Scratching below the Surface of Microsoft’s apparent “Me Too” syndrome…

Two days ago, Microsoft announced the Surface, their new in-house tablet. Running Windows 8 or Windows RT (depending on the architecture), it appears to be a standard tablet with an interesting unique feature. The screen cover is in fact a keyboard, supposedly capable of detecting the difference between typing and when an arm or hand is laying across it.

Microsoft posted the announcement trailer on YouTube for all to see.

Right off the bat, I noticed two problems. The first is that according to reports, the Surface will not be sold everywhere. It can only be purchased online and through the Microsoft Store’s retail locations, as opposed to the iPad’s wide availability. The second is that Surface is a quickly recycled name. Until recently “Surface” was the name given to what is now called PixelSense, which is a technology used for touchscreen displays in large environments such as furniture. Harrah’s and Microsoft, for example, made a big deal over the fact that Microsoft Surface/PixelSense displays were installed in the iBar at the Rio in Las Vegas.

Of course, cries from some started coming out that Microsoft was ripping off Apple once again. This prompted an image meme I saw on a friend’s Facebook page yesterday.

To be perfectly honest, there’s some truth in both sides of the argument.

I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that Microsoft isn’t the first to market in some areas of technology, like tablets and phones. The “rip off” (if one wishes to use such a loaded and inaccurate term) is quite a bit more subtle than that. What happens is that Microsoft is the first to market, but its implementation of the technology is clunky at best. Eventually, Apple brings its own version to market, which becomes very popular due to their attention to quality and usability. Microsoft then looks at what Apple did, and re-engineers its products to fix the problems that Apple’s implementation corrected.

For example, let’s look at cell phones. I’ve personally used three different cell phones that used Microsoft’s Windows Mobile operating system: the Cingular 8125, the Cingular 3125, and the AT&T Tilt. While I enjoyed using the phones because the available software was more varied than the Blackberry devices of the time, the interfaces themselves tended to be awkward, and stability was never a sure thing. Once the iPhone 3G came out (the first version with Exchange ActiveSync support), I switched over and marveled at how intuitive it was to use. After that, Windows Mobile devices seemed even more painful to use. Since then, Microsoft has abandoned Windows Mobile and released Windows Phone 7, which is a far more efficient phone operating system using the Metro UI planned for Windows 8.

Tablets are another example. I’ve seen tablets as far back as 2004, when we purchased a tablet PC for the COO of the company I was working for at the time. To say that the tablet was terrible is, in my opinion, an understatement. While the unit had a touchscreen, a special stylus was needed in order to be able to write on it. Also, the operating system on the tablet was Windows XP Professional. While Windows XP is a great desktop OS, it’s absolutely miserable to use on a touchscreen. I’m not sure how the COO tolerated using that machine outside of a docking station. Of course, once the iPad came out, Microsoft’s tablet ambitions started gearing towards Windows 8/RT with their Metro interface.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that Microsoft’s Surface tablet will be a success like the Xbox 360 or a failure like the Zune. I personally admit to some trepidation, if only because of Microsoft’s OS strategy. Unlike Apple, who has one OS line for its desktop/laptop machines (Mac OS X) and another for its phones and tablets (iOS), Microsoft is using Windows Phone for phones only, while Windows 8 will be used on tablets and desktops/laptops. I’m not sure how well that will work out for them; while Metro works great for a touchscreen interface, I’ve tried it in a desktop environment (VMware virtual machine running Windows 8 Consumer Preview) and it was absolutely terrible. Worse, Metro is the default UI and disabling it is not possible. With a keyboard and mouse, Metro is unintuitive and frustrating to figure out.

Of course, only time will tell whether Microsoft’s strategy will work out for them. Unfortunately, while they look to Apple to fix where they went wrong beforehand, I fear they didn’t learn the proper lessons or implement the proper corrections.

3 thoughts on “Scratching below the Surface of Microsoft’s apparent “Me Too” syndrome…”

  1. I’d remind you of Microsoft’s successes with the Xbox platform. But, I won’t try to argue whether or not this will be a rousing success. In some ways it won’t matter. If Surface doesn’t take off, there’s always the Dell’s and HPs to fall back on.

