On Sunday night I was sitting on the couch watching TV with my wife when I decided on a Windows 8 app I wanted to write. So I picked up my Microsoft Surface and installed Visual Studio 2012 Express for Windows 8, then started to play around with it. Given the lack of a table, I had it on my lap typing away on the Type Cover keyboard. The next day I found myself grabbing a sandwich at Subway, and continuing to play with Visual Studio on my Surface. Ok, so now I know what you are going to ask. “Do you have a Surface Pro?” Nope. “Wow, you got your hands on a VS2012 for Windows RT?” Sorry, no to that too.
There have been a lot of articles this last week bashing Microsoft, and bashing Windows RT, the Surface, and even the yet to be launched Surface Pro. Most are way off base, some are so outright stupid that the authors appear to be legally incompetent. I’m not going to try to go point by point in addressing their comments, nor even link to their articles (which might be likened to disability harassment). But I am going to talk more about my own Surface experience these last three months and comment on a few topics that have come up about the product and form factor.
By now I’m sure many of you realized exactly how I was able to install and use Visual Studio with my Windows RT-based Surface, I made a Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) to a system in my home office. That machine is a five-year old (Vista-era) Dell (Red) all-in-one that I upgraded to Windows 8 a couple of months ago. Working on my home WiFi network I forgot that I was using RDC. Using my Nokia Lumia 900 as a hotspot the fact I was working remotely was more noticeable, particularly since I was in an area not yet covered by AT&T LTE and was relying on their 4G-labeled HSPA+ network. But it was certainly usable.
Despite not being able to run traditional Windows “Desktop” apps I’ve found the Surface to be an extremely versatile and pleasant system to use. So much so that I not only don’t miss my iPad, I actually get frustrated when I try to use my wife’s. I’ve talked about this in previous blog postings so I don’t want to be completely redundant, but having a device that meets both my consumption-oriented tablet needs and yet is far more useful for any task requiring substantial data input or content creation is just a blessing.
That brings me to one of my more recent observations from Surface usage, what happens when you have a Type Cover rather than the more common Touch Cover. When Microsoft first disclosed the Surface the Touch Cover was positioned as the companion for the Surface while the Type Cover was positioned as the Surface Pro’s companion. They are, however, interchangeable and I purchased both covers. For the first two months, other than a brief experiment, I carried my Surface with the Touch Cover attached. That included a 3.5 week trip in which the Surface was my only computing device. Just before Christmas I wanted to see what carrying the Surface with the Type Cover would be like.
The Type Cover is a little thicker and heavier than the Touch Cover. Basically think of the Touch Cover as a way to always have a keyboard capability with you on a tablet at virtually no compromise in weight or size. The Type Cover gives you a much more traditional keyboard but demands small compromises in “tabletness”. They are much smaller than the compromises required to add a keyboard to an iPad, and far more useful given Windows RT is actually is designed to work with keyboards and pointing devices. I almost immediately forgot about the extra weight and thickness, and it didn’t change my habit of having the Surface with me at all times.
The one compromise that did take some getting used to was feeling keys move when holding the Surface w/Type Cover as a tablet. At first you are disturbed by the experience because you wonder what weird things you must be doing when hitting those keys. Fortunately they are disabled when the cover is flipped back so pressing them has no effect. Later you either stop noticing them or actually find it fun to play with them. It’s still a little weird, but I’ve adapted.
The biggest change you find with the Type Cover is that using the keyboard becomes so inviting that you spend more time using the device like a notebook than as a tablet. For example, in restaurants I used to primarily use the hing with the Touch Cover flipped under the device and touch the screen (in other words, use it as a tablet). Now in that same environment I find I set up the Surface with the Type Cover in front and make a lot of use of the keyboard and trackpad (although I still touch the screen quite a bit).
I also find that with the Type Cover I’m more comfortable using the Surface propped up on my lap than I was with the Touch Cover. It’s a little sturdier and the tactile feedback makes it feel more natural. So just changing the cover moves the Surface a little more towards being a true convertible than being a tablet with a physical keyboard capability. That gives you hints about what the Surface Pro, arguably really designed to be used more as a notebook replacement with tablet capabilities, experience should be like when it appears in a few weeks.
One article floating around questions the portability of the upcoming Surface Pro vs current Ultrabooks by basically comparing it to the well proven clamshell design. I’m sure buggy manufacturers used similar arguments to address why automobiles were inferior transportation devices to horse-drawn carriages. One argument this article makes is that the footprint of a clamshell device is actually smaller than the Surface Pro with its hings open and Type Cover in front and thus clamshell’s are better for trains and planes. Note to author, in coach seats on planes there usually isn’t enough room to use either a clamshell device or a Surface with the hing open and keyboard cover extended. At least with the Surface Pro you can fold the cover back under the hing, or hold it in your hands, and use the touchscreen. With a clamshell you can try to use it in coach, at least until the passenger in front of you puts their seat back and breaks your clamshell’s screen. Yes, that has happened to me.
