Using Microsoft Surface in the Real World, part I

When the new Microsoft Surface device was announced, I decided to dive in and become an early adopter.  I promptly ordered a Surface (with Windows RT) and was pleased to get a confirmation e-mail indicating that I would receive my surface on 26 Oct, 2012–the same day that the Surface RT launched.

I’ve had the chance to start using the Surface RT over the past few days, so I thought I’d share some of my first impressions.  In this first post, I’ll offer up my thoughts about where the Surface fits into the mobile devices ecosystem and who the target market is.  In future posts, I’ll dive more into using the Surface for a variety of tasks.

(Note: “Surface RT” is my shorthand for Microsoft’s official name of “Surface with Windows RT”.  This is to contrast with “Surface with Windows 8 Pro”, which will ship in January, 2013).

In for A Penny

The three main Surface SKUs are as follows:

  • 32GB, tablet only – $499
  • 32GB, with Touch Cover – $599
  • 64GB, with Touch Cover – $699

I opted to go “all in” and got the 64GB model with the Touch Cover.

Touch Cover or Type Cover?

The Touch Cover is one of the two available add-on keyboard covers, which both snap in to the side of the Surface and also fold over the screen to act as a cover.  Comparing the two keyboards:

  • Touch Cover – $119.99 (if bought separately), pressure-sensitive keys, 3.25 mm thick,  0.46 lbs, comes in Cyan, White, Magenta, Black, Red.  Spill resistant.
  • Type Cover – $129.99, mechanical keys, 6 mm thick, 0.55 lbs, comes in black.  Includes function keys.

So you want the Type Cover if you want a keyboard with keys that actually move.  You want the Touch Cover if you want your Surface to be 3 mm thinner, you need a stylish color for a keyboard cover, or you expect to spill a hot cup of coffee all over the keyboard.  I drink a lot of coffee, so I went with the Touch Cover.

Both keyboards also include a trackpad.

It’s also worth mentioning that since the Surface has a USB port, you can plug in an external keyboard or mouse.  Since you only get one USB port, it’s a Sophie’s Choice situation and you have to pick which one you’d rather use.  In all honesty, this makes complete sense–I can see plugging in an external mouse, making it easier to work with the desktop-based Office applications.  But I’m less convinced that you’d want to plug in a full-size keyboard.

Those Other Guys

Since I haven’t yet talked about using the Surface, it’s perhaps premature to compare it to that other tablet.  And Microsoft may tell you that they are not competing directly against the iPad or targeting the same market.  Still, plenty of buyers will be making a buying decision between these devices, based mostly on the bullet item list.  So it’s worth considering how the Surface looks on the showroom floor, as compared to the iPad.

There are even more SKUs for the iPad than the Surface–I counted 14 different iPad SKUs.  Let’s just line up at least one of the iPad models to see how it compares to the Surface.

32GB WiFi Retina iPad vs. 32GB Surface (w/no Touch Cover)

  • iPad – $599 buys you a 32GB Wi-Fi only iPad with
    • 9.7″ display with 264 PPI (pixels per inch), 2048 x 1536
    • 1.44 lbs, 9.4 mm thick
    • 69-1/2 sq in of device
    • Dual-core A6X chip with quad-core graphics (1GB RAM)
    • Cameras: 1.2MP front-facing (720p HD video), 5MP rear-facing (1080p HD video)
    • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Battery: 10 hrs of use, 42.5 W-h
    • App store with 700,000 apps
  • Surface RT – $499 buys you a 32GB Wi-Fi only Surface with
    • 10.6″ display with with 148 PPI, 1366 x 768
    • 1.5 lbs, 9.4 mm thick
    • 73-1/4 sq in of device
    • Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 (2GB RAM)
    • Cameras: Front and rear 1.2MP (720p HD video)
    • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Battery: 10 hrs of use, 31.5 W-h
    • App store with 10,000 apps  (growing by 500 apps/day)
    • microSD slot
    • USB 2.0 port
    • Port for Touch/Type Cover keyboards

So $100 more for the iPad gets you a higher resolution screen, better camera, and a lot more apps–while giving up the extra microSD and USB ports, as well as the ability to attach a Touch/Type cover.

We might also compare the $499 Surface RT against the $399 Wi-Fi iPad 2.  The differences between the two are then:

  • iPad 2 $100 less than Surface RT
  • iPad 2 has 16GB memory, vs. 32GB for Surface RT
  • iPad 2 with 132 PPI display vs. 148 PPI for Surface RT
  • Similar cameras
  • microSD slot, USB 2.0 port and Touch/Type Cover ports for Surface RT

Why a Tablet?

