Windows 8 and Microsoft Surface

Windows 8 is now in its first week of release and I have upgraded two of my personal computers to it.

I also ordered a Microsoft Surface tablet, which arrived yesterday. You can see the video of me unboxing the Microsoft  Surface.

In summary, I really like Windows 8, but I predict a consumer revolt, akin to Windows Vista. Here's why;

People don't like change.

Oh sure, we all love the new model iPhone, which is really just an incremental step from the previous version, and we simultaneously hate ourselves for wanting something that's really the same as the one we already have, just a bit shinier. We also love totally new things, like the iPhone itself when it came out several years ago and there was nothing like it.

What we do not like is things we are used to, and are part of our daily lives being altered so that we have to relearn them. Take maps on the new version of iOS as a case in point, or when our favourite newspaper or sports code changes its website layout.

That's what Microsoft has done with Windows 8. I am an unusual creature with these things, I enjoy the shift. Most do not.

First let me address the pricing. Here in Australia, Windows 8 upgrade is $39.99 for download from Microsoft online.

That is akin to Apple's pricing for MacOS upgrades, and around 10% of the price for buying a full version of Windows 7 Ultimate. That says something very important to me about a company that builds its revenue off software, unlike Apple. Microsoft doesn't want price to be an issue to adoption. Technically the upgrade price is time limited, until 31st January 2013, but its hard to miss the fact that they are willing to forgo revenue to drive uptake of the product. They are worried. They are betting the company on this.

Personally, I think its a smart move. I work for a large company, and I previously worked for a Microsoft subsidiary. Big companies change slow. Existing business that drive revenues tend to stifle the opportunities to innovate, or even keep pace with the market. The folks at the top of Microsoft see the meta trends in computing and devices, and have realised they need to move, and move now. otherwise the enterprise market will be their only market, and even there they will not be protected as staff overwhelm the corporate IT barriers to devices and personal computing choices in the workplace.

How's it different?

Windows 8 has clearly been designed with touch UI at the centre of the user experience. The traditional desktop as we know it is relegated to the background, and the start screen looks remarkably similar to Windows Phone, with a series of tiles. It is actually fairly simple and I like it, but when used on a desktop computer, I have to say that it feels like I am not the intended audience, I don't have touch  screen monitors. Control by mouse and keyboard is all fully functional, but I constantly feel like I should be using touch.

The other thing that feels strange is that the start screen experience is only skin deep. Its one thing as an advanced user to be switching to desktop mode to get power user tasks done, but I cannot see how any user will be able to avoid desktop mode. There are things you just have to do in desktop mode, like running most windows programs, or accessing the file explorer. The start screen experience reminds me of Windows 3.0 running on DOS. Skin deep.

What's good about it?

When Microsoft made a radical change to Windows Phone, they achieved some serious improvements in user interface (UI) design. I praised them for that by saying Windows Phone 7 was my favourite phone OS at the time. They have taken what's good about that, and about the ecosystem model introduced by Apple and moved it to the desktop.

They have also changed the concept of a user account from being tied to a particular computer to being based around a user identity. In this case that is achieved with a Windows Live ID. That's going to work well for some people and less so for others but it's part of Microsoft's clever strategy to own the consumer, as Apple do with iOS and iTunes.

By logging into your PC with a Windows Live ID rather than creating a user account on the computer you are using, there are considerable benefits for the user. Mail, calendar and contacts all sync up automatically. It's similar to the way that in a corporate environment users logging into a domain can sit at any workstation and have all their settings appear on the PC ready to use without having to do any configuration.

My wife was very upset when I told her I had upgraded the PC she was used to using to Windows 8. The machine wasn't even powered up and she had decided she didn't like it. As a Windows Phone user however, as soon as the start screen appeared, she said "Oh". It was immediately familiar, and all her personal and contact details, including photos, were available. "I like this". The only problem with this scenario of course... she's part of a rare tribe being an existing Windows Phone user, so got the best possible experience from starting Windows 8.

The good news for everyone else is that Windows 8 comes with built in account connections to major social networks including Google, Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, etc. So Android users will get much the same benefits after they link their Google account.

What's not so good?

Windows 8 is version 1.0 of the next version of Windows. There's a lot to like about that, but it also means there are some rough edges and missing bits. The app ecosystem is threadbare right now. Sure, there are plenty of great apps and more will come soon. But I didn't see a Facebook app, or a Linkedin app when I searched. Windows itself provides visibility into these, and its easy to log in via the web, which is what we normally do on a PC, but when the desktop UI is centred around apps, that's a missing link.

There are also gaps in the way we are used to windows working. For example, the app version of Internet Explorer doesn't allow plugins, so for those of us who want plugins, we need to switch to Chrome or use the desktop version. The new UI  methods of doing things will also take some time getting used to, and there are some things I cannot find. For example, after nearly a week I still cannot figure out how to access my bookmarks in the app version of IE.

