Microsoft Surface: the right move for Microsoft, and for tablets

In anticipation of Microsoft Surface’s launch on 26 October.
Addendum: Only the RT Surface is launching on 26 October.  The i5 Surface won’t be out for another 3 months …

On June 18, 2012, Microsoft unveiled two tablet devices, both named Surface. The announcement came out of the blue; the project had been kept under wraps until then. To put this announcement in context, we need an overview of how the computer software and hardware industry is evolving, and the state of the mobile device market for the past year or so.

Customer differentiation #

The ecosystem of software and hardware

ARM-powered board, by VIA

For the past couple of decades, the microprocessor industry was largely split between two overarching design intentions. Embedded processors were designed as part of larger systems, often having to meet tight constraints: low power usage and passive (sans heatsink) heat dissipation. Desktop processors were under different constraints: affordability, ability to run commonly used software. As it happened, ARM, which only designs processors and licenses these designs out to partners), came to dominate embedded processor designs. On the other side, Intel, both processor designer and manufacturer, quickly came to dominate the desktop market with their x86 processors.

Liquid-cooled desktop

Both processors “spoke” different processor languages (instruction sets, in jargon). As a result, they also end up running very different sets of software. Programs compiled to run on x86 processors would not run on ARM-based processors, and vice-versa. Software is not developed in a vacuum; a piece of software often needs to rely on libraries that provide various functions, such as storing/retrieving data, and developers working on each processor platform eventually grow to adopt certain ways of programming them. x86 software (compiled for x86 processors) started to develop into an ecosystem, separate from the ARM software ecosystem.

As this software divide was happening, hardware design was splitting along the same lines. In silicon-based microprocessor design, engineers encounter limitations that echo those in nature’s evolving species. Single-celled organisms do not grow to the size of rodents, which in turn do not grow to the size of elephants. Each design scales within a range of sizes, energy requirements, and capabilities. We see the same differentiation between tablets and desktops: they occupy different characteristic ranges. Tablet and smartphone processors typically have a power draw between <1W to 10W, and the heat they produce can be dissipated without a heatsink (or with a really small one) on the processor. Laptop/desktop processors have a power draw between 10W to 150W (or more, if overclocked), and often require active cooling—a heatsink system, sometimes aided by heat pipes or a water cooling loop, with its cooling capacity increased by forced airflow induced by a fan.

Lava Xolo X900: Intel inside

Now, a decade into the new century, interesting things are starting to happen. Some ARM-based processors were being made at least as powerful as Intel’s early Pentium processors, while Intel started making x86 “Atom Medfield” processors with the power and heat characteristics of ARM processors. What we are witnessing is not a merging of software and hardware ecosystems, it is a mutual encroachment. And Microsoft, a very conspicuous part of the x86 ecosystem, has found itself at the frontline, ill-prepared to push x86 into a new market segment or to establish a presence in the ARM ecosystem.

The mobile device market #

Microsoft is not a hardware company (yet)

The tablet as a mobile product started to take off in April 2010, with Apple’s announcement of the iPad. This mobile tablet is a device with a touchscreen, some storage, and an embedded processor, consuming less than 10 watts in total (typically less than 5 watts), and running iOS, Apple’s OS for mobile devices. Google, not to be outdone, rushed out an updated, tablet-only version of Android—3.0 Honeycomb—in 2011. Both mobile OSes were designed for devices that use processors based on ARM architecture. The major players in this field, all of them integrating licensed designs from ARM, are Nvidia’s Tegra series (used in most Acer and ASUS tablets), Samsung’s Exynos series, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon (LG, HTC, Sony, among others), Apple’s A5/A5X, and the new A6 found in the iPhone 5.

Windows CE

Naturally, this spelled trouble for Microsoft. They never had a very strong presence in the mobile market; Windows CE (most recent release in March 2011) was largely a failed attempt at gaining market share, and Windows Phone is still failing to gain significant market traction (4.3% of US subscribers use Windows Mobile or Windows Phone 7 in Q2 2012, according to Nielsen). And at this point they still do not have any notable tablets running some sort of Windows OS.

Microsoft has never been much of a computer hardware company (I am not talking about peripherals such as keyboards and mice); their typical role in any product launch is to release an early version of its OS to hardware partners—Dell, HP, Lenovo, Acer, ASUS, MSI, Gigabyte, et al.—who then build devices to run said OS. The aforementioned companies develop Windows-bundling laptops and desktops, while Nokia is the main company pushing Windows Phone OS with their Lumia phones.

But in the tablet market, Windows was caught with its pants down, so to say: Unlike Android and iOS, Windows Phone OS was not designed for tablet use, and Microsoft had no Windows OS for mobile tablets. The x86 processors that currently run Windows on laptops and desktops are not yet a viable solution for the mobile space—even the lowest-power variants, the netbook (Atom) and ultrabook (Core) processors, are designed with power consumption of 10 – 25 watts in mind. (Intel’s Medfield smartphone processor platform, mentioned earlier, is unable to run Windows because it uses very different hardware and thus lacks driver support.)

It is in the context of such a situation that I view Microsoft’s Surface tablet in this article.

Bad tidings #

“It will create a huge negative impact for the ecosystem.”

The Surface announcement was not the best of product announcements; responses were understandably mixed. The name came from one of their existing but rather different lab prototypes (now renamed PixelSense). Previews of Windows 8, the OS running on Surface, were met with a mix of outright disagreement and tentative accord. And the announcement was made shortly after Microsoft’s usual hardware partners had already announced their own Windows 8 tablets, laptops, and all manner of in-between hybrids. Their displeasure was barely disguised by their lukewarm responses to the announcement.

Lenovo CEO, Yang Yuanqing — “[Microsoft is] strong in the software, but I don’t believe they can provide the best hardware in the world. Lenovo can.”

Acer CEO, JT Wang — “It will create a huge negative impact for the ecosystem, and other brands may take a negative reaction.”

Dell CEO, Michael Dell — “At the same time they have announced the Surface product that would be in the [mobile tablet] space, we will have products in there, and I think you’ll see a diverse set of offerings that take advantage of what Windows 8 brings to market.”

That is quite some ill-will Microsoft has stirred up. But there is much sense in Surface’s launch, particularly for Microsoft’s intentions in product placement, as well as for their vision of tablet computing. Setting aside questions of whether Microsoft is going to blow the product launch, or how well Windows 8 is going to turn out for tablets, there is a yet-unfilled niche in mobile computing, and Surface is in the right position to fill it like no current product does, at the confluence of three factors.

Productivity and functionality #

“The worldwide PC market is a big market and Windows 8 will propel that volume.”

Though the hardware in ultraportable tablets has greatly improved in the past two years, the OSes that run on them have remained largely the same. Both iOS and Android are mobile OSes, designed for light-tasking devices, intended for different purposes from laptops and desktops, and hence have a very different set of features, and run a very different set of software, from laptops.

This also means that we use tablets and laptops very differently, even if they sometimes look like almost the same form factor. While a tablet is fine for shooting off a quick email, or sharing a URL online, or perhaps even typing an article, it will be difficult or impossible for it to accomplish many of the things a productive computer user carries out on a laptop in a day — creating complex powerpoint presentations, editing images, playing and converting a variety of video formats, managing large files (>1GB), and so on. At least, it would be hard to do it without pulling in more capable help, like a laptop or desktop (or a helpful colleague).

Onskreen: the extent of Android multitasking

The difference does not boil down merely to hardware capability; Android works very differently from desktop flavours (distributions) of Linux, and iOS works very differently from OSX. If one looks at the features afforded by mobile OSes, it is rather clear that they are designed chiefly for media consumption, rather than content creation. If one wishes to have a device for content creation, it is going to have to run software for content creation — for most people, that would be Microsoft Office, Adobe Suite, 3D CAD software, and other industry-standard software. This is something mobile OSes are still largely incapable of.

Google docs editing on the iPad 3

Even if one works mostly via cloud-based applications such as Google Drive, Dropbox, and so on, there are often significant differences between the full “desktop” version and the mobile version. Google Drive in iOS cannot create spreadsheets and presentations, and is noticeably unable to delete documents. Document editing in both the iOS and Android apps are limited to a very small subset of the full featureset available in Google Drive. Spreadsheet editing is a trial one would not wish to attempt on a bad day, and presentation editing is non-existent. Even if the app is accessed via its web browser interface (or the Google app in iOS), one is presented with the mobile version of the interface, or constrained by the limited featureset of the mobile browser. While there are some who, supposedly, have successfully transitioned to a tablet-only workflow, the fact remains that the large majority of people will still have to reach for a laptop often enough to make this unfeasible. (No mention is made of whether the articles’ authors, nine months from the time of writing, are still sticking to their device-exclusive workflows.)

