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Microsoft’s Surface: The case of the tablet that isn’t a tablet

When Apple introduced its iPad, Steve Jobs and his team reinvented the PC, giving it a completely new form factor. From the beginning, it was designed strictly to be a tablet, to be used in portrait and landscape mode. Both modes deliver an equal user experience within software, browsing, and apps. In fact, Jobs went to great lengths to show the device's versatility for content consumption

This is important because, even with its 9.7in screen (which Jobs saw as the best size screen for a true tablet), the iPad was created from this centre of design thinking. Interestingly, while Apple saw the iPad as a consumption device, it did hedge its bets and include productivity apps like Pages, Numbers, and Keynote, although these apps were never used to define what the key purpose of the iPad was and what it would do. Only after it was released, thanks to Apple's rich developer program, did the folks who develop productivity apps start creating products that increased the iPad's functionality.

I have been using Microsoft's Surface tablet for some time now and I find it to be a very interesting product. However, something that Steve Ballmer said about the Surface at the Windows 8 launch keeps coming back to me: "Windows 8 is the greatest example of the PC meeting the tablet." I believe this to be a very true statement and one that is quite telling when it comes to Microsoft's Surface strategy.

That thinking reflects a more PC-centric view that I believe is at the heart of the Surface's design. It is one that just extends the PC model to a touchscreen device. With its keyboard and 10.6in display, the Surface reminds me of a netbook minus a touchscreen. For all intents and purposes, it is a PC.

What really makes this clear is the fact that most of its OS and apps are optimised for landscape; many apps don't even work in portrait mode. I have used it quite a bit in portrait mode and am really surprised that Microsoft gives the users two distinct ways to view content. In portrait mode, what you get is, by and large, not equal to what’s delivered in landscape mode. Also, the device’s oblong screen is hard to hold as a tablet and is much heavier than most tablets on the market today.

The other tip-off that the Surface is really a smallish laptop is the apps in desktop mode. Microsoft includes Office in the desktop but it has to have the keyboard to work properly. And the Office apps in Modern UI mode are completely different in look and feel. While it works okay with finger touch, it's almost worthless in this mode without the keyboard, which does not work in portrait mode. Also, many apps only work in landscape mode, including Skype, if it is launched directly from the Modern UI. And, one more curious design issue is that the on/off button is at the top of the tablet in landscape mode, while all other tablets have this switch on the top in portrait mode.

I find this quite important because in my view, Microsoft has not necessarily entered the tablet era. Rather, with the Surface, it has just extended the PC metaphor and introduced the element of touch to the UI as it has with laptops and desktops. Now, that is not necessarily bad, but buyers need to see the Surface as an extension of the PC and, to some degree, a bridge to tablet usage, albeit an uneven one in the current version of Windows 8 on the Surface. Unfortunately, it is a compromised PC and a compromised tablet.

The iPad and most other tablets are really quite different from the Surface taking these points into consideration. In fact, I believe that the iPad has not only reinvented the PC but changed the computing paradigm for two big reasons: Portrait mode and touch computing (accomplishing complex computing tasks that once required a mouse and keyboard via touch).

In his column for TechPinions, my son Ben wrote a long analysis of computing in portrait mode, highlighting its many advantages like writing, reading, and browsing the web. I use portrait mode primarily on my iPad. Only some things like games and a few other apps use landscape exclusively. The iPad and nearly all of its apps not only support both portrait and landscape, but are built uniquely to take advantage of both modes.

When you orient the Surface to portrait mode, due to the 16:9 aspect ratio, everything gets smaller. When you flip the iPad or Android tablets, on the other hand, the text size stays the same in some cases, or shrinks slightly in others. In portrait mode, you get more text on a screen that, even when smaller, is not crunched or illegible. You are able to see more of the web page on the Surface because of 16:9, only the text is much harder to read. Of course, you could zoom in or tap in, but obviously that’s one extra step you have to take before reading the web page. It’s not a deal breaker, but also it isn’t ideal.

This discrepancy in design reinforces the fact that the Surface is more like a small laptop that is not optimised to deliver a rich tablet experience. Because of that, I am sceptical about whether the Surface will be a big hit. Landscape has its advantages in many scenarios, like when watching movies or playing some games, but in a broad set of tablet use cases, portrait is equally and sometimes more important. I believe that a true tablet provides an excellent experience in both landscape and portrait modes.