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Don’t underestimate the importance of Microsoft’s decision to make its own hardware.

For the past thirty years, Microsoft dominated software like no other company. Part of its success was down to working with partners like HP, Dell and Toshiba.

Microsoft’s hardware partners often followed the software giant blindly into battle. Some see Microsoft’s move into hardware as a betrayal. HP says as much out loud. Relations between these companies will never be the same.

No choice

Yet the way Microsoft reads the technology business means it has little choice but to damage those long-term relationships.

It needed to make its own hardware for two reasons. First, Microsoft saw that Apple was in danger of eating its lunch. The iPad presented the PC with its first real challenge in 30 years. Making a competitive tablet was Microsoft’s only logical response.

The old Microsoft would have developed a tablet operating system then left partners like HP and Toshiba to build the hardware. I’ve seen tablets from both companies and while they are not without their charms, they are not up to Apple’s standards. And, frankly, they are not as good as Microsoft’s Surfaces.

Microsoft had to get this right. It couldn’t leave the future of technology to its partners, each of whom is struggling with its own long-term strategic problems.

Not the first time

The Microsoft Surface is not the company’s first foray into tablets. There were slate-style pen computers from Microsoft in the early 1990s. Later in that decade, there were devices which switched from laptop to slate format.

They were awkward, slow, hard to use devices with mainly rubbish software and unwieldy apps. One bright spot from this era was the wonderful OneNote app.

By the time Apple reinvented the slate format – as the iPad – Microsoft had effectively given up on the pen project.

Say what you like about Microsoft, the company is not stupid. It almost immediately recognised the iPad as threat to its existence, as a way of bypassing its ownership of the link between each worker and corporate systems. When it moved to address this threat, it simply could not afford to let the project wallow in the mire that dealing with partners can be.

Microsoft Surface reinvents the tablet

So why do I say Surface threatens Apple like no other tablets? Mainly because Microsoft has taken the tablet format and reinvented it in its own image.

The Microsoft Surface represents a stepping stone between a pure tablet like the iPad and thin, mobile PCs like Ultrabooks. Sure, that may be a backward step in some respects, but Microsoft knows its corporate customers well.

Surface was not designed to appeal to end users – although many swear by the device and I recently found it a more attractive proposition than I expected. The product is ideal for businesses where mobile devices need to fit into existing infrastructure – much of it supplied by Microsoft. It ticks a lot of boxes that have long worried CIOs and other senior managers. It’s a relatively secure device, there’s a low total cost of ownership and there’s less scope for users to trick them out with troublesome, hard-to-support applications although they give users the freedom to easily install Microsoft sanctioned apps.

Most people who live and work with Microsoft products are tied to the past.

Many need legacy applications. They may have custom-made software or tools tailored to fit in with work practices that could stretch back decades. They may have developed macros to integrate apps into broader systems. Or they may just have too much old data that’s difficult to move.

Microsoft has always done a fine job of building backward compatibility into its products. You could argue it has done too good a job. Apple and Google are more brutal about cutting old users adrift.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s core customers are corporations who buy the company’s server and enterprise software. They pay a lot of money which they might take elsewhere if Microsoft pulls too many plugs.

 

Surface 2 does almost everything

When I started my week using nothing but Microsoft’s technology, I spent far too much time installing Windows on a laptop.

I need not have bothered. With a few minor exceptions, the Surface 2 coupled with a Lumia 920 Windows Phone handles everything.

The main exception to being able to do all my work was a relatively old, custom-made web-based CMS on a business partner’s website. I also struggled a little with WordPress which has tiny onscreen icons that are tricky to deal with on a touchscreen.

Legacy software, who needs it? I doubt my business partner is in a hurry to upgrade the CMS. I suspect WordPress is either looking or soon will look at offering a touchscreen interface.

Rough edges

These things aside, Microsoft’s brave new world still has a few rough edges.

Two things were necessary for me to hit take-off point on the Surface 2. First, I swapped the Touch Cover 2 for the Type Cover 2. That’s important, my hands were starting to hurt with the first keyboard, things were fine with the second. Within minutes I was working at full speed once more.

The second revaluation was using the Word Web App instead of the bundled version of Microsoft Office 365. Your taste may differ. It probably does.

For my purposes, the Word Web App is more productive – mainly because it’s simpler. It also seems better suited the the touch screen than traditional Office – apart from anything else, touching tiny menu items and other controls is uncomfortable and clumsy.

