Category: Surface RT


When Microsoft co-founder and CEO Bill Gates handed the reins of the tech giant to his longtime comrade and right-hand man Steve Ballmer in January 2000, the path was fairly clear.

ResistanceIsFutile

After some bumps, the company was finally transitioning into an Internet era, but the PC was assured of a prominent place, and its flagship Windows was still the king of the computing world.

Things are quite different 13 years later, as Ballmer announced his plan to step down in 12 months.

In fact, Ballmer is leaving whoever will eventually take over for him with a substantially weaker and less influential company, which has just made yet another organizational change to head down an uncertain path toward something Microsoft calls being a “devices and services” company.

It’s clearly not a very pretty legacy, mostly due to larger external trends that were impossible to resist, and stubborn management by Ballmer who tried too hard to resist them.

In fact, Ballmer was famous for discounting pretty much all of the products that have defined the recent computing age.

His comments about the iPhone in 2007 to USA Today distill it perfectly: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.”

The result of such thinking? The PC industry is tanking, and Microsoft’s longtime partners are struggling in an era where mobile devices – mostly made by others – are flourishing.

Windows 8 was a stab at redefining the company’s operating system for a world sure to be dominated by mobile devices. But, as shown by the tepid response to the software – and to the initial Surface tablet device the company makes itself – Microsoft has a long way to go in that effort.

It’s like that across the Microsoft empire, which too often feels like it is in its sunset.

In phones, Microsoft has thus far decided not to make its own products, casting its lot largely with Nokia, although the company is said to have some phone designs of its own in the back pocket, if not the front. But so far those efforts lag well behind mobile rulers Apple and Google.

In search, Bing has established itself as the only real rival to Google, but Microsoft remains a distant runner-up, without a clear path to significant profits.

Microsoft retains a key spot in core business software, but the dual trends of cloud services and the consumerization of corporate technology mean that many of today’s young companies are forsaking traditional software in favor of options from Google, Salesforce.com and others.

The continued strength in the business sector played to Ballmer’s own abilities and interests, of course. But in an era of fast-moving apps, mobile-first mentalities, and the need for nimbleness and speed over brute force, he had become the wrong leader for Microsoft.

Perhaps that’s why Ballmer recently tried to redefine the company as being “One Microsoft.”

In a memo to employees, Ballmer had written, “we are rallying behind a single strategy as one company – not a collection of divisional strategies,” and that the changes “will enable us to execute even better on our strategy to deliver a family of devices and services that best empower people for the activities they value most and the enterprise extensions and services that are most valuable to business.”

Later, in another memo, titled “Transforming Our Company,” Ballmer added, “as the times change, so must our company.”

Indeed, and just now the other shoe in that sentiment just dropped, perhaps as it had to and as it should have.

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Surface

Unlike its competitors, Microsoft has largely stayed out of the hardware business. They have the Xbox and a line of input devices, but coming up with the Surface RT was a big step for them. And the Surface RT is a genuinely different computing experience, one that can be enjoyable in the right circumstances.

Those interested in a laptop replacement may find the Surface RT insufficient, which is why the Surface Pro is being released early next year. Even though the Pro is not yet available, there are some pretty clear areas where I feel the RT version isn’t quite ready for prime time.

Surface

The many keyboards of Surface

I had a lot of hope for the Surface’s keyboard. I’ve noticed that Windows Phone 8 has a fantastic software keyboard — it handles auto-correct well and has excellent logic when it comes to figuring out where your finger is trying to press. The same can not be said for Windows RT, unfortunately. The virtual keyboard has pretty good auto-correct, but the layouts for both docked and split modes leave much to be <a href="http://xphonegadget.wordpress.com/2012/08/29/waterproof-ipod-shuffle-green-4th-gen-2gb-by-underwater-audio-free-and-discounted-waterproof-headphone-promotion/&quot; title="Waterproof iPod Shuffle GREEN (4th Gen 2GB) by Underwater Audio – Free and Discounted Waterproof Headphone Promotion! <>” target=”_blank”>desired. The split keyboard, for example, makes the keys either too small or positions the keys away from the edge of the tablet. As a result, I am not nearly as capable a typist on the Surface’s virtual keyboard as I am on an iPad or Android tablet.

