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segunda-feira, 25 de junho de 2012

Why Surface from Microsoft deserves respect?

Last week, in a closed event, selected members of technology media journalism and a group of people hired to react at the right time, have checked live the presentation of a new hardware by Microsoft. Mixing up concepts of what today is known as a tablet and what is a PC, to create something new, with great design, and running Windows 8. It is called Surface and comes to show the direction Microsoft wants the worlds of personal computers and tablets to go.

If you haven’t followed the news and comments, at the links in the end of the post you will find videos, pictures, and all the detailed info you may want, but to spare your effort, let’s start with a quick concise description of the facts.

Surface tablet/PC?
The new tablet/PC will be available in two versions, one at Windows 8 launch, which will happen some day in the last quarter of this year, and other 3 months later. This later version will have the suffix Pro in the name (full name: “Surface Pro”) and more hardware power.

Both models have the characteristics of a regular tablet (touch screen, wi-fi, etc), with the addition of a kickstand that is part of the body of the device and can be “opened” or “closed” at anytime to help the device to stand in table or something, eliminating the need of a external accessory to do it. Yes, it may sound as an obvious innovation, but it is indeed useful and no other tablet had done this so far.

Still in this field of “great but obvious new things that no one have done yet”, the protection cover is not just a cover, it is also a full keyboard with a touch pad included. They gave lots of attention to talk how important this idea of a keyboard with a touch pad is to define the product as tablet that is also a complete work station. They will also offer this cover withe a keyboard with buttons more similar to the ones of notebooks keyboards.

Changing now to the field of things that other tablets already have, but that are interesting to have built in the hardware not needing any adapter, even more in this tablet designed to replace a PC, the Surface have a USB port (USB 3.0 to the Pro model), a HDMI output and a SD card port.

The screen resolution is the same as a full HD TV to the Pro model with 1920x1080 pixels, and a HD TV to the regular model with 1280x720 pixels. Both screens are 10.6 in (around 27 centimeters) and with covers and everything else, the whole thing weights less than 2.2 pounds (1 kg).

During the presentation they shown the Pro model running the photo editor Adobe Lightroom, using the HDMI output connected to a external monitor. A special pen was also presented and accordantly to Microsoft is the closest experience to write in paper in a tablet available today, however it was not clear if this pen will also come with the device.

The final result is that, when the tablet/PC is on, with the kickstand open, the keyboard in place and all the colors of the start menu of Windows 8 in the screen, it really captures your eyes to a product that appears to be developed with care and talent.

Yes, yes, but... it is Microsoft, right?
Until this day, the closest things to a PC that Microsoft has produced were the original Xbox and the Xbox 360. It is worth to say that the company also have a line of keyboards, mouses and webcams that are among the best of the industry. In the world of the PCs, however, the deal between Microsoft and its partners, such as Dell, HP, Samsung, Acer and many more, was always of putting the software inside the box. It was up to the partner to develop the box the way the partner believed to be the best, or would offer the best experience.

Microsoft, in non direct words, said that if we think about this model, it makes lots of sense to think that one of of the problems is that if the partners that are carrying your software are not doing a good job, the lack of quality, this lack of innovation, or who knows what ever else, tends to be associated with the software and not with the hardware. Well, it has some truth, sure, if you ever had the experience to buy Windows machines from different vendors, you know that despite all the problems the operation system has, the experience you will have is different.

With Windows 8 Microsoft wants (in fact needs) to renew its image, facing the constant growth of Apple computers and also the tablet market gaining more and more size with Android.

For some reason, probably one of those highly mysterious and involving mega rich dudes with elegant suits in secret meetings, Microsoft saw that it was necessary to take the lead also in hardware if the intention was to bring a new experience that could associate again innovation and quality with their products in the PC market, since their hardware partners (and I’m sorry for what I’m going to say to these partners) seem to have the brilliant business strategy of “this year let’s imitate what Apple shown last year, but let’s make it worse, cheaper, heavy and in 20 models of hardware we will launch during the year”.

