I’ve been excited about the Microsoft Surface. I want to like it, but given my experience with Microsoft products over the past few years, my expectations were low. Ever since Vista, workflows that should be simple have become more complicated, and software more bloated. Simple examples like the restructured control panels, User Account Control, frustrations with “Windows Genuine Advantage” DRM, and the “dumbification” of Media Center (the Xbox version too, which works only when the planets are in perfect alignment). Microsoft has increasingly made it more difficult to enjoy using their products.
In what might be a great example of confirmation bias, I couldn’t bring myself to like Surface.
Prior to the iPad Mini debut, I was chatting with the father of one of my scouts. He mentioned that most people at his work were looking forward to it for one primary reason: being able to run Office apps. I do a great deal of work in Word and Excel, not because they’re my preferred apps, but because they are the common denominator for collaborating with others, and because the most ubiquitous citation manager (EndNote) develops its plugins for Word.
I was at the mall—visiting the Apple Store, as it happens—and saw ads for surface plastered all over the escalators and central landing. “Microsoft Surface: Only available at the Microsoft Store,” the ads loudly proclaimed. A quick search on my phone showed the closest Microsoft Store was about a half-hour away. There wasn’t a Microsoft Store in the mall. Bummer. I wanted to try it out.
As it happens, there were a series of demonstration counters on the ground floor, that I’d somehow missed, directly under some of the huge advertisements for Surface.
Why is it only available at the Microsoft Store? Maybe Microsoft knows it’s not ready, and isn’t ready for the public to acknowledge that. Limited distribution doesn’t make sense unless the intent is to keep it from the public. Owning the hardware chain is a necessary step to producing a top device in the modern market, and providing top-notch support is equally important. Perhaps Microsoft doesn’t have the customer-support infrastructure in place for mass market yet. Maybe limited distribution is an ill-advised attempt to generate foot traffic in seemingly less-popular Microsoft stores. Whatever he reason, it’s an odd decision that will, in the long run, delay mass acceptance, which will, in turn, delay third-party developer adoption, neither of which are good outcomes for Microsoft.
With a four-year old in tow (she was very patient with me), I test drove the Surface. Not all of the controls were naturally intuitive, but some of the basic ones were sufficient: swiping from the edge, and the windows key got me out of most applications, but it was never clear when I was quitting, and when I was switching. It suspect there will be memory-related frustrations for typical users hat don’ actively manage the number of running processes. There were too many widgets and “gee-whiz” add-ons for me to like it. I don’t care about (most) stocks, and don’t want the distraction of having them pushed to me. The same with weather data (I have a window, and I know what season it is), and news tickers (in addition to being a distraction when I’m working, I don’t particularly trust the curation). I want quick access to the apps I need to complete my tasks. While I suspect a great deal of this is customizable, I believe most people won’t customize, but the default presentation will be an underlying annoyance. While part of the joy of being a geek is endless customization, I never really feel productive doing it.
Apps on the Surface, in general, were slow to load, and made seemingly slower by long animations. Interfaces were radically different, to the point of being confusing. For example, the email page puts the “To” and “Cc” on the left (in landscape), with a great deal of empty (unused?) space below, but the “Subject” field on the right, but not clearly editable. Standard UI affordances that identified editable space weren’t used consistently. In other apps too, the UI seemed learnable, but yet different.
I love the idea of the TouchCover, with its built-in keyboard. In practice, it didn’t respond well to how I type. I’ve read that it takes some getting used to, and I can see why that would be the case. The TypeCover, with its real keys, was much more natural for me. For a tablet to really fill the space between my phone and my laptop, it needs a keyboard, and I think Microsoft has a good innovation here.
In so many ways, Surface violated, or maybe more accurately, makes irrelevant, most previous experience with interfaces. It approaches interface design so differently, that everything is slightly foreign. There are some good ideas, and it’s learnable, but when everything is foreign, it’s by definition not intuitive. To add a Surface to my workflow would take effort before it felt natural, and that’s a barrier Microsoft needs to break to bring Surface mainstream.
It looks nice, but it’s not for me. Yet.