I’ve grown up knowing Microsoft as a software company.  They’ve had a few forays into hardware markets, some of which worked out well (e.g. XBox, the $1+B warranty costs notwithstanding) and some that didn’t (e.g. Zune).  But other than XBox, they still make most of their money off of software–Windows on the desktop, Windows Server, and Office.  At roughly $18 billion a quarter, they’re doing pretty well–until you consider that Apple’s revenue is nearly double that of Microsoft’s and that most of it comes from selling mobile devices to consumers.

The mobile device market has exploded in the past couple of years and iOS has mostly dominated the market, with Android now making serious inroads.  Given the size of the mobile market, and the fact that it’s still growing, Microsoft absolutely needs to be a player in this space.  They will continue to make lots of money off of software for many years to come.  But to remain relevant, they need to grab a piece of the mobile devices market.

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s bid for a touch-centric mobile operating system, competing against Android and iOS.  But having a great software offering for mobile won’t do any good unless people start actually buying devices that are running Windows 8.

This is the point where Microsoft is going all-in.  It’s not enough for them to create a great touch-based operating system and then just hand it off to their hardware partners and pray that the partners get some traction in the market.  This market is too important for Microsoft to entrust  it entirely to their partners.  They can’t afford not to build their own hardware device–one that showcases what they’ve done with Windows 8.  Like Apple, they can then take a no compromises approach to the device, developing both the hardware and the software and controlling the entire user experience.  Case in point: there is no third-party crapware on the Surface.

Microsoft is, of course, hoping that their partners also do well in getting Windows 8 mobile devices into users’ hands.  But building the Surface lets them stand out in front of the partners and show them what the user experience should be for these devices.  That’s why the Surface RT and Surface Pro devices exist.

Who Is This Thing For?

The tablet market is an outgrowth of the smartphone market, both of which are mobile devices with a persistent connection to the Internet and enough horsepower to deliver a rich user experience.

Smartphones and tablets are both targeted at a wide variety of users (which is why the market is so huge).  This covers younger users, using smartphones for communication and social, all the way up to the 60+ crowd, using tablets for e-mail and web browsing.

In my mind, the tablet is primarily a device for the couch.  It’s mainly targeted at consumers using it while at home, for things like:

  • Browsing the web  (e.g. the Pinterest addiction)
  • Social  (Facebook, Twitter, Google+)
  • E-mail
  • Games
  • Entertainment  (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube)
  • News

While the tablet is seen as more of a media and entertainment device, the smartphone is seen as a device for communication and social.  It’s easy to make the case that many users will regularly use both devices.  During the day, they carry their phone, using it for texting, voice and checking social networks.  In the evening, they plop down on the couch, pull out their tablet and use it to check e-mail, play a game, or watch a show (TV or movies).

The tablet is therefore primarily a consumer-targeted device used for content consumption.  This is our “post PC” era, where the devices that we use have evolved to better fit our model of using them mostly for consumption.

To a lesser degree, tablets have also begun to be seen as a productivity device.  As people start using these devices for content consumption and the devices become ubiquitous, it’s only natural that we’ll want to start using them at work, or using them to do work.  There are a variety of productivity use cases, including:

  • Checking work e-mail from home
  • Contact management
  • Creating/editing/sharing documents
  • Running custom enterprise apps for consuming and sharing business data

People have been talking at length about the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomenon, with people bringing their tablets to work and expecting them to integrate seamlessly into the enterprise ecosystem.  But iOS and Android devices have not yet made serious inroads into the enterprise.  There are still many challenges, including: security, authentication and easy sharing of data.  There’s also potentially a high development cost, as employees expect someone to port existing Windows-based enterprise applications to the tablet platforms.

This is Microsoft’s big gamble and where they really hope to make inroads into the enterprise with Windows 8 tablets.  A tablet based on Windows can bypass many of the typical issues with BYOD.  File sharing becomes easier, Remote Desktop allows connecting to your desktop from home, and support for Active Directory makes authentication trivial.

The gotcha for Microsoft is that BYOD doesn’t work unless users actually have the device to bring to work in the first place.  There might be some cases where an enterprise will proactively acquire Windows 8 devices.  But the more natural progression is that users will start out with a Windows 8 tablet as a content consumption device at home and then bring the tablet to work, where they’ll begin to use it as a productivity device.

Surface for Windows RT is the first step along this path.  It’s meant to be the consumer-focused device for content consumption.  It’s the device for the couch.  It’s big brother, Surface with Windows 8 Pro, is the next step along the path.  It will be the device that you’ll want to bring to work, adding support for Outlook, Sharepoint, desktop applications and Active Directory.  (Find Surface with Windows RT vs. Surface with Windows 8 Pro comparison here).

At least that’s the idea.  For the vision to work, Microsot first needs users to buy Windows 8 tablets.

Next Time

That’s enough for now.  Next time, I’ll start diving into examples of specific things that I’ve tried using the Surface for.

2 thoughts on “Using Microsoft Surface in the Real World, part I

  1. Pingback: Using Microsoft Surface in the Real World, part II – Hardware « Sean’s Stuff

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