This is where Surface comes in. Most tablets on the market today are running on an ARM-based processor, making them incompatible with the usual laptop/desktop OSes: OSX, Windows, and desktop flavours of Linux. Meanwhile, one of the Microsoft Surface tablets uses an x86 Intel “Core” processor, and runs Windows 8 Pro. The other one uses an ARM-based processor, and runs Windows 8 RT, a variant of Windows 8 designed for ARM processors. The fate of Windows 8 RT is uncertain, since it is not going to share the same set of apps as Windows 8 Pro—I will leave Windows 8 RT aside for the rest of this article. But Windows 8 Pro will be the first tablet-friendly OS that lets users run the same programs they were using on their laptop.

Lenovo W520: a desktop replacement?

As laptops became increasingly powerful, we started to see them displace shipments of desktops“desktop replacements” are now a real category of laptops. In a similar way, tablets-with-keyboard-attachments may soon start to displace laptops, once they are able to occupy the same software ecosystem. This means a great deal for those who would like to merge their laptop and tablet workflows, who wish to buy a tablet that can run the same software as their laptop, albeit with lower performance (at least until new iterations bring performance levels up).

Hardware and user experience #

“We really wanted to get the sound right—to feel and sound like a high-end car door—so you get that visceral feeling.”

For years now, we have been hearing about how Apple’s designers (and engineers, those oft-overlooked engineers) pay close attention to every aspect of the user experience, and engineered their product with the most scrutinising eyes and ears. Clearly, someone at Microsoft has been paying attention, because Microsoft seems to be all about user experience, judging from their early interviews on Surface. Panos Panay, general manager for Microsoft Surface, claims “we iterated over and over again in an anechoic (echo-proof) chamber. We really wanted to get the sound right—to feel and sound like a high-end car door—so you get that visceral feeling, that emotional attachment to your product when you open the kickstand and close it.”

A detailed look at currently available Android tablets shows that none of their manufacturers — also Microsoft’s hardware partners — are really interested in that kind of user experience investment. Yet, these are still the only viable alternative to Apple’s iPad, aside from the newly released Kindle Fire. A premium Android competitor to the iPad is not likely to come from any of them. In such circumstances, it is hard to blame Microsoft for wanting to play a more active role in breaching the premium market segment.

Pad Infinity vs iPad colour gamut

At the time of writing, the iPad 3 (“new iPad”) remains the tablet with the best screen by far, both in screen resolution (2048×1536 in a 9.7″ screen, measured diagonally) and in colour range (94.4% of sRGB colour space)1. The only contenders that come within line of sight are the Acer Iconia Tab A700, and the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity, the latter of which has a screen resolution of 1920×1200 in 10.1″, and a colour range of 60.4% sRGB*. They still fall far short of what the iPad 3’s hardware has achieved.

On the software side, with ARM-based tablets released in the past two years, the Android experience remains fragmented across various devices running a gaggle of Android versions: Gingerbread (2.3), Honeycomb (3.0), Ice Cream Sandwich (4.0), Jelly Bean (4.1). The discrepancy in user experience across Android versions is rather noticeable, be it in visual continuity or OS features. Meanwhile, iDevices released in the past two years or so are almost all running on iOS 5 or 6. There is still plenty of room for competition here, in delivering a consistent and predictable experience across a variety of devices. Of course, this is no assurance that Windows 8 will be the first to succeed at it.

Are the new x86-based, Windows-toting products that Microsoft partners are releasing not “good enough” then? Even if they are, they do not seem to be aimed at the premium market, which is where Microsoft is aimed. There are two distinct flavours among the Windows 8 Pro tablets: the budget-minded tablets running on Atom processors, and the higher-end tablets running on Intel Core processors (albeit at lower voltages and clock speeds than regular laptops).

The large majority of Microsoft-partner tablets announced so far are ARM-based or Atom-based. Almost all of these tablets stick with the “standardised” 1366×768 screen resolution, like answers given by schooling students peeking over at each others’ writing. At this point, only the Acer Iconia W700 comes anywhere close to Surface’s announced specifications; both have an Intel Core processor inside, and a 1920×1080 screen resolution. Looking at the matrix of Windows 8 flagship x86 tablets below, it feels like Microsoft’s partners are playing the cheap-fast-good game here, or in this case, screen-processor-digitiser; pick only two. (High-end features are bolded.)

