28 October 2012

This Surface Was Already Scratched

Microsoft's Surface tablet is a cute puppy dog. So perfectly crafted to make you want to take it home with you and give it love but much like that canine, this adorable creature is going to need a lot of time and work before this dog'll ever hunt in the tablet world. No question, there is a lot of potential here but, with potty training and torn up shoes today, it is hard to imagine many people taking this pup home when the competition has fully functional dogs ready go.

Let's start where Microsoft got it right: There is no finer crafted tablet hardware on the market today. You could argue that Microsoft out-Apple'd Apple. The screen looks beautiful, despite a non-retina resolution. The kick-out stand made me question why every tablet does not have it. The battery life is outstanding. Even the cover keyboard idea is brilliantly designed and a major advantage over the touch screen version, even if the zero travel in the keys limits typing speeds.

Even with this perfection, I have a couple of issues. The tablet is too heavy, comparable to the weight of an 11" MacBook Air. This is not an issue with a laptop that sits on your lap but you would get a serious workout holding this device in the air for hours at a time. The touch screen also needs adjustment. Surface often was unable to register properly my touching a selection on the screen without multiple attempts. Not end of the world stuff.

Where this full misery hits, though, is when we look at the software.

The initial startup process is quite a change from the typical turn-it-on-and-go with competitors but I understand the purpose of making the platform connect with all of your other Windows devices. Of course, if you are not using Windows 8 devices anywhere else then this seems unusually long, even with a demo of the device while you wait. I would recommend a guest login or skip process for customers that are, otherwise, independent of a Windows 8 world.

While using Metro is easily understood, I am not convinced this is a step forward in usability. The variety of block sizes and groupings can make it more difficult to mentally organize the options while the rectangle information animations are a challenge to find useful. Interestingly, configuration and other sub pages do not use the domino tiles and instead rely on a text and white space design held over from the Zune which does not seem to fit will with original tombstone theme. I really want to love this design because it is so refreshing but I think I still prefer Android's middle ground between iOS and Metro thanks to the usability of the options and information presented.

Form a consumer standpoint, a handful of big names are there and work well. Neflix, Hulu, Skype and Angry Birds can be installed in seconds. Provided consumers buy into the platform there will be countless more popular ones in the months ahead but today there is not much important beyond what I listed. What happens if customs do not stand on this Surface? Then it is yet another version of a mobile Windows platform that cracks without any usable code.

You know the those hundreds of thousands of Windows programs that we all swim around in to pick the absolute best product to fit our daily productivity and entertainment needs? Fugetaboutit. None of them work here. At least they give you a somewhat crippled version of Microsoft Office with the device. So, Surface has the one program no other tablet has and that is the only thing it has.

If you are a fan of Google then this device is a waste of your time. Bing is the black hole at the center of this galaxy where Google does not exist. There are no apps for any Google product and no settings to change the built-in items to point to Google Maps, Google Search, Google Voice, Google Docs, Google Drive, ... You get the idea. Sure, you can sneak it in by using POP3/IMAP with the Mail app or changing the IE home page and setting favorites. However, without specific Google apps, this is a device that Google fans will want to skip.

Web Browsing
This is one area where the Surface software works fairly well. Many of the web sites I visit each day were not compatible with this new version of Internet Explorer but this may be the quickest item to get corrected since Microsoft patches and web developers will eventually get those problems corrected. Nearly all of the mainstream web sites worked perfectly. The only problem is the touchscreen sensitivity issues I mentioned earlier.

You would think that a Microsoft device that has a big "Mail" application on the main interface would be able to connect to a MICROSOFT Exchange Server - arguably Redmond's most critical product in the workplace. Not so much. The device did not support the standard security settings enforced by our server that every corporation in the world should be using. I think that means the device does not locally encrypt the data which is a big problem for anyone who was hoping to use this to check work email like (ahem) every other tablet on the market can do.

We desperately need a "work" laptop that allows employees to connect with VPN, access file servers, be controlled by group policy, connect to Exchange mail servers, access document management, work on a CRM and use agency management systems. This device could not authenticate with Active Directory which killed the file servers and central control. Exchange did not work at all. Our document management and agency management system software was not compatible. Fortunately, our in-house CRM and intranet worked when we were on our network but it does not have a working Cisco VPN connection. To sum up: It failed on every front for our use. Fine. I will install the Citrix Receiver app to just control a remote desktop to get to everything. That did not work, either.

Okay, Microsoft - WTF? I know you needed to get this product out before Christmas, and hardware design-wise this thing is close to perfect. Stunning work for a software company. So, why is is the software, or lack of it, so ridiculously awful? Most consumers use their laptop for checking email, calendar, playing games and web browsing. This device is acceptable at web browsing and not much else. I still cannot get over the fact that your device cannot natively connect to Gmail or my Exchange Server without employing email technology I was using in 1997. Seriously?

I have no doubt that people employed by the Redmond empire might think this adorable device is fabulous but, for those of us not high on Microsoft crack, this thing is still nothing more than a conceptual design. That is unfortunate because there is a desperate need for a corporate minded tablet with iPad-like features, and Microsoft really needs a successful consumer mobile strategy. Surface is not there yet. There is another version coming that runs a full version of Windows 8 but it remains to be seen how that product will measure up. My advice is to check back on this thing in six months to see if this puppy has grown up or whether we need to look at an entirely different doggie.