. At the airport, I broke it out at the large open-air counter of a crowded bar. I sat in a seat at the gate, facing the walkway, pounding away at its keys on my lap. On a Virgin America flight, crowded with techies, I sat up front and kept it on my tray table the entire time, swiping from app to app. On San Francisco’s Muni transit system, I tentatively typed in my seat, afraid it may be snatched on the crowded train. But no one said a word.
The only person to comment on it was a TSA agent at the Seattle airport, who told me I didn’t need to take my iPad out of my bag.
Let me put it this way: the Surface does not seem like a better tablet than the iPad or the Nexus 7 (the two best products in the category as of this writing). Even though it has a very unique and useful interface, and lots of hooks into Microsoft's ecosystem, it still lacks the polish and apps of those two devices. Is the mail client better here than the native mail client on the iPad or Nexus? No. Is the browser superior? Well, it's an excellent browser, one of the best I've ever used on a mobile device — but it's not wildly better than the iPad or Nexus 7 offerings. Is the interface so much easier to use or so much more powerful that it would tip the hand of an average buyer? Not in my opinion. Is the app selection better or more robust in some way? Not by a long shot, and there's no clear sign it will be anytime soon.
I have been testing the Surface almost daily for three weeks and I like it. It’s beautifully and solidly built and it’s the purest expression of Microsoft’s new Windows 8 touchscreen operating system which, like the Surface, goes on sale on Friday. The new operating system also works on laptops and desktops. It can be operated with a mouse or touch pad, but its dramatically different, touch-optimized user interface begs to be used on a touchscreen tablet.
The consensus seems to be that the Surface is a promising, interesting, and well-built piece of hardware which succumbs to its inevitably ill-fitting "no compromise" mantra.
In its attempts to wedge the Surface between the iPad and the laptop, Microsoft seems to have created a robust piece of hardware that cannot quite solve a non-existent problem. The iPad, for some, is a fantastic work platform. For others, like myself, that cannot subscribe to this, laptops are becoming increasingly thin and light with each passing month. The "compromise" Microsoft sought to build upon was, in other words, a figment of the company's imagination.
Beyond this ideological flaw, however, the Surface does not appear to be an embarrassing blot on Microsoft's lapel. Rather, the hardware is thoughtful, the software engaging and innovative, and the touch and type covers actually somewhat useful. Microsoft has built a competitive product — one that is not immediately deserving of derision or dismissal.
From my perspective, the core problem at hand is that Microsoft has attempted to do far too much simultaneously. Perhaps its haste has been necessitated by its lateness to the tablet computing shift, but I cannot help but feel that Microsoft's actions — although bold and innovative — are transparently desperate.
Windows 8 is, in many respects, an exciting new operating system for the modern computing world. But, as is betrayed by the lingering presence of the Desktop and the widespread worry over a lack of consumer education, Microsoft has leapt into unfamiliar territory with a half-baked product.
In parallel to this, Microsoft is launching the Surface. Built to be the physical embodiment of the Windows 8 ideal, it's telling that the device cannot seem to find its own identity. Middling between tablet and laptop, without offering a compelling reason for doing so, is certainly not a steadfast or recognizable goal, instead it's rather more of a failure in design and decision-making.
Moving away from the windowed interface of the past two decades, Microsoft was presented with a unique opportunity to rebrand and rebuild its operating system. Windows 8 — somewhat sadly — hints at the potential therein, whilst demonstrating Microsoft's failure to realize this opportunity.
From the outside, there is a clearcut tension within Microsoft between volatile idealists and unexciting pragmatists. The Windows 8 interface is clearly a product of the former, whilst the lingering desktop is a gift from the latter. One half of the company is looking forward in fantastic new ways and the other is reaching embarrassingly for safety blankets and antiquated visions of successful product design.
Belying Microsoft and its new products, there is, simply put, an identity crisis. The "compromise" notion Microsoft applied to the market when designing the Surface and Windows 8 is a projection of this inner-confusion. Two halves of the company are clearly forcing themselves into uncomfortable compromises on a daily basis.
The response to this lack of identity and direction is now — and will likely continue to be — nothing more than: "Great intentions, but poor execution."
For all of this, my feeling for the Surface has a certain intangible quality. I cannot quite work out if I'm cautiously impressed by the device, or if I feel empathetic for Microsoft's continued trend of building interesting products which are destined to be outshone and forgotten.
The device is unquestionably attractive, Windows RT appears fluid and forward-thinking, and I'm sure the app selection will continue to flesh itself out in the coming months. But, as the three cited gentleman above have each implied in concert, the Surface appears anonymous and hesitant in an environment of concrete product purpose and identity.
I'm looking forward to getting my hands on a unit of my own in the coming days. In the meantime, there's plenty to think about with regard to Windows 8, RT, the Surface. and, of course, Microsoft.