That article also dismisses the weight advantage the Surface Pro will have over a clamshell Ultrabook by pretty much arguing that users won’t notice the difference in portability between a 2lb Surface Pro and a 4lb clamshell Ultrabook. Umm, should I really dignify that with a response? Sadly I must. In a world in which users are making purchasing decisions based on a 1-2 OUNCE difference in the weights of devices they sure as heck are going to make a “federal case” out of a 1-2 pound difference. Even with the extra 8 ounces that a Surface Pro carries over my Surface it is likely I’d carry it everywhere. But a four pound clamshell? It will live in my briefcase until needed. And when I travel? With the Surface Pro I need one device. With a clamshell I’d also be carrying around a Surface, iPad Mini, or Kindle Fire HD to meet my full computing needs, adding a bunch more weight and complexity.
I’m not arguing that the Surface or Surface Pro is a substitute for clamshell devices in every, or even most, scenarios. I’m saying that it is the versatility of these devices that makes them so attractive, particularly in the portability dimensions. It’s like having a handyman who can do all kinds of repairs and minor construction projects. You want to move an electrical box over a few inches? He can do that then repair and repaint the wall. Building an extension to your house? The handyman might be able to do it, but you’d be better off bringing in a general contractor (and her electrician, plumber, drywaller, painter, etc.) instead.
Back to the Surface, their has been some criticism that a few power-features are missing from the version of Microsoft Office that comes with Windows RT. When we were doing PredictableIT my co-founder created our business model in the most sophisticated Excel workbook I’d ever seen. We could tweak any aspect of the business, from product mix to specific operating costs to pricing to commissions to you name it and see exactly what our bottom line projected out several years would look like. It was based on a workbook that he’d created for a VC to use with their portfolio companies. So I asked him if it would work on the Windows RT version of Excel. His response: “I may have (unnecessarily) used a Macro but it’s use was limited and I am sure I could have worked around not having them.” Now I personally do not recall seeing any macros in the workbook, and I did a fair amount of modifications to it. But the point is, Office on Windows RT is not some super weakened subset of the product. It is a fairly complete port of Office Home and Student. In my own use of it to date I have not noticed any limitations, and I’ve benefited mightily both from being able to view and manipulate others’ documents and creating some of my own.
The Surface (and Windows RT in general) is somewhat held hostage to the immaturity of the Windows Store and Windows Store apps. The RDC solution I opened this blog post with is one way (and sometimes a better way than having a local app) this can be addressed. Another is the completeness of IE10 and that it allows Windows RT to access the full functionality of nearly all of the world’s websites. Especially when using the Type or Touch Cover’s trackpad, website’s are often far more useful (and full featured) than the apps available on IOS or Android. So while they don’t provide the full touch experience, full platform integration, or offline capabilities of good apps, I find IE10 does mitigate the Windows RT app shortage while the Windows Store content grows. Remember that we are only 3 months in to the life of Windows 8 and Windows RT. A year from now we likely won’t be talking about a lack (or immaturity) of Windows Store apps.
Another sometimes claim about Windows RT is that you could just as easily use an Intel Atom processor instead of ARM and run full Windows 8. That would give you the ability to run arbitrary desktop apps, such as Visual Studio, with no compromise to device price, battery life, size, weight, etc. Besides running more non-touch first applications being a bad thing on devices intended for very heavy use of touch, and that desktop apps are not at all battery life or resource friendly, it misses a general point about configurations. Yes you could install Visual Studio on an Atom with 2GB and either 32GB or 64GB of storage, but would you want to? It isn’t going to perform well. And you are going to significantly eat into that moderate amount of storage. In fact you likely wouldn’t find it viable on a 32GB system unless that was all you were going to use the system for. The rest of the configuration doesn’t scream development machine either.
This is why the Surface Pro comes with a Core i5, 4GB of memory, 128GB of storage, and a Displayport so you can use a large monitor when you are in an office. The SD card slot is easily accessible, rather than hidden under the hinge, to make use of additional storage more mainstream. It is a configuration much more amenable to use for traditional Windows notebook or desktop scenarios. I could in fact see making it my primary computing device when coupled with desktop peripherals in the office.
In my experience the Surface does exactly what it was designed to do, without trying to stretch into territory where it would be deemed an inadequate answer. It is those who want it to be something it wasn’t designed to be that are dissatisfied. There is a valid concern that Microsoft hasn’t done a great job on positioning the Surface so that it is blatantly obvious when and why you’d want a Surface (or other Windows RT) machine rather than either an iPad or a Windows 8 system. Hopefully they will soon tweak their messaging to address that. But I believe no matter how good their message the critics of Windows RT would still be critics of Windows RT. They just don’t like that they can’t have their cake and eat it to. I’m happy eating my cake.