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.

Keynote #4 – Rashid

PDC 2008, Day #3, Keynote #4, 1.5 hrs

Rick Rashid

Rick Rashid, Senior Vice President of Microsoft Research, delivered the final PDC 2008 keynote.

Rick described how Microsoft Research is organized and talked about their mission statement:

  • Expand state of the art in each area in which we do research
  • Rapidly transfer innovative technologies into Microsoft products
  • Ensure that Microsoft products have a future

The Microsoft behemoth is truly impressive.  Here are a couple of tidbits:

  • 10-30% of papers presented at most CSci and Software Engineering academic conferences are  by Microsoft Research
  • Microsoft Research employees about 850 Ph.D. researchers—about as large a staff as most research-oriented universities

Mr. Rashid made a good case for why we do basic research.  It’s not so much for the immediate applications.  Instead, he argued the goals are to enable a company to respond quickly to change, based on an existing reservoir of people and technologies that can be brought to bear on new problems.

I for one was expecting some cool demos at the Research keynote.  There were several demos, but they started out as fairly mundane.

Feng Zhao – Energy Sensing

The first demo was by Feng Zhao, a Principal Researcher.  He talked about a little climate sensor that Microsoft developed and which they been using to gather climate data.

The first example was indoors.  Microsoft had actually hung a large number of these sensors from the ceiling of the keynote auditorium.  They’d then been acquiring basic temperature data for several days and transmitting that data back to a server.  Feng was able to show all kinds of graphs showing the temperature map of the room, including how it warmed up a little when people came in.

Feng also explained how they are using similar sensors in outdoor climactic research projects.  For example, they collect various data about Alpine climate data in Switzerland.

World Wide Telescope

The next demo was definitely a notch above the energy sensing.

The WorldWide Telescope is a Microsoft Research project that went public earlier this year.  It’s a web site that ties together a huge database of space images from all different sources.  The end result is a 3D virtual universe that you can fly around in, navigating to and viewing various objects.  As you zip around in the universe, you automatically see stitched together images of whatever objects would be in your view.

Microsoft announced in this keynote a new version of WorldWide Telescope, being released today.  It included lots of new images, as well as improved views of our solar system.

The demo of the new WorldWide Telescope site was truly awe-inspiring.


The energy level  went up a little bit more as Matt MacLaurin came out to demo Boku—an animated world used to teach kids how to program.

In the Boku world, kids create “programs” visually by selecting objects and then icons indicating what those objects should do.  Actions can include things like moving towards other objects, eating objects, or shooting at objects.

The demo was pretty impressive.  The little Boku world was rendered beautifully in 3D and Matt was able to very quickly create and animate objects.  More important is that he said that kids find the resulting “programming” environment very intuitive to use.  This allows them to learn basic logic and programming skills at a very early age.

Boku was great, but nothing compared to what came next.


Most of us have seen the online videos and demos of the Microsoft Surface.  The basic idea is that a PC projects an image of a user interface surface up onto a flat table that you can interact with by touching.  It’s sort of a combination coffee table and touchable PC screen.

The big thing about Surface is that it supports something called “multi-touch”.  So not only can you move things around on the surface by touch/dragging with one finger, you can initiate more complicated gestures by using two fingers at the same time.  For example, you might  use your thumb and forefinger to zoom into a photo by putting both fingers down and then spreading them apart.

Surface also includes an infrared camera that allows it to “see” things placed on the surface itself.  This allows user interaction with simple objects, or even something like a user’s arm.  (Think about a Poker game that would flip your cards over when it saw you put your arm down to block them from another player’s view).

That’s the basic idea of Surface.  It’s available today, for something like $15,000.

But at today’s keynote, several of the guys from the Surface team demoed the next big extension to Surface, which they called SecondLight.

The basic idea of SecondLight is to extend both the project area and the infrared detection mechanism out into the space above the surface.  So if I held up a piece of tracing paper 8-10” above the surface, I’d see an image on it, as well as the surface.  Ok, no big deal, right?  Well, the big deal is that the image on the tracing paper is different from the image on the surface below it?

The guys’ demo showed how this might work.  Let’s say you’re looking at a Virtual Earth map that showed an aerial view of some location.  The Surface would display the standard aerial view of the place.  Now let’s say that you hold a little sheet of tracing paper above the Surface, over one particular area of the map.  Surface might project out a street view, rather than aerial view onto your paper.  But the main surface of the table will continue to show the original aerial view.  Other applications might be to provide a photo on the Surface and then some description about that photo on the paper that you hold over it.

How the hell do they do that?  Well, they explained that their projector down under the table can actually interlace two completely separate images—one that they project up to the surface and one that they project beyond the surface.  This happens at such a high frequency that you don’t see any flicker and see both images simultaneously.

But wait, there’s more!  Now the guys demonstrated how Surface can also detect objects above the table with its infrared camera.  They took a little picture frame with a plastic see-through surface—something about 4-5” across.  To start with, there was a silhouette of a man on the main Surface.  Now when they held the see-through frame above the Surface, the man moved from the Surface up to the surface of their handheld picture frame.  Truly a “holy shit” moment.  Even more incredible, the presenter started slowly tilting the picture frame from horizontal to vertical.  As he did this, the aspect ratio of the man on the frame stayed the same—as opposed to the projection becoming narrower.  The effect was as if you’d grabbed the silhouette off the flat surface and stood it up.  Unbelievable.

How did they do this last part?  Well, simple—the infrared camera can see the outline of the handheld frame, so it knows its dimensions.  And it then pre-foreshortens the image of the man, so the entire image of the man is mapped to the entire size of the picture frame.  The result is that the man stands up.

This final demo was truly the highlight of the keynote and it made up for all of the boring opening acts.  There are many ways that you can imagine using GUI technology like this.  Just think of a computer that can recognize your face and see where you are.  We’re in for some truly amazing advances in user interaction over the next few years.

You can find a video of the demo at: