The Launch: A look the Microsoft Surface’s First Weekend

I can’t believe that just happened.

There were lines all across the US waiting for a Microsoft product; a computing product not an Xbox. There were swarms of people in places like New York’s Times Square and smaller crowds in places like Palo Alto and Boston. All lining up to buy, look, and play with a device running Windows.

Let me slow it down, there were people going out of there way, taking time out of their day to go see a device running something that DID NOT have an Apple logo.

All this was for the Microsoft Surface.

I was not expecting this.

I expected smaller crowds, actually none to so up at the 30 odd Microsoft Stores here and in Canada to look at the Microsoft Surface and other Windows devices.As much as I like the OS and as firmly believe it was the necessary move by Microsoft; I knew it would be a hard sale. This is not the Windows people are used to. It dumps a fair amount of tradition. And if you have followed this blog or even Windows 8 news in general you would now there is a significant backlash to the new Operating System. People have been complaining about the decision to remove the Start Button and making all Windows users interact with the new Start Screen. There have been scores of articles on the system’s confusing nature; its unintuitive interaction pattern. Developers raised there noses at the new environment, and that was before the announcement of the Microsoft Surface.

The Microsoft Surface, the first shipping computing device designed by Microsoft caused a lot of ripples. Some were from the lack of information given at the first announcement; where executives gave the most miniscule of answers on price and availability and reporters had no real hands on with devices. Next were the OEMs, especially Acer, some of whom found out that Microsoft was entering hardware the same day as reporters. Then the story became about whether OEMs would buck Microsoft and whether Microsoft threw its partners under a bus.

This all culminated last week when both the reviews for both Windows 8 and the Surface RT were published. While Windows 8 was considered by many to have issues, it was considered a solid OS. The Surface on the other hand arrived with mixed reviews. For every largely positive review, there was one that less than enthusiastic to negative. The hardware was solid but the software hit or miss and the ecosystem nonexistent was the consensus. And with so many mixed reviews I honestly thought that all the hype and marketing Microsoft was about to release would be for naught. And to add to the drama and possible loss of the spotlight, Apple and Google decided to hold major product events on the same day or before Microsoft (Google in the end canceled because of serious weather).

And yet there were crowds.

The first images of Microsoft’s temporary store in Times Square would’ve made you thought it was an Apple event if not for the images of the Microsoft logo and the bright colors of the Surface Touch Covers. There was a swath of people lining up and BUYING this device which 24/48 hours earlier was Meh’ed by parts of the tech press. And yet people were lining up to see it.

Now a bit of background.The Surface currently on sale is the Surface with Windows RT. Windows RT is Windows built on ARM chipsets and while having the full desktop can not run applications built for the x86 architecture (Intel and AMD). Basically RT is a tablet OS. The only applications that do run on the desktop are a special Office suite built for RT; so you get Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. Any other applications can be downloaded from the Windows store.

Personally, and I mean this, I have read many of the reviews and even posts in forums about issues with Surface and RT. I know it has issues with software optimization and the store is threadbare compared to Apple. I know it looks strange when held in portrait and that the hang won’t move beyond its set angle. I know it’s not backwards compatible. I don’t care

I know its flaws, and I still want one.

There is something about this device; its build quality, its screen, and this OS; that speaks to me. Now there are some nice devices coming from Samsung, HP, Acer, and Lenovo I think are better suited for my needs. But none of them are the Surface. Microsoft delivered on a Halo device in a way its partners could never do. Yes there will be devices with a Spec sheet to die for, with the bells and whistles that make tech geeks swoon, but they will be about delivering the spec.

Yeah they will say they like Windows 8 and that its a game changer. They said the same thing when they were adopting Android for tablets. The Surface feels like the opposite; it feels like a product built out of love and envy; from a place where you have come to a moment of clarity. It looks and feels like someone gave a damn about building a Windows device that mad people want to use it; that didn’t think of Windows as an afterthought.

This is what Windows users have been wanting. A device built FOR Windows, built to highlight it instead of bogging it down in bloatware and trial software. Users have never wanted OEMs to copy Apple, but learn from them. And not the superficial type of lessons, like using Aluminum or chicklet keyboards; but the fact that hardware should serve and showcase software.

While some writers complain about RT’s existence and why Microsoft choose to ship this device instead of it’s Intel based version, I think it was a wise decision. Everyone likes to talk about the ability to run desktop apps, but few talk about how Microsoft would be able to convince/cajole developers to build touch applications. What are the incentives for developing for this new experience if the one they know and make money is still there. There was also the question of Windows RT which can only run touch applications; they won’t sell without apps and developers won’t look at the platform if they don’t see people buying.

Surface was the answer; here you get a well designed device running the new OS but without the backwards compatibility. Relying on an OEM would be risky, especially if what they delivered was a rehash of a previous design. Also coming out first with an Intel based tablet wouldn’t incentivize developers to create apps. There is also a third reason; the need for a flagship device that would become the image associated with the platform.

And looking at this past weekend I think they did.

Before I go, I wanted to post this piece by former Microsoft Distinguished Engineer Hal Berenson’s review on the Microsoft Surface. Its an interesting review and one of the more balanced. He concentrates a bit on the major distinguishing features of the Surface and where it fits in the scheme of things.

The magic of the Surface is that you can use it all day purely as a tablet without paying a penalty for its ability to do Content Creation.  That magic is enabled by Windows RT, but it is really brought to life by the Surface hardware. 

Understanding the Microsoft Surface (a sort of Review)

images courtesy of Pocket-lint, CNet, and New York Magazine

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