The announcement of Microsoft’s Surface tablet computer stimulated a lot of rumination on the future of personal computing in general, and my own system upgrade roadmap in particular. Partly because of the Surface, which is essentially a hybrid of touchscreen media tablet and laptop computer, which I’m increasingly inclined to perceive as the likely future of personal computing.
Speaking of which, I’m finding it difficult to refute blogger Robert Cringeley’s contention last month that most of us are probably already on our next-to-last PC — a hardware category he reckons will be dead, at least as we’ve come to know it, in about five years. However, personal computing is neither going to die or just fade away. What will change is the sort of hardware we’ll be using to do it. The realization of Steve Jobs’s “post-PC world?”
As Mr. Cringeley observes, smartphones are now performing many of the functions we used to use personal computers for, and that trend is likely to continue in the contexts of text messaging, email, and light Web surfing.
Some also profess to prefer smartphones for watching movies and TV shows, and even gaming, which I find somewhat inexplicable if one is not bored and desperate, but whatever floats your boat. However the popularity of those pursuits is leading to smartphone form factor evolution running somewhat contradictorily to the general trend with PCs and tablets with handset screens getting somewhat larger and device footprints likewise. Apple has resisted that with the iPhone up to the current 4S version, but there’s a widespread rumor consensus that the next, sixth-generation iPhone will have a somewhat larger display panel at about four inches diagonal with a 16:9 aspect ratio.
However, smartphones are not a practical platform for production and content creation computing, where the laptop and in some high end contexts even the traditional desktop computer remain the platforms of choice, and in some instances arguably necessity, for serious production work. And I’m skeptical (notwithstanding the popularity of touchscreen tablet computers which have staked out a vast new middle ground between smartphones and PCs over the past two years and a bit) that PC attributes like keyboard and mouse user input and fully-capable desktop operating systems with user file system access, multiple window and multiple app on-screen viewing modes and so forth are going to be gone in five years for serious productivity computing.
Microsoft seems to have made a similar deduction in designing the Surface, which will compete at the consumer level with the iPad as a touchscreen media tablet using the new ARM CPU supporting Windows RT operating system and touch-oriented Metro user interface, but will also be available in a more powerful, higher-end model powered by an Intel Core i5 PC CPU and capable of running the full version of Windows 8 with a traditional desktop interface and file system access and supporting the vast ecosystem of Windows software. Both versions will have a real keyboard built into a magnetic cover, and a variety of industry standard I/O ports including real USB.
As Robert Cringeley notes, a trend toward more mobile devices has been clearly evident for many years now, with notebooks in Apple space having caught and passed desktops in market share back in the early 00s, and a significant compromise this transition imposed on us is that most of us are probably working on smaller screens than we had become accustomed to by the mid-’90s. Personally I guess I was a bit ahead of the curve on this, since I switched to laptops as my anchor production Macs back in 1996, and have never exercised the option of connecting them to a larger external monitor when the machines have been used in desktop substitute mode. Fifteen years ago I was surfing the Internet on a 9.5-inch display PowerBook, and these days I’m doing a lot of my surfing on a 9.7-inch iPad, albeit at a much higher display resolution. On the other hand, my last anchor Mac system upgrade was a downsize from a 17-inch laptop to a 13-inch laptop, and it’s likely that my next will also be a 13-incher, or even an 11.6″ MacBook Air. Apple recently discontinued manufacture of the 17-inch MacBook Pro in response to dismal sales, and while some suggest that a slimmer, lighter 17-inch MacBook Pro may be offered again sometime in the future, I’m doubtful that Apple will bring it back.
Mr. Cringeley says that he also writes today mainly on a 13-inch notebook, which replaced a 21-inch desktop, but hat doesn’t miss the desktop because the total value proposition is so much better with the notebook, and going back to a bigger screen would mean scrapping his mobility. He contends that the downsizing and mobilizing dynamic is now entering another phase with the ascendency of smartphones and tablets, with desktops and even notebooks on life-support, their continued use attributable to corporate buying policies, hardware replacement cycles, and the inertia of familiarity.
In respect of these trends and developments, Microsoft would seem to be well-poised to catch the wave with the Surface, although their announcement last month was light on some important detail specifics such as pricing and battery charge life. However, if they can keep their tablet PC price-competitive, if and deliver on what they’ve promised: lightweight systems on which content producers can get real work done efficiently, I think they’ll have a success on their hands.
Some Apple partisans argue that the Surface with its multiple choice of user interface and input mode choices, as opposed to the iPad’s imposed simplicity and purity, proves that Microsoft doesn’t “get” tablet computing, and that they’ve just come up with a tablet-like netbook or hybrid computer. Exactly!
As Microsoft founder and former CEO Bill Gates noted in http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/12436 a recent PBS Charlie Rose interview, “You don’t have to make a compromise. You can have everything you like about a tablet and everything you like about a PC all in one device. And so that should change the way people look at things.”
Mr. Gates went on to observe that the iPad is OK, but what Apple really needs is a Surface. Interestingly, a point on which Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak appears to be pretty much in agreement.
Speaking at a press conference at the Entel Summit in Chile this week, Wozniak declared that the Surface is a “beautiful device” of the sort that a reincarnated Steve Jobs hired by Microsoft might have designed, adding that “Microsoft’s latest products have such a strikingly good visual appearance which is a lot of what Steve Jobs always looked for, the art and technology; the convergence of art and technology. And usually It was visual appearance of things.