    As for practicality, I’m considering getting the higher end Intel based Surface that will run Windows 8 Pro, because I’m the exact kind of person that they’re marketing towards. I won’t argue the iPad is or is not a great device (it is great), but I’m one of many people who have refused to fork over that much money for an iPad if it can’t run work productivity apps that I use every day. I don’t have a lot of money to throw around and really at this point an iPad or a Windows RT based tablet is nothing but a novelty buy for me.

    I’m the kind of guy that keeps his PCs as long as they will last. For i.e. I’m running an old Dell Inspiron laptop now as my main setup, that has seen everything from Windows XP to the Windows 8 Release Preview. I’ve waited out the novelty of having to carry around a second device like an iPad for something just like the Surface, if it’s priced right. I get the best of both worlds and am happy. Using it as a tablet really isn’t that huge of an issue to me, but if my ultra-book type computer can be used leisurely on the couch without a keyboard, I’m all for that, as an added bonus.

    I think the Surface has a chance to be a hit though. We’re kidding ourselves if anyone thought it will come close to iPad sales, but if the product has good battery life and a good price (sadly yet to be determined) I think Microsoft will finally shake things up a bit. But I’ll watch closely. If come release time and the other hardware makers like Dell can make a nicer device, I’d jump over there instead.

    Regardless of whether it’s a hit, I think I’ll be happy over it than an iPad. I get that the Apple mobile line is top notch, but I think Windows can be just as good in time for hopefully a cheaper price. It’s just like with phones, I almost considered an iPhone after trying out the iPod Touch for awhile, but at the end of the day, I’m happy with my cheap data plan and Gingerbread based Cyanogen Mod 7 Android phone. It has all the apps I need, and I haven’t missed iOS one bit. It would be nice to have some of the bells and whistles like Siri, but again they are just bells, whistles and gimmicks in my mind – and don’t justify such a high premium.

    As for Metro in Windows 8, I don’t use Metro as default when working. I turn my computer on, switch to Desktop, and I only see Metro when I’m searching for a file. That’s why they still have the desktop present, because it’s still a feature I will want when I sit down to work. But if I purchase the Surface and go sit on my couch, Metro will work just fine. I don’t think Metro destroys Windows for desktop users. It does if you really think you need to use it, and the Metro I.E. etc. But that’s silly – if you’re sitting down with a keyboard, just don’t use it. It’s just a big start menu. I pin all my common apps to the Windows Taskbar, and I haven’t missed the Start Menu one bit. I don’t think there’s a high reason to upgrade to Windows 8 if you are just a desktop user, but it doesn’t make Windows any more complicated to do traditional work.

    Off topic a bit, but yeah. We’ll see about Surface. Should be interesting either way.

    1. It’s a matter of horses for courses. You may refer to it as a Start Menu, but if it is, it’s a huge and obtrusive one. I also pin a lot of programs I use on a regular basis to the taskbar in Windows 7, but the problem is that I also need access to the Start Menu for programs I DON’T access on a regular basis. I hit the Start menu often to run different apps that individually don’t get used on a regular enough basis for me to pin them to the taskbar.

      Honestly, it wouldn’t bother me so much if the Start menu was even an option in Windows 8. However, it’s not. Microsoft has done everything they can to make Metro UI the default.

      As for the Surface itself… I’m purely wait and see at this point. It could be a hit, or it could be a disaster. There’s simply not enough information at this point. Hell, even at the announcement press showing attendees were not allowed to use the Surface. This makes a sharp contrast from Apple, who not only allows attendees of their press shows to use the new hardware, said hardware is given a release date of within two months.

      I’m glad you find something good in the Surface and like Windows 8. From where I’m sitting, though… most of the people I know who have tried Windows 8 are of the opinion that Microsoft is making a gigantic mistake on the desktop front.

      1. As for less frequent desktop apps, I created a grouping on the Start Screen with some less frequent options I use, titled the group “Desktop Apps” and moved that section to the far left of the screen.

        But, one feature they could add that would help, would be to add an option to see “frequently used” programs, much like how the old Start Menu showed. I don’t think that’s in here, and yeah that’s annoying. So, I end up just typing and find it that way.

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