Did Microsoft play it safe in producing the Surface rather than a dedicated tablet or laptop?By Mark Wilson on Monday, Oct 28th, 2013 at 11:31AM
What is Microsoft's Surface? Is it a laptop or is it a tablet? Or is it some sort of weird hybrid that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be? I'll preface this by saying I'm a Surface Pro user; in fact it is basically my main machine at the moment, despite the fact I have a quad-core dual-monitor system set up as well. I love the Surface, but I do feel that it is a slightly confused device that could have been so much more.
I've been a Surface user for several months now, and the more I use it, the more I can’t help but feel that Microsoft couldn't quite decide what it wanted to do. Did it want to compete directly with Apple and produce an iPad competitor? Did it want to pitch itself against the swelling ranks of Android tablets? How about the Chromebook? This could be a worthy rival.
"But as before, there is the danger that Surface will remain a jack of all trades and a master of none."
But it seems as though none of these routes appealed to Microsoft, so the company decided to carve a new niche in the market. So the Surface was born. The not-quite-a-tablet that's also not-quite-a-laptop; this is a device that has its feet firmly in both camps.
As a tablet, Surface (be it first generation or second) has a lot going for it. It makes few compromises -- although it could be argued that Windows RT is a compromise in itself for non-Pro users -- so the humble tablet is no longer a limited device capable only of playing games and surfing the web. It is a fully-fledged computer.
But the Surface is not an ideal tablet. It is far heavier than its rivals and the Windows Store is still home to a relatively small number of apps. It is difficult to use for prolonged periods as a tablet because of the weight and ergonomics. There is also the issue with Windows 8 being the operating system.
On one hand, you have access to an unlimited version of Windows 8 (or 8.1) but this is not really designed for use on a touch screen. This explains the existence of Modern apps, but these are generally far more limited than their desktop counterparts and have to do a lot to win over skeptics like me.
Of course, there is the option of switching to laptop mode; clip in the keyboard Touch/Type cover and you're good to go. The Type keyboard cover is a joy to use. But while this transforms your tablet into a laptop of sorts, it doesn't quite go all the way. The kickstand means that in laptop mode, the Surface really needs to be used on a flat surface -- this makes it different to just about any other laptop in existence.
It is possible to work on your lap, but it's not ideal. If you can find a decent working position -- I , for instance, sit cross legged in an armchair -- the keyboard had a degree of flex to it that is going to be off-putting to some.
With the release of the Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro, Microsoft had an opportunity to redefine its focus. Instead they decided to stick will the newly created path they had trodden with the first generation. An extra kickstand position was added and the keyboard stiffen, but it's essentially the same device with the same pros and cons. It's still a computer than wants to be a bit of everything. A jack of all trades.
Is this a criticism? Far from it. It is just interesting to see Microsoft simultaneously drawing inspiration from various sources and going its own way. Will it pay off? Only time will tell. The original Surface RT and Surface Pro were hardly run away successes, but with the recent price drops following the release of the second generation model, they have suddenly become much more appealing.
Where Surface can excel is with the blades that are available. These specialized keyboards can transform the Surface into a video editing studio, music creation tool and much more. But just as the Surface is not really a tablet, and not really a laptop, it is not really any of the things the blades purport to make it. But it is still early days. There is great potential for specialist blades to turn the Surface into all manner of things. But as before, there is the danger that Surface will remain a jack of all trades and a master of none.