The only competitor in the ballpark is Samsung, with their ATIV PC Pro 700T tablet, although at a presumably higher price (the i5 Surface’s price remains unconfirmed). Without their respective keyboards, the ATIV is actually slimmer and lighter than the i5 Surface, but its keyboard dock is much thicker and heavier compared to the Surface’s flip cover keyboard. It is safe to say that Samsung is Microsoft’s only premium competitor.

Product Screen resolution Processor Features Starting price (USD)
Acer Iconia W700 1920×1080 Intel Core (i3, i5 ULV) Cradling station with USB3, passive stylus(?) 800
Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 1366×768 Intel Atom active digitiser 799 (with keyboard)
Lenovo Ideapad Yoga 1600×900 Intel Core (i5/i7 ULV) 360° hinge 1,099
Asus Vivo Tab 1366×768 Intel Core mobile dock, Wacom active digitiser 799 (without keyboard)
HP Envy X2 1366×768 Intel Atom keyboard dock, digitiser (type unknown) 850
HP ElitePad 900 1280×800 Intel Atom MIL-spec durability unannounced
Dell Latitude 10 Tablet 1366×768 Intel Atom replaceable battery, Wacom active digitiser (optional) unannounced
Microsoft Surface (x86) 1920×1080 Intel Core (i5 ULV) Flip Touch cover/Type cover ($199 separately), pen digitiser 500–800 (in interview, and based on RT Surface pricing)
Samsung ATIV Pro 700T 1920×1080 Intel Core (i5 ULV) S Pen active digitiser (from Galaxy Note) 1,200 (with keyboard dock)

Overview of Microsoft partner Windows 8 Pro (x86) flagship tablets

We really should not be surprised that Microsoft has decided to take hardware quality and user experience into its own hands for the first time: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

Features and affordances #

“If you see a stylus, they blew it.”

Earlier, I discussed the software features afforded by mobile OSes. But current tablets also lack some hardware features used in laptop/desktop markets: enterprise encryption, more extensive connectivity options, and active stylus digitisers, among others. Some are easy to integrate, should manufacturers decide to push tablets in other target markets. Some are not as easy.

Let’s talk about active stylus digitisers. This is not new technology; it already existed in a little-known, highly priced product niche: the Tablet PC, also known as the convertible laptop. A similar variant, the Slate PC, has the screen and processor all in a single unhinged chassis. These, for the most part, were heavy (about 2 kg, or 4 lbs, in weight) relative to tablets today, ran on laptop OSes, and had battery life comparable to older laptops (4–6 hours). What separated them from typical laptops was the convertible tablet mode, and the active digitiser.

A convertible laptop: Thinkpad X220 Tablet

Most mobile tablets today have a capacitive touchscreen using a passive digitiser. This senses touch input and only signals the position of the finger at the point of contact, as well as any gestures performed by the finger on the screen. An active digitiser, on the other hand, traditionally uses an electromagnet situated in the stylus to sense various properties of the stylus, such as its hover position, tilt, and even distance away from screen. The digitiser is also pressure-sensitive, and in typical flavours has 256 levels of sensitivity, if not higher. This means pressure-based input, which allows for more natural strokes, that can widen or thin out depending on how much force one writes with.

Microsoft Surface uses a different technology for input sensing though. An image sensor embedded in the stylus detects a micro-pattern embedded in the screen, with the aid of reflected light from a source within the stylus. This setup is able to sense stylus proximity, enabling Microsoft to implement Palm Block, a system that disables touch input when the stylus tip is near the screen.

The additional functionality provided by such digitisers was questionable at the time of introduction; Windows XP simply was not very tablet- or stylus-friendly. But more importantly, the digitiser also added much to the cost of these convertible laptops. Because these are low-volume products, it is common to see them selling at more than 2,000USD. But these found a niche market in the education and medical sectors, where active digitiser functionality allowed medical practitioners to pull up and update records on the move, and allowed educators to sketch and write with digital ink directly on their screens.

These days, slate PCs and convertible laptops with active digitisers are rare (and mostly discontinued), and their ranks can be counted on one hand: the HTC Flyer, a poor implementation that required AAA batteries in the stylus, the Lenovo Android Thinkpad, now discontinued, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1. Even with such digitisers in place, the Android OS has no native support for these active digitisers, meaning that each individual app had to support the advanced features themselves, or only enjoy the limited functionality of passive digitisers.