One day Microsoft will have a touch version of Office and Word. In the meantime, I’d like to see a Metro version of Windows Live Writer.

Overall

We’ll save the direct comparisons between Microsoft and Apple technology for later. And I’ll also report back on the conclusions from the experiment.

I never doubted a week working with nothing but Microsoft devices and hardware would be possible. After all, that’s how most of the corporate world still functions. I was less sure I would find it as productive and enjoyable as it was.

Once I fine-tuned my Microsoft set-up, there were few frustrations and hiccups. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s nothing fundamentally flawed here.

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.

Two-in-one

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.

The $130 Microsoft Type Cover 2 costs NZ$10 more than the $120 Surface Touch Cover 2 keyboard. Yet when it comes to productivity, the Type Cover 2 is streets ahead. At least for me.

That’s because I’m a touch typist. I learnt to use a keyboard without looking at it. That means I can write faster and more efficiently than using the hunt and peck approach. It’s also something I’ve done for the last 3o years. Changing now is difficult.

Moving from the Touch Cover to the Type Cover makes a difference. With the Touch Cover the Surface 2 is just another tablet – with the ability to type a few characters on the flat slim keyboard. The Type Cover turns the Surface 2 into a laptop replacement.

Surface 2: almost a laptop

It can’t do everything a laptop can, but it can do the most important 90 percent. And that’s important. Suddenly my week in the Windows stack has changed in ways that I didn’t expect.

Above all, I barely need to use conventional Windows. I can efficiently deal with mail, social media and browsing all from the Surface 2 without skipping a beat. Writing – which is what I do most of the time – works fine on the Surface 2. More about that later.

Surface 2 has enough processing power to handle my immediate needs. There are times when I’m waiting for apps to load – some can take a minute or more to fire up. You can keep plenty of apps loaded in memory to avoid this.

Writing

On Tuesday I wrote a couple of stories from scratch using Microsoft Word on the Surface. I also wrote another couple directly into WordPress using the web-based full screen editor. Both work well.

Jumping into Windows desktop to use Word is a little irritating. It’s something I could get used to. Cutting and pasting text from Word into the WordPress editor is not as smooth as cutting and pasting between conventional Windows apps. Again, this is partly down to lack of practice. Moving between apps on the Surface isn’t so much tricky, as different. You can, but don’t normally, get to see two windows open at the same time.

I ran into three speed bumps. None of them serious.

First, if I get a mail invitation to an event in the Apple Mail app, I can click on the time details to send the information directly to the Calendar app. I kept trying to do this on the Surface before realising there is no such link between the apps.

The job is made harder because you have to continually switch back and forth from the Windows Mail app to the Calendar app to fill out the details. It’s clumsy in comparison. It isn’t a deal breaker. However, I incorrectly entered one invitation – something that’s less likely in the Apple stack.

Internet Explorer, better not foolproof

Second, Surface restricts you to Internet Explorer 11. You can’t install Chrome or Firefox. Again this isn’t a big problem most web sites seem to work fine. I ran into problems with a custom-made online content management system that struggled to display anything in IE.

I tried to get around this using an App called Mimic Browser. This ran the CMS fine, but the user interface is poorly designed. Normally I do an on page search for the button I need to enter my copy – there are thousands so scrolling and looking doesn’t work. Either Mimic Browser doesn’t allow on page searches, or I couldn’t find it. Using Search from the Charms bar didn’t work.

In the end I had to fire up Windows on the MacBook to do this simple task.

Almost no need for a PC as well

With the exception of that one problem, the Surface 2 means I could almost do away with the laptop – at least for day-to-day working. This brings me to an important point, Apple sees a tablet as an adjunct device. The iPad doesn’t attempt to replace a laptop. Although for some people, perhaps most, it is all the computer they need.

Microsoft sees its tablet as a replacement for a laptop. When you see images of the Surface 2, it is rarely shown without the keyboard. Workers who don’t need big screens or tons of storage could go from three devices to two quite easily in the Windows world.

Windows 8.1

Most press reviewers and bloggers agree there’s little wrong with the Microsoft Surface 2 hardware. Microsoft gets credit for bringing its tablet hardware up to date.

There’s a different story with the tablet’s software. Scan the news feeds and you’ll find Windows RT 8.1  comes in for almost as much criticism as the original Windows RT.

Is this justified?

