Eyes-on with the Microsoft Surface

Danny Sullivan at Marketing Land describes the decidedly “hands-off” hands on that journalists got with the Microsoft Surface at last week’s press event.

“There’s plenty of careful photography that can give the impression that hands-on was going on. Some of it doesn’t even illustrate how the last station with the Surface tablets with keyboards in them literally had a rope to keep us away.”

Look, but don’t touch. Sounds like my experience after the prom.

[Via Daring Fireball]

Gloating Pt. IV: PC World

Here’s a gem from 2009, entitled “Rumored Apple Tablet is a Train Wreck.”

“I’m no Apple hater, and I welcome an Apple device to the netbook market, but I’ve got to think this device would be a flop. This concept is such a train wreck from start to finish that I don’t know where to begin.

The tablet form-factor in general is good only for a few things. It’s great for artists and for specialized applications like taking orders. Note-taking in class is debatable since many people are better at typing than handwriting. There are lots of things that tablets are not good at. Take watching movies, for example. Since a tablet is designed for lying flat, you have to be looking straight down to view the computer. Actually, that makes it suck for most things. I guess Apple could build in some sort of stand, but that detracts away from the sort of sexy minimalism that it is famous for.”

Great stuff.

iPad guesswork one year later

In October of 2009, the New York Times published a piece about the excitement around the prospect of next-generation tablet computers, especially from Apple. By then, rumors of an “…expanded, souped-up iPod touch” were gaining momentum. I recently re-read the article in hopes of comparing what people wished for vs. what they received. I was surprised at how much the paper got right.

Writing for the Times, Brad Stone and Ashlee Vance noted that, up until then, the tablet market had been largely unsuccessful. Several Windows-based devices had shipped, but most found homes in the medical and financial industries. Niche devices and a more traditional OS couldn’t meet the gadget hound’s wildest dreams: a tablet to save the newspaper and book industry, play video games, improve the Web experience and “…[expand the] world of mobile applications.”

The main hurdle was eventually defeated by Moore’s Law. As Forrester Research‘s Paul Jackson put it, “Software engineers got ahead of the hardware capabilities.” Once the hardware caught up, the previously mentioned problems — a niche market and adherence to an OS initially developed for desktop machines — disappeared as well. Today, Apple’s A4 chip, Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity, multi-touch displays and battery life that was unheard of just a few years ago allow a novel OS to appeal to a huge number of users.

The Times suggested that apps previously built for the iPhone would run on the forthcoming tablet, which was true. They also correctly guessed that developers would begin re-working existing apps to take advantage of the tablet’s large screen.

Finally, an unnamed former Apple engineer was quoted as saying, “I can imagine something like the iPhone with a much bigger screen being a gorgeous device with great capacity, but I don’t know where I would fit that into my life. Those are the debates that have been happening inside Apple for quite some time.”

One year later, there’s still no single answer. Rather, it’s a personal question with personal answers. The iPad, we now know, is a portable computer. If you were to ask five people, “How does your computer fit into your life?” you’d receive several similar and dissimilar answers:

  • Internet and email
  • Online shopping
  • Managing my small business
  • Editing video
  • Playing games

That list could go on and on, but the point is that there’s no one answer. Even as an individual, I use my computer for all of those things and more. It all depends on the time of day and what I want to do.

The answer is just the same for the iPad. What is it for? Well, I use mine to browse the Internet, cook in the kitchen, play games, manage my finances, earn a living, entertain the children, look at photos, etc. In other words, it’s a computer and that’s how I use it. The novelty of its appearance, functioning and so on seems to require re-categorization or a highly-specialized usage scenario. Of course in many ways my iPad is significancy different than my MacBook Pro, but in others it’s quite the same.

The iPad is a computer that people use to get things done, whether those things be professional or leisurely, meaningful or fanciful, necessary or not. As time passes, that conviction will only become more pronounced.

The HP Slate video

Earlier this week, YouTube user x313xkillax [1. That’s an upstate New York accent if I’ve ever heard one. I’m guessing he’s from the Rome/Utica/Vernon area.] posted this video of what appears to be a HP Slate prototype. I questioned if it was real but the folks at Engadget seem convinced. If so, Apple can rest assured that the iPad is under no immediate threat.

To be fair, it’s a prototype and not necessarily representative of the finished product. With that in mind, let’s explore the video.

The body

This Slate looks like an iPad wearing a case. The textured back features the HP logo and a camera, while the front features a black bezel and glass display. It appears shorter and less wide than the iPad, but also thicker (using the reviewer’s hand for scale).

Five buttons appear along the device’s edge: volume, keyboard, CTRL-ALT-DEL, power and home. They’re ugly and detract from the overall appearance.[2. Yes, the iPad has physical buttons, but you can bet Apple means to change that.] Plus, I wonder how frequently users will accidentally press them. The iPad can be held in any position, and I assume the Slate can as well (we only see it in a single landscape orientation). If so, all of that turning would require careful hand placement. Otherwise, it’s “Oops! I just called up the keyboard.” or “Oops! I just turned the volume down.”

Among the five buttons there are two standouts. The first is the CTRL-ALT-DEL key. At first I found it hilarious. “This machine will freeze up on you,” HP seemed to be saying, “so were going to put this key right here.” I think of the original Nissan Xterra, which came with an integrated first aid kit. “You will hurt yourself and others while driving this car.”

Instead, I think Marco Arment got it right. The CTRL-ALT-DEL key is a regrettable concession:

“This is comical, but the actual likely intention is less fun than killing hung apps: it’s probably to get through the Windows NT-style “Press Ctrl + Alt + Delete to log on” screen, a relic from 1993, which is necessary on tablets presumably because Microsoft’s internal structure, politics, and fragmentation precluded the Tablet PC team from getting the Windows Account Security Or Whatever team to make an exception to this procedure for this edition of Windows 7.”

Also troubling is the keyboard button. To use the software keyboard, you must push this button to produce it. Likewise, you must press it again to put the keyboard away, or else it just sits there, hogging 2/3 of the display area. Why the keyboard can’t appear/disappear as the user taps in and out of text entry fields is a mystery. It’s the same behavior we saw from another Windows-based tablet. Having to produce and dismiss the keyboard every time you want to use it will get old very quickly.

I’ve also got to mention the stickers. PC manufactures feel compelled to slap stickers on their hardware that tout its features and its innards. I’m not the only one who dislikes this practice. At least this Slate’s stickers are silver and blend in with the body.

Finally, I timed the device’s boot time. It took 33.5 seconds for the Slate to go from off to a useable state. My iPad took 21.8 seconds.

The UI

A finger tap places a cursor on the screen. Notice the slight delay between the tap and the cursor’s appearance (you can see gear spin for half a second). Since a touch simply moves a cursor around, you might as well just use a stylus.

The Slate flat-out refuses to scroll three times. Towards the end of the video, the user has already adjusted his behavior to make it work; he uses slow, deliberate strokes to initiate a scroll. Also, note the barely-responsive Internet browser. Can’t wait to get my hands on that sweet piece of software.

Finally, it’s running Windows 7, which is a fine OS, but not suited to this application.

Hopefully things will improve before this thing hits the market. HP recently decided to push this device on the enterprise market and not home users. The latter group will, I assume, benefit from HP’s acquisition of Palm. A tablet running webOS is something I’m eager to see.

This incarnation of the Slate is not.