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Bill Bennett


Microsoft technology day four: Surface 2

Microsoft’s Surface 2 shows the software giant’s vision of where personal technology is heading. It’s one most of us would be happy to live with.

Microsoft isn’t the only tech giant with a vision. Apple and Google, possibly even Facebook, have other ideas. Perhaps Samsung does. There are plenty of other visionaries out there who don’t have the clout these industry leaders command.

Microsoft’s long-term vision is one thing. In the short-term, there are contradictions, workarounds and occasional frustrations.

In part, this is because the Microsoft engine has to pull a long train of legacy carriages. You get the impression the Microsoft engineers who worked on Surface would love to uncouple most if not all of those carriages.


All this means you see two Surface 2s in the one device. The visionary, futurist Surface 2 is lovely. Or at least it will be when it’s finished.

The other Surface 2 devices is a pragmatic look back to recent history. It’s like having a virtual Windows laptop crammed inside a sleek modern tablet. You enter this back-to-the-future world when you switch to the desktop world and the Office apps.

Surface 2 is physically minimal. And where its designers can get away with it, it’s minimal on the inside. The Metro apps are pared back – OK we’re not supposed to call them Metro anymore, but this is about communications, not branding. There’s a wonderful, European design theme running through them. Microsoft deserves credit for keeping complexity out of sight.

Consistent up to a point

At present, the Surface 2 apps aren’t tightly integrated. More about that later. But there is a design consistency so long as you stay in the Metro world. Once you’ve mastered a few basic ideas, working in the Surface 2 Metro-whatever world is easy and logical.

Sadly the switch back to Windows desktop is jarring. The good news is this is almost avoidable – in fact, it may be completely avoidable if you can find a decent Metro writing tool. I haven’t yet, but I’m too busy being productive to spend a lot of time hunting.

Let’s hope we don’t have to wait until Surface 3 for Metro-style versions of Microsoft’s Office apps.

I wasn’t sure when I started this experiment, but now I’m convinced, I could stay here. I could be happy and productive in the Windows stack. So could most people.

Whether people buy into all this is another matter entirely. It is said Microsoft’s core skill is selling technology. If so, it has its work cut out. Microsoft has leapfrogged a generation or two from where it was 18 months ago. Its engine could be moving faster towards the future than its customers sitting towards the back of the train.

A work in progress

For all the good stuff in Surface 2 and Windows 8.1, there’s still something of a work-in-progress feel about the software. I’m cool with that. So should you be? After all, people tolerated Gmail for years while it was still technically in beta.

Take the Windows 8.1 Mail app. It’s been upgraded since it first appeared at the end of 2012. Most of the time it is good enough for day-to-day work. It’s well laid out on-screen and logically organised. Messages are easy to read and compose. The touchscreen is used well.

It’s also possible to use Mail when the Surface 2 is working purely as a tablet. There’s a lot to like, but it lacks some basics.

More, better integration please

Overnight I discussed tonight’s dinner with my daughter, found a recipe on a website and sent a link in an email from my Windows Phone. My aim was to go to the recipe on the Surface 2, then cut and paste the ingredients list into OneNote, so we could pick them up later today when we visit the local shops.

Oddly, the link in the email, which is clickable from the Windows Phone mail client, isn’t clickable in Windows 8.1 Mail app. Some links are, this one isn’t.

To go to the web page I need to selected the URL, open a new Internet Explorer tab then manually cut and paste it in. I’ve found it easiest on the Surface 2 to use the keyboard and do a Control-C, Control-V cut and paste although the touch controls can do the job as well.

All-in-all I’m surprised at the lack of integration between Microsoft apps.

I’ve already mentioned the lack of integration between the Mail app and the Calendar or the People app. If I click on an email signature in the Apple OS X Mail app, I can then link directly to that person’s contact book entry and even quickly update fields. If I click on event time details in Apple’s Mail, I can turn it into a Calendar entry. Phone numbers can trigger calls. URLs are always links.

Surface 2 has potential

I sometimes wonder how different the world would be if Microsoft got the Surface, or something similar, out of the door when Apple first released the iPad. That aside, you have to give Microsoft credit for persistence. The Surface 2 is a huge improvement on the first Surface. If history is any guide, the product will hit its stride when it reaches version 3.1.



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