Windows 8.1 RT is a small update on the operating system that shipped with the original Surface RT tablet. For most of the time it looks and behaves exactly the same as Microsoft’s desktop operating system: Windows 8.1.

Windows 8.1 RT perceptions

This is where problems begin, because Windows 8.1 RT can’t do all the things that a desktop operating system can. More precisely, it can’t run full Windows applications. That means users are locked out of the Windows apps they’ve used in the past. It also means they no longer have millions to choose from.

You can’t run Photoshop or install the Chrome browser as an alternative to Internet Explorer. You can’t run some cloud services that have Windows clients.

On the other hand you can run any of the apps in the Windows Store. Some of the traditional Windows apps come in Windows Store versions for RT, but many don’t. It would pay to look at the store to check it meets your needs before plonking down cash for Surface 2.

The wrong Windows?

Microsoft has a product for people who want to run Windows apps on a tablet. It’s called the Surface Pro 2 – prices start at $1300, roughly twice the price of a Windows RT tablet.

At least part of Windows RT’s problem is confusion about the difference between the two product ranges. Given that the OS looks like Windows and acts like Windows,  people expect it to do everything full-blown Windows can.

This is essentially a marketing and perception problem for Microsoft. It doesn’t help that the flip-side of the logic could be framed as ‘you pay less money and get an inferior experience’.

How Apple deals with this

You could ask yourself why Apple doesn’t face exactly the same problem. The iPad’s operating system is equally limited when compared to the Mac’s operating system.

There’s a clue in the names. Apple calls its tablet OS iOS, while the desktop OS is called OS X. If Apple had launched iPads with OS X RT, it may have run into similar problems.

Which brings up to an interesting point. How does Windows 8.1 RT compare with iOS 7?

It’s certainly a different experience. You may find cast iron reasons why you consider one better than the other, but most of that is a matter of taste and need.

Where Office fits

Windows 8.1 RT comes with plenty of software. There’s a version of Microsoft Office which looks and behaves just like the desktop version. Not so long ago, you’d pay more for a single copy of Office than you pay now for a Surface 2 with the software installed.

Office works with Skydrive, so you can work with files on the move, then make changes to the same documents from a desktop computer later. Or on a smartphone. The new version of RT comes with a full copy of Outlook, an  important productivity tool for companies committed to Microsoft’s technology stack.

Overall Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT works well. I found the touch controls in Windows 8 were clunky and awkward on a desktop, on a 10-inch screen they make perfect sense. Everything is well signposted with big clear buttons to tap and lots of navigation help.

Cognitive leap

There’s a cognitive leap you have to make – particularly if you’ve used other tablets – because many screens are quite minimal. This keeps things tidy and uncluttered. What isn’t immediately obvious is that there are screens and menus behind these screens which you get at through swipe gestures from the edge of the display.

Once you grasp this, you’ll find Windows 8.1 RT can be as productive as any tablet. Possibly more so. I wouldn’t describe it as intuitive. I would say that finding your way around isn’t hard.

Multi-tasking is much improved over the original Windows 8 RT. It’s now practical to have two windows open at the same time, making it easier for tasks such as cutting and pasting between apps.

Where’s the desktop?

Long-time Windows 8 users will notice there’s no desktop button on the 8.1 RT start page. That’s because you mainly don’t need to go there. However, the one aspect of Windows 8.1 RT I dislike most is that the Office apps all work on the desktop. So there’s a jarring transition between what was formerly known as the Metro interface and the old-school Windows desktop when you switch to Office.

Personally, I would have been happier if Microsoft had created Metro-style versions of the Office apps. I don’t know whether the company chose not to maintain full compatibility with the desktop version or whether Microsoft just hasn’t got around to modernising the apps yet. Either way, this discontinuity is annoying.

So to answer my original question, is the media criticism of Windows 8.1 RT justified? We certainly need to stay critical but some of the negativity is overstated.

Work needed on sales and marketing

Microsoft and the people in retail stores selling the Surface 2 could do a better job of managing customer expectations. I heard a sales person, wrongly, tell a customer an earlier RT device had a full copy of Windows. That doesn’t help. More retail training and clearer advertising may help.

The switch to desktop when using Office is not enough to dismiss the OS. For people who don’t need powerful desktop apps like Photoshop – let’s face it, that means most people – a Surface 2 tablet will be all the computer they need. RT’s limitations are not such a big deal for 90 percent of the population.