Creating their own hardware, and showing this hardware as the launch stand to the new version of their operation system, Microsoft is seeking to make it clear how good the software can be, what it can do and what they expect from their partners. It sets a minimum of quality its partners will need to have to compete with the version of the “Windows experience” offered by Microsoft.

And that, my friends, is good to you, is good to me, it is good to everyone.

Bla bla blas and a bunch of I think this and that
As expected, all over the internet, many people hated, many people loved, legions of fan boys screaming effronteries in sound and chars, to defend the product or to say it is the biggest useless “piece of thing” ever created, even worse than the cigaret holder created to smoke a whole cigaret pack in one go.

If you didn’t watched the presentation (you can find it in the links at the end of the post), to complete joy of a nation of trolls, one of the Surfaces had some problems and the screen was locked in such a way they had to get another Surface to resume the demonstration. In YouTube there are lots of videos putting together this part of the presentation with that (in)famous presentation of Windows 98 where blue screen of dead was also on stage. It is funny to think, however, about the success Windows 98 had later, when launch, what would mean to a rational creature that it only proves that since the product is yet to be launched, errors and problems in a non finalized version are normal to happen.

With that said, even so, I must confess It really bothered me to see that happening. In some way it makes me think that I may be being fooled with all this story about “the problem is in the vendors hardware bla bla bla”, and not seeing that this pretty new hardware is a engineering achievement, more than anything else.

However, but, nevertheless, albeit, my opinion is right there at the title of the post, Surface deserves respect, simply because as hardware and design, it really is a great achievement, it really does things that no other competitor does, it really points to new directions and walk to then with some boldness that reminds when Microsoft made the DOS deal with IBM not even having DOS.

The problem is that it is not just about the hardware, about build up a great piece of engineering, a computer needs to be more than that.

I’m saying that because I’m afraid if Windows 8 and its beautiful start menu with tiles will really make things better and easier, or if it will be only a pretty thing which will impress young people, make people that are over 35 years old, and already have great trouble to find their ways in Windows 7, completely scared, and then, after some time, it will represent nothing. Soon it will be just the same Windows again, but with “this different menu”.

Millions of people (and probably some aliens) have written to say that, specially to software, or to the main software in a computer that end up being the operational system, the fundamental starting point must be the user experience, must be ideas to make life easier, to solve old problems in new and smart ways.

I can see how this new Metro interface will make things prettier, but I can’t see how it will make better the experience of working with a Windows machine.

There is a reason why Mac users tend to say that once you try Mac, you don’t want to go back, and it doesn’t happens just because Mac is pretty. Using the tablet market as another example, the iPad sells more and is recognized the way it is, not only because it has a great design, but because of all the experience around it, how the apps works, how to install, how to configure and do things, how long the battery lasts and all that, if compared to the competitors.

This usage experience is what Windows computers, specially in the last years, are failing to offer.

To put things in a simple way, it impresses me (and also bothers me a lot) that finding and doing things in Windows XP is faster, easier, has less steps and works better, if compared to Windows 7. Not to mention that if we make a direct comparison, feature by feature, between Mac OS Lion and Windows 7, or even Snow Leopard, they don’t seem to be equivalent operational systems. Oh, and all that not including the Linux world into the mix, what would make serious damage to the Microsoft story about hardware and the final experience.

As a fan of technology, as a person who thinks to much and knows that world is filled with problems and the computers can help to solve almost all of then, the best the tool is, the broader the possibilities, it is better to everyone. That is why, despite all my fears and all, I’m optimistic about the future of Microsoft and, for now, Surface do have my respect (not that it matters much, I know), for what was shown, for the speech and for the company behind it.

Now, let’s wait to know what was not yet revealed, what will the price, more information about the hardware, how long the battery lasts, if the screen will really lock once in a while or if it was pure bad lucky, when will be official launch and more, more than anything, anything really, let’s wait to know if we will have an experience capable of make people say that “after trying Surface and Windows 8, you don’t want to go back”.

We will see.

--- Links
Complete presentation
Video of screen locked and Windows 98 presentation
Surface website
Surface hands-on video