Fortunately, Microsoft released two different very clever keyboards for the Surface. There’s the Touch Cover, a buttonless touchpad with grooves and raised “keys” that allow you to type in much the same way you do on a virtual keyboard. It takes about a day of serious typing to get used to, but once you do adjust the keyboard a very good experience. Then the Type Cover is available for those of us who would prefer to hit press-able keys when typing. The Type keyboard feels about twice as thick as the Touch Cover, which adds a little to the bulk of the tablet when carrying it around, but the keyboard works well and will mean more words per minute for almost all users.

Neither of these keyboards use the same auto-correct as the virtual keyboard, so when you misspell something there’s no pop-up or suggestion to replace. You are left with that menacing red squiggle as though you were using a regular laptop. To make things all the more frustrating, the Touch Cover does offer a basic form of auto-correct where the OS assumes you meant to type a word and corrects it without even warning you. This seems to only happen if the keyboard detects your fingers on more than one key, and then it makes a judgement call for you. While this sounds really helpful, it’s somewhat maddening to see some words change right in front of you without warning or explanation while completely ignoring other words that you have clearly misspelled.

Surface

A barren wasteland of apps

When I first booted up the Surface RT I knew that the app selection wasn’t going to be stellar. I have been using Windows 8 on my desktop since the Developer Preview (in other words, over a year), and have watched as the slow trickle of apps seeped into the corners of the Windows Store. It makes perfect sense — neither iOS nor Android had a bustling ecosystem at launch, and there is a clear chicken-and-egg issue that must be dealt with. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be a ton of developers interested in making quality RT apps and Microsoft isn’t making any public cries for help, like Google did in the early days.

This situation is made worse when you see paid apps for things like “meme generation”, basic services that are available on dozens of websites for free. This is not unique to the Windows Store, it also plagues iOS and Android, but when crapware like this show up in the recommended rotation you’ve got a problem. Because Microsoft can’t let the store appear stagnant by promoting the same 30 apps, occasionally you open the Windows Store and see offerings that are clearly not something anyone would recommend.

Surface

The perils of Desktop Mode

Desktop Mode is the place you go to when you want to be productive. It allows you to escape the Modern UI (formerly known as Metro) and go back to the real world with, you know, windowed apps. It works great on my desktop and the Windows 8 laptops I have tested. Sadly Desktop Mode isn’t touch friendly, which puts the Surface RT at a disadvantage.

While the Touch Cover and Type Cover do include trackpad areas, they are quite tiny and not particularly comfortable to use for more than a few minutes. For the most part this is fine because the Surface is a tablet. Because of the touchscreen you would ideally never need a mouse, unless maybe you were on a website that wasn’t formatted for touch. Explorer for Windows 8 includes a lot of functions that make touch use easier. For example, folders include select all functions and when you long press you can get to the right-click pretty quickly. Selecting multiple items out of a folder or trying to use any of the menu options in the top right of a given window are just a few of the things in Desktop Mode that aren’t particularly finger friendly.

Doing anything at all on the taskbar, aside from accessing pinned apps, is just a bad idea. The icons are way too small and you will miss more often than not. This isn’t such a big deal on Surface RT, since not a lot happens in the taskbar. For the Surface Pro, especially if you install a lot of apps that prefer the desktop for use, this is going to become a problem pretty quickly. Since the Surface Pro isn’t out yet, there’s not a lot to say about how Microsoft plans to handle that.

Commendable, but not recommendable

My time with Microsoft’s first attempt at their own tablet confirmed that a Surface Pro is something I am interested in. The Surface RT hardware is fantastic, combining everything I want out of a 10-inch tablet and everything I want out of a travel laptop. I feel like Windows RT struggles to compete with Chrome OS, and I hope that Microsoft is learning from some of the things that aren’t quire right with this first Surface and makes sure that the release of Surface Pro goes off without a hitch. Otherwise, I’m afraid that the first generation may be the only generation of Surface.

Read more: 5 cool Surface RT features

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