Microsoft Surface: Usability and mobility and presentation of tech

I watched the Microsoft Surface introduction with interest. I thought that the idea of the tablet running a full operating system and functionally tied to mobility through the use case rather than relegated to mobility by design would be interesting. There have been a few such attempts and I was interested in the idea that Microsoft would go down this path again.

The requisite caveat is that my personal and work computing environment is nearly and almost completely Apple based. I do own an Xbox and Kinect. My primarily Apple eco-system is by design and less about black turtlenecks and more about my desire to run a UNIX derived operating system. As an old UNIX user I simply feel more comfortable using a system I’m experienced with and enjoy. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been less than impressed with the federated identify management system of Apple and less enamored of the machines being produced recently by Apple. This though is a thought piece on Microsoft Surface iteration 2.

Until recently I had a Dell tablet at my job that ran a version of the Microsoft tablet operating system. The machine was clunky with a spinning display that folded down over a standard laptop keyboard. Screen sensitivity was atrocious, the display density was infantile, and I often used it as an example of poor craftsmanship and execution of a good idea. So, though I have an iPhone, iPad, and Macbook Pro I have significant use experience with Microsoft Tablet attempt 1. My employer for a short time was an owner of a Microsoft Surface table. The behemoth as set up by the vendor never worked and was soon returned. Whether to blame the vendor or Microsoft the experience with Surface version 1 was less than stellar.

Another caveat: I have not touched nor interacted with Windows 8, the Surface tablet, or Surface RT computers.

I see Surface as a significant step towards mobility and usability of the information environment. Products often are developed that focus on the computational task rather than the human agent utilizing that environment. This is a fault found with the Apple iPad and strength of that environment. The Microsoft Surface environment does not appear to be constrained by a mobile operating system that is a piece of the desktop/laptop operating system. This would, if true, suggest a much more powerful case for desktop replacement. The weakness is that security of the operating system will require configuration control similar to a desktop system (monolithic operating system) and thus create mobility execution issues.

Surface as a use case of mobility strategy is not an organic device, which is where computing as a device has been heading for quite some time. The rounded back iPhone had a certain handiness that the iPhone 4S doesn’t seem to have. Apple went techno with the technology and made an iconic glass monument but less than handy device. Organic functionality is found in how it feels. The introduction of the Surface devices carefully denoted the degrees of offset in the “stage” metaphor. Angles versus curves as design is most assuredly a point of opinion, but I would point out that Microsoft is the premier exemplar of functionality focused on organic design. Look at the natural keyboard, the ergonomic mouse and the Xbox controller for excellence in organic design. It would be nice to see Microsoft bring those characteristics to the Surface computing environment. Should somebody wish to criticize those examples of Microsoft organic design as “old” or “not fresh” I would point out that the human form in the last three decades has not significantly changed and the refinements of those designs have been minimal and never abandoned. Good design is timeless.

There is another element to the choice of Metro and the Windows 8 operating system. Though details are sketchy on the functionality the consistent user interface across devices and computing platforms is important. What is not obvious but may have been to others is data integration and cloud services that this device might use to synchronize the user experience across devices. It would be interesting to see how the significantly increased wireless capability discussed in the introduction of Surface might be used. In fact it is incredibly important but I would caution focusing on the importance too much. If this is a tablet that also replicates a desktop replacement then online data synchronization is less important. Here the details matter to make a case either way. It would be interesting to know, but the limited local storage (64gb and 128gb) suggest on line (cloud) storage options will be important.

Missing from the demonstration of the Surface tablet was a story. I want to see this device in action and a use case that focuses on content creation and consumption. Mere technical details do not give me a good idea of the use case that Microsoft is suggesting. I want to see pretty girls on grassy lawns using it to program in C# (is the screen bright enough for outside lighting, is it handy enough to put in a purse). I want to see people using it for collaboration in a meeting as an input and collaboration device using the HDMI functionality to create a giant tablet driven white board (is it good enough resolution for projection, is the user interface good enough for collaboration). I want to see a French guy with a handlebar mustache making like Matisse in Paris (what are the content creation mechanisms, will it be fine enough control for artistry). These kinds of use case scenarios allow me to imagine my use case rather than having to make a use up out of whole cloth.

There will be much made about the failure of the demonstration of the application environment during the introduction of Surface. I’m less worried about that than the response to it. The failure of the application to load on a prototype device running beta software is humorous but understandable. What I don’t understand is why the demonstrator was unable to reset the device. This makes me ask questions like how long does this device take to boot, what is the reset mechanism when ctrl-alt-del is not an option? What is the resiliency of the software package to perturbations and what is the failure mode (can apps kill the operating system)? Public speaking and preparation for failure of technology is a learned skill, and the failure of tech is a foregone conclusion. Live with it and know that graceful failure modes of technology should be engineered in and the ability to bounce back is extremely important. Kudos go to the presenter for just grabbing another tablet and going on with the demonstration. The failure though left me with many questions.

Another element of the Microsoft presentation to discuss is style. There were video montages cut into the presentation and each video had a different thematic style, presentation strategy, focus, and music track. This gave the entire presentation a hurried, juvenile, and disjointed feel. It detracted from the presenters almost as much as the obvious mugging for still cameras. To presenters; It is your moment but you can ruin it by staging yourselves for pictures, and then purposefully focusing on providing product shots. The reporters will get the glossies, and besides I have seen NONE of the mug shots you set up on line, but the unexpected blow out picture during the presentation has been everywhere.

As you can see I’m focusing as much on the presentation mechanisms itself as I would on the technology being released. It is hard though when so few details were released.  So, I’ve come up with a final thought about Surface based on the shallow level of information I have.

Surface will bring significantly more flexibility and mobility to the general computing environment. As a technology it will allow for seamless desktop to tablet integration across the enterprise and consumer user base. Coupled with broadband high availability bandwidth and cloud application infrastructures the Surface tablet could significantly increase enterprise and consumer productivity. Surface with associated accessories could represent the next step towards seamless (everything in one place) productivity environments suggested by the guru’s like Steven Covey and others. As such Surface is a significant if incremental step forward.

As my concluding comment; any tablet that was general use computing environment with at least 7 hours of battery life and high mobility would fit into the previous paragraphs parameters. So far to meet the mobility aspect previous tablet have either restricted features or cut from the mobility and usability aspects of the product. As an example my iPad replaced my netbook and Kindle, but it didn’t replace my iPhone or my laptop. My iPhone replaced around 20 devices but not my Ipad or laptop. What in the ecosphere of Microsoft technology will the Surface replace or subsume? That is how I look at the revolutionary aspects of the technology.

My final verdict though awaits the release of the technology so I can play with it. Until then I’ll just keep watching.

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