Microsoft Surface: To What Shall I Compare Thee?

The Microsoft Surface sort-of debut shows that the company is neither “all in” when it comes to tablet computing nor when it comes to its hardware partners.

Ballmer’s windy warm-up remarks about the Gates-Allen vision of “great software and hardware working together” provided one of those “uh-oh” moments in which you knew he was getting ready to drop the hammer on somebody. After fulsomely praising the company’s hardware partners, the hammer blow came: Microsoft would be going it alone with the Surface.

I haven’t received comments from any of Microsoft’s PC partners, so I don’t know how this announcement is being received by them. I can’t imagine it is being received well.

A successful vertically-integrated Microsoft product has now existed for several years with the Xbox. But, ironically, this is a specifically focused machine, in sharp contrast to the general purpose computing that Ballmer extolled as the basis of Microsoft’s success over the decades.

Having it Both Ways
Ballmer tried to have it both ways with this machine’s purpose. He consciously refrained from calling it a tablet, insisting that it’s simply the latest and greatest personal-computer iteration. It’s doubtful, however, that anyone will compare it to laptops, netbooks, or the latest portable Macs.

Perhaps we should compare it to the latter, though. It’s price point may force us to if a price point is ever announced. (Word is that will come when Windows 8 becomes official). Because as an iPad competitor, it seems to be, well, so Microsoft-ish.

The kickstand is such a kludge that even Ballmer drew attention to it in a semi-mocking fashion during the announcement. Contrast it to the iPad cover, which performs a kickstand’s function, among other things. Contrast the Surface’s attached keyboard with the iPad’s wireless keyboard, and a further aesthetic difference is apparent – and we know that Steve Jobs’ main criticism of Microsoft was its alleged lack of aesthetic sense and taste.

The inclusion of the standard keyboard and a stylus indicate that this is a PC as well. To me these are not negatives, because I write for a living. But weren’t they deemed unessential by the iPad’s Great Designer? Isn’t the point of a tablet that much of what most people do today doesn’t involve typing or using a Jeffersonian ink pen?

The Surface’s light weight – less than that of an iPad, I think – was a big selling point during Ballmer’s presentation. I’m not sure precisely how much the final products will weigh versus the iPad and portable Macs. I do hope it’s expressed in something other than grams, so that I can feel like a real American, and feel that the Surface has nothing to do with drugs.

My Decision?
I have no idea if I will buy a Microsoft Surface when it becomes available. But this I know: I will be so very happy to see a very lightweight portable computer such as this on the market, because for decades now I have been using and lugging around the same basic computing device.

One of the little-known facts of history is my presence on the editorial staff of Portable Computer, first published in 1982 and the world’s first credible source of information on the topic. Our launch issue had an interview with Adam Osborne. Over the decades, I have tried out hundreds and hundreds of systems.

It’s the Same Old Song
Today, netbooks are, in the final analysis, simply too small to be practical for my work. So my primary system weighs about nine pounds. It is fundamentally the same machine as the Data General One that I was using in 1985.

My latest machine is a lot faster, has a lot brighter screen than the un-backlit One, and can communicate a heck of a lot better than anything from 1985 – but when I travel, I am lugging the same bowling ball around the great and less great cities of the world. I am 27 years older, but my laptop weighs the same. These nine-pound hammers are a little too heavy for my size.

I will welcome a truly competitive market of 1- and 2-pound devices that don’t cost more than the per capita income of the Philippines, the country in which I was just based for a few years. I hope that the Surface succeeds, even as Ballmer’s presentation gave so many indications – breaking from partnerships, unfocused design, kludgey details, crashing during the demo, no price point – that it will not.

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