Nerd Fight: Is Microsoft Surface worth waiting for?

[We don’t always agree with each other at TechHive. In fact, some times we can’t believe that our colleagues are thinking and saying such ridiculous things. In our Nerd Fight series, two TechHive editors square off on opposite sides of a burning tech topic. We don’t just agree to disagree, but we do so disagreeably.]

The tablet wars are heating up. With Apple and Amazon seemingly duking it out for control of the market, an unexpected challenger has arisen: Microsoft. Last week, the behemoth from Redmond unveiled its tablet competitor, the Surface. But is the Surface a real, flesh-and-blood challenger to the likes of Apple’s iPad, the Amazon Kindle Fire, and Google’s recently announced Nexus 7? Or is it yet another me-too product that’s too little, too late?

While Loyd Case thinks that the Surface is a major player in the tablet sphere, Dan Moren thinks Microsoft’s just hopefully playing the third-time’s-the-charm card. Let’s get ready to rumble.

Case: Surface—particularly the Surface with Windows 8 Pro—will appeal to IT departments and users who want something more compact than an Ultrabook, but still need PC-like features.

Moren: While I can see why IT departments would be interested—they do love the Windows—it seems like there’s plenty of adoption of the iPad in enterprise already. In fact, a recent IDG survey said that, of the 71 percent of business/IT professionals who owned a tablet, 51 percent had an iPad.

Case: But cost is an issue. IT departments currently need to supply both an iPad (if there’s a need) and a standard laptop. The Surface with Windows 8 Pro would reduce that to one, more easily supported device for many users.

Moren: Well, we at least need to put an asterisk after the cost argument. Microsoft hasn’t yet said exactly how much the Surface is going to cost, and if we’re truly talking about replacing all that a PC can do, it seems like the Surface Pro is going to be what the doctor ordered—and it’s sure to cost more than the ARM-based Surface.

Case: There are certainly a lot of unknowns. Microsoft does need to ensure costs are competitive. But I don’t really feel hardware is the issue. The Surface hardware is quite impressive, right down to the kickstand, dual digitizer (on the Pro model) and covers. The real issue is apps: Can Microsoft bring an easy, simple app experience, particularly on the Surface with Windows RT? On the other hand, the Pro version already comes with a huge library of Windows apps.

Moren: I agree with you, that apps are the big question, though I’m not quite as sanguine about the hardware. It looks nice in demos, but despite its touted 30 years of hardware manufacturing, Microsoft’s mainly made peripherals, not computers. (The Xbox and Xbox 360 being the major exceptions.) But yes, software is the defining criteria here, and that’s something Microsoft has long had an advantage in—until the mobile revolution. Building in support for Windows apps is, in many ways, the company’s only option if it doesn’t want its tablet to sink as soon as it hits the market.

Case: What’s also cool is how Microsoft is shifting all its operating system to a single kernel and API with Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8. Even higher level APIs like DirectX will run across all platforms, easing cross-platform transitions between apps.

Moren: That’s a lot of terminology, and I’m sure it’s great for Microsoft, but what about for the consumers who are going to buy these things? Most of them probably don’t know APIs from RBIs. They’re concerned with how this thing is going to let them do their everyday tasks, like reading their email and browsing the Web. And the simple answer is that, when it comes to the actual experience of using the Surface, we just don’t know.

Case: What common operating system underpinnings mean for end users is more software. It will make it much easier for developers to port software from Windows 8 to Windows RT or Windows Phone, for example. And now that Microsoft will support resolution on phones that also exist on tablets and desktop PCs, that will make porting even easier.

Moren: Of course, the trick there will be figuring out whether what works well on a PC works as well on a tablet. A touchscreen interface might not be the best way to interact with something like Excel. This is Microsoft’s what, third or fourth time down the tablet road? What makes the Surface more compelling than Microsoft Tablet PCs or the previous, table-sized Microsoft Surface? The company’s been unable to deliver in that realm so far, and it seems like it’s playing catch-up here, just as it did with the Zune after the iPod and Windows Phone 7 after the iPhone.

Case: Surface is more interesting than past efforts because of Windows 8, which is designed from the ground up to take advantage of touch interfaces. Past efforts at tablets running Microsoft software have been less than successful because user interactions and the touch UI have been bolted on top of the standard OS. Windows 7 was a bit better at pure touch—if you’ve ever played with the Windows 7 touch pack, you’ll see that purely touch-enabled stuff worked great. But I/O (the virtual keyboard) was still lacking. Windows 8 integrates touch as one of the basic UI types.

Moren: I see what Microsoft’s trying to do by touting a “full” Windows 8 experience on the Surface, but I wonder if the company isn’t trying to have its cake and eat it too. For those running both traditional Windows apps and touch-based apps, won’t it be confusing to switch back and forth? How do developers know which input to build into their programs—or do they all have to build in both? Designing for a keyboard/pointer isn’t the same as building for a touch-based interface system by a longshot. It strikes me as too much compromise, not enough decision-making.

Case: Is it risky? Sure it is. Traditional desktop users seem miffed at the touch-centric Windows 8 interface, but those are becoming a diminishing part of the user base. Microsoft has to move forward. I think the worst thing that will come out of this is that Windows 8 will be an also-ran (much the way Windows Vista was), but spawn something much more polished in the next version. But from what I’ve seen of Windows 8, it’s really hitting on most cylinders.

As for software, current software will have to live in a hybrid universe, where touch emulates mouse gestures and clicks. But going forward, new apps and updated versions of current apps will take full advantage of the interface. If you’ve seen the experiments on the “old” surface (now called PixelSense), you can see the direction these things are headed.

Moren: I’ll agree that it’s a risk Microsoft has to take. The company has lagged behind for too long, and I’d rather see them do something that takes a little longer and is better thought out. I’ve been pretty happy with my Xbox 360 for the most part, and I’ve thought that Windows Phone 7 has seemed intriguing. But where the Surface is concerned, my biggest worry is simply that this product isn’t quite ready for prime time yet. When we’ve got a firm ship date and a real price—not to mention a chance to get our hands on the device itself—well, then there might be something to get excited about.

Case: To wrap up, Microsoft is at a crossroads. Its domination of the PC market isn’t in question, even though Apple has scored significant gains in laptops. To maintain growth and relevance in the tech world, however, Microsoft needs to compete in tablets and smartphones. It doesn’t need to be the leader, but must be the clear number two in the long run. Microsoft’s strategy is now clearly to bring the same user experience and OS underpinnings to all platforms. The biggest risk is diving into the hardware business and competing against its OEMs. It’s a strategy fraught with risk, and if the end products prove wanting, Windows 8 in tablets may not gain the momentum needed to compete. It’s going to be an interesting and wild ride in the tech world over the coming six to nine months.

What say you, readers? Should we be pumped about the Surface, as Loyd suggests? Or do you favor a more cautious wait-and-see attitude, like Dan? Sound off in the comments below.

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