Beneath The Surface

Microsoft’s Surface initiative is, when you think about it, a sort of conjuring trick. I’d call it sleight of hand but that seems unduly negative. It is an attempt to make something vanish though: a distinction.

What’s on the table before the trick begins? Two tablet computers that could hardly be more different. They are examples of today’s two major “architectures”, rival ideas of how computers should work. One, as we saw before, has an ARM processor and is hardly distinguishable internally from an iPad or an Android tablet. The other has an Intel processor and is in all meaningful respects just an unusually-shaped PC.

Yet the wand is waved and voilà – these two entirely different things are both “Surface”.

Hence the name, perhaps. The two devices are remarkably similar – on the surface. They have the same touch-friendly interface and can run the same “Metro” apps. The major difference is that the Intel one will be able to run conventional Windows software too. Which will, let’s face it, be pretty confusing to the consumer. At some point Microsoft will have to clarify this distinction between the devices. But right now they want to emphasise the similarities, present them as a unified concept. Why?

The most crucial reason is to offer a response to Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), the recent trend for allowing people to use their own computers in work. It’s very attractive to cash-strapped companies – why pay for hardware when workers might actually prefer to use their own? The savings may prove illusory though. Getting enterprise-wide computer networks to run well can be hard even when everyone’s using the same operating system on identical hardware. When you have a mix of Windows and iPad and Mac and Android and BlackBerry… It could make the lives of IT staff living hell. People will be carrying off classified documents on the same tablet that their kids play with, a device that doesn’t even ask for a password.¹ Fad or not though, BYOD poses a direct threat to Microsoft’s core market – because the Ds the people generally B are iPads.

So they’ve responded by offering a product that will – they hope – be as simple and likeable to use as an iPad, but can run enterprise software and be managed and secured by systems their clients already have. It might not be the same tablet that the kids use (though it might be too), but it could share the same apps, the same games, the same interface and even the same accessories as that cheaper device.

That is a creative response to the challenge. Will it work? It’s hard to say. A lot has to be right for this to come together. Being competitive with Android tablets will not be enough. The ARM version of Surface has to compare well to the iPad. That’s the reason Microsoft are making their own – to have the same advantages that Apple enjoys; the synergy of software and hardware developed in tandem, the single dominant design to attract an aftermarket of accessories and thus consumer buy-in. Other manufacturers can make Windows tablets that compete with Android; Microsoft will compete with Apple themselves.

I think they might be able to pull that one off. The greater challenge is actually the Intel version. The iPad works because its ARM chip demands far less power than an Intel one, so you can use it for a real working day without worrying about charge. Will an Intel device be frustratingly short on stamina, or have such a huge battery it will dislocate your arm? The danger is that it will fall between two stools, be a poor substitute for a laptop and for a tablet.

But if they can pull it off with some technical trick – if, for example, Surface can drastically reduce its power demands when only running “Metro” apps – then it could be a remarkable product.

  1. One security plus though – research has shown that when people bring their own devices, they’re a lot less likely to leave them in a taxi.
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