Things will get better, they always do. But with a user base as large as Windows has, the multi-decade evolution that was Windows 7 means its inevitable people will complain about missing or difficult to find features in Windows 8.

Microsoft Surface and Windows RT

With a UI so clearly intended for touch, I pre-ordered a Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 RT. Microsoft have a hallway stand this week in the Westfield Mall in the Sydney CBD featuring Surface. I made a point of walking past it each morning and evening. It has always been packed with people looking at the tablets. So there is plenty of interest.

The Surface arrives in a box that is almost a piece of art itself. It gives a very high quality impression before the product is even out of the box, and as I said in the unboxing video, reminds me of Apple.

The device build quality is excellent. Nothing short of brilliant. It is clear that Microsoft set very high standards for build quality. The metal casing is solid and fit tolerances are very tight. The kick stand is fully metal, and recesses tightly into the body to be completely unnoticeable when folded away. The cover contains a full keyboard, and magnetically attaches with a solid click. The keyboard means the cover is a single piece, not foldable like an iPad cover.

Sitting here typing away on it, I am definitely finding it easier to use as a PC replacement than an iPad but there's the problem. It feels more like I am replacing a PC with it than an iPad. It is heavier than an iPad, which is already reasonably heavy. So despite having the Kindle app on it, I cannot see myself preferring it to read with. It does not have other key content consumption apps, like magazines, Flipboard, etc. It's a great size for watching movies and the kick stand is awesome but I couldn't find an app to play content over DLNA. Probably all that will come with time, but I'm using it and making an assessment now.

As a replacement PC, it's lighter and has the touch/tablet experience. That's good. But it's not a fully functional PC. Sitting at my kitchen table, I may as well be using a laptop, which would cost about the same, and probably have more storage. Plus a laptop could run all my software, which I haven't even tried loading on the Surface, because Windows RT is not Windows 8. That I think is going to be a challenge. Surface tablets will attract users because it's Windows. It looks and feels like Windows 8, to the point I really cannot tell a difference between the desktop and RT version. But if the tablet version cannot run my desktop software, is it just an illusion?

The counter to that argument of course, is that as long as it fills the need I have, not being able to do things I can do in other contexts is relatively meaningless. After all, I can definitely say I prefer typing this post out on the Surface than an iPad.

The Surface is very responsive to touch UI. I'm highly impressed. The screen edges are 'active' via support for swiping in from the edge of the screen to reveal the various UI tools. Typing on the keyboard (or on screen) is also more responsive than the iPad by far. I often find on my iPad 2 that I will be several characters ahead of what appears on screen. Not so with the Surface.

I have only been using it for a day but I am a fan of the hardware. The implementation of Windows is, as far as I have been able to tell, also excellent, but I expect to bump into some limitations. For example, I was unable to install Chrome browser on the Surface, which I was able to do on the PC. Because I use Lastpass for all my passwords, that makes web surfing with the Surface a bit harder.

That also leads me to one other note about Windows 8 and the touch UI. Although touch is at the centre of the design experience, there are some gaps. Windows users are familiar with the mouse right click, to reveal context menus. It's not so simple with touch. Holding a finger in place does reveal a context menu sometimes, but I have found some tasks clumsy, or impossible, such as moving tiles on the home screen. Also, some apps appear not to have implemented selection and context for touch elegantly. This will need to improve.

I had one quality issue with the keyboard in my first day of usage. The S key stopped functioning. I was able to fix it by detaching and reattaching the keyboard from the screen. But it was annoying for the few minutes I couldn't figure it out, and thought I'd have to return a brand new device, making me annoyed at the online only nature of the product sales.

There is an issue I think the Surface has that will need to be resolved. The lack of integrated mobile internet. Without an integrated 3G or LTE connection, the device is seriously hobbled as any kind of replacement for a laptop or iPad outside a known WiFi environment. Yes, it's possible to tether to a phone (and drain your phone battery fast) or use a mobile hotspot like the Telstra 4G mobile hotspot but relying purely on WiFi for a device that will potentially replace a laptop on the go for business users is a shortcoming. If the device will be used at home, or at work within range of a known WiFi network, it's not a problem.

One other small niggle for me, is that my corporate network has a very high degree of security. Standard VPN doesn't cut it, we have two factor authentication, with a custom security client. So it's unlikely I will be able to remotely access my corporate network via the Surface any time soon.

Thumbs up or down?

Broadly, thumbs up. But you probably don't want to be upgrading your mum just yet, even if she has a touch screen PC like mine. As for the Surface, Microsoft has done an excellent job with the quality of the device, from the experience of a single days usage. I can definitely see myself continuing to use it, although the lack of 3G/LTE internet will mean that the iPad may retain an edge as a remote email client.