The usefulness of such functionality for future applications is not something that can be writ in stone by a bunch of jabbering analysts sitting around. At this moment, Apple is obviously not the company to push the limits of stylus functionality at this point in time: The late Steve Jobs famously said of the iPad, “If you see a stylus, they blew it.” Apple does not seem to have gone back on that statement yet. It is also unlikely that Android device manufacturers, seeking bottom-line retail prices, will be very much interested in adding pricey active digitisers in their devices. This means that Microsoft has to take the lead by doing their own research, in areas like high-performance touchscreens, universal computer interfacing, universal stylus interaction, and combined stylus-finger input.

What we are seeing in Surface is the culmination of some of these efforts. It certainly is not a terrible idea, especially if they can bring Surface to market at the suggested 300–800USD—compare this to what convertible laptops used to cost! Windows 8 is the first version Windows OS designed explicitly with touch interaction in mind (if that tiled interface is not strong enough a visual hint), and it is the right platform to ship stylus functionality. If they launch it with Windows 9, or a later iteration of their tablet, they would miss out on many months, if not a year or two of user feedback and response, and give up one differentiating feature that would separate the x86 Surface from other tablets currently in the market.

The future market for computing #

“I think it’s going to be hard to tell what’s a tablet and what is a PC.”

Ever since the launch of the iPad, headlines have marked a grim future for the desktops. However, while sales of desktops have declined, and people are spending more time on tablets than laptops or desktops (Google Mobile Ads, 2011), the fact remains that tablets in their current forms are unlikely to completely replace laptops and desktops.

The reasons for this are not difficult to fathom. Anyone who has attempted to use a mobile tablet for heavy multitasking will soon perceive its limitations. One cannot pull up two windows side by side to compare two files, use browser plugins, or work on the same file in two or more applications. These limitations can largely be blamed on the design and intention of mobile OSes.

The non-ARM Windows 8 tablets, then, are the first tablets to merge “traditional OS” functionality with modern tablet hardware and form factor. Just like with budget laptops vs. high-end ones, and with budget mobile tablets vs. pricey keyboard-docked ones, we are witnessing early attempts at product differentiation in the Windows 8 tablet space. It is tempting to imagine that each company’s respective actions indicate an intention or a target market segment that is set in stone. But non-ARM Windows 8 tablets are targeting a new niche, sitting vaguely on the fence between verdant shades of laptop and tablet fields. The reality probably is that none of these companies are really sure how things will turn out a year or two later, and which of those multitude of features are going to pull in a critical mass of buyers. Is it the carefully designed kickstand? The active digitiser? The x86 compatibility? The battery life, the low cost, the app marketplace …?

The ASUS Taichi: A dual-screen laptop-tablet-umm-whatever-it’s-called?

What is important here is to get a feel of market demand and push new market segments (Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma illustrates many case studies), and Microsoft is one of the few companies, if not the only company, with the resources and confidence to try this in the premium market.

If the decline in laptop sales and incomplete domination of mobile tablets are any indication, neither product category is perfectly what we are looking for in a computing device yet. As long as the search for such a device continues, companies will keep experimenting. We have not seen such a bold experiment since the iPad’s launch. Microsoft is not only betting on desktop OS functionality in tablets through Windows 8 and its hardware partners, it is also betting on premium tablets through Surface, where no hardware partner has yet dared to step. This risky initiative could alienate Microsoft from its hardware partners if it fails to gain traction, but it could also give Microsoft a head start in a new niche market—if it does.

The spirit of innovation is still very much alive, even if it does not always do things as best as it could. And in this spirit, Surface is the right move for Microsoft at this point in time.

At the time of writing, the author owns a self-assembled quad-core PC running Linux, an iPad 3, and a Samsung Galaxy S2. His 2006-bought Fujitsu T4210 tablet PC now sits sedentary and largely unused, and he has no plans to buy a netbook, ultrabook, or laptop in the foreseeable future.

Editorial changes #

19 October: Added mention of Samsung 700T in tablet matrix and competitor comparison. Added mention of the Galaxy Tab 10.1 in tablets with active digitisers. Updated details on Microsoft’s digitiser technology in the i5 Surface. Updated expected Surface pricing.

25 October: Added just-announced HP Envy x2 pricing.