The Woz says he wants a Surface, pending actually getting his hands on one. You can check out his comments verbatim in this video (go about 2:30 in for the Surface discussion) posted by iDownloadBlog at:
The thing is that there’s an awful lot of us — probably a minority, but a substantial one — who don’t perceive having choice in these matters like input modes, operating systems, access to the file system, access to the innards for things like battery or other component replacement, and repair as a bad thing. For that cohort, the Surface, designed to seamlessly transition between consumption and creation, is an attractive package with some cleverly innovative features such as the built-in kickstand that folds out of the way when not in use, but is instantly available when needed, expandable memory, and likely battery packs that an be replaced by tech savvy users armed with a standard screwdriver.
That’s why it’s extremely shortsighted to peg the Surface as simply another iPad challenger. The Surface is more accurately a new type of PC. It’s notable that the keyboards and kickstand both define the Surface as a laptop-esque landscape orientation device, as opposed to the portrait screen orientation favored by many iPad and other tablet users. And support for full-featured Windows 8 makes it a far more capable and powerful device than any iPad model.
The Surface also addresses many of the iPad’s very real shortcomings for content producers and power users. For instance, Microsoft claims that the entry-level “consumer” Surface’s 3 mm thick Touch Cover represents a significant advance in human-computer interfacing. Using pressure-sensitive technology, Touch Cover is engineered to sense keystrokes as gestures, which Microsoft claims will enable users to touch type significantly faster than they could with an on-screen keyboard. The “pro” Surface’s optional 5 mm-thick Type Cover incorporates moving keys for a more traditional typing feel that will no doubt appeal to production users, and a touchpad. With Windows device drivers and a standard USB port you should also be able to plug in a mouse or just wirelessly connect one via Bluetooth.
Another Surface advantage is that even the Windows RT version will support “killer app” productivity software that neither the iPad nor any Android offer: namely Microsoft’s Office suite of business tools, which will be a decisive factor for many in choosing this tablet over its competitors. Another is that Surface will be available with up to 128 GB storage capacity, twice as much as the most commodious iPad and on par with what has become the mainstream spec. for Apple’s MacBook Air laptops.
Speaking of specs, the Surface tablet PC has a 10.6-inch non-Retina (which suits me fine) 16:9 aspect ratio (the industry standard for HD) Gorilla Glass 2.0 display and two cameras. At 0.36″ (9.3 mm) thick and weighing just under 1.54 lb. (676 g), it’s slightly thicker and somewhat heavier than the new iPad.
The consumer model Surface reportedly is powered by a quad-core 1.4 GHz Nvidia Tegra 3+ ARM CPU with integrated Nvidia GeForce graphics, and will come in 32 GB and 64 GB flash/SSD storage memory configurations plus a microSD card slot, and (hooray!) it also has the aforementioned full-sized USB 2.0 port, and will, as also fore-noted, run Windows RT, the ARM variant of Windows 8, with prices projected to be in the neighbourhood of $599 for the 32 GB model and $699 with 64 GB.
The pro model Surface that interests me most will be powered by an Intel Core i5 CPU, include 64 GB or 128 GB of flash storage memory, and run the full x86 version of Windows 8 Pro. It will be thicker yet at 0.53″ (13.5 mm) and weigh 1.99 lb. (903 g) which puts it in netbook territory poundage wise, and is not that much lighter than an 11-inch MacBook Air (2.38 pounds (1.08 kg). However, It gets an even better array of I/O ports, including USB 3 and a Mini DisplayPort, plus a micro SDCX card slot and a 2×2 MIMO antenna.
No word on battery life as yet, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. The Pro model Surface especially sounds like it could be a battery eater, but at least it won’t have to support a Retina display.
So, am I really serious about possibly making a switch to Windows after all these years? That’s the big question. Twenty years of being an Apple user isn’t something that can be lightly discarded. There are also Mac-only programs I would miss profoundly such as Text Edit Plus and TextWrangler, not to mention AppleScript, which is supported to great advantage by both of those applications.
Then there’s the matter of the pleasure of using and working with elegant, beautifully designed, and high quality Apple hardware. Microsoft hardware (eg: keyboards, mice, XBox) has a reputation for excellent quality as well, but elegance not so much.
Another consideration is professional, to with the journalism and blogging niche I’ve developed over the past 15 years writing about using and working with Apple products. My expertise, such as it is, has a strong Apple orientation.
For these reasons and probably others, it would be a lot less disruptive for me to continue with Apple, gritting my teeth and living with the frustrating angularities of the iPad and iOS, as well as the iOSsification of OS X Lion and Mountain Lion that I’ve thus far avoided by hanging on to my old 2008 MacBook and continuing to run OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard.
Some pretty good keyboard cases are available for the iPad, although I’ve found the news I’ve tried a bit bulky for my taste. However, I’m wondering how long it will be before some third party comes out with a keyboard cover for the iPad similar to Microsoft’s Touch and Type covers. Still no kickstand, but plenty of stands are available. Mouse/touchpad input support remains elusive, full screen app mode remains non-optional, and there’s no file system access, no USB port, no SD Card slot, and no real productivity apps. All issues that Microsoft’s Surface appears to have satisfactorily address. However, one workaround would be to move to an 11-inch MacBook Air, or go on using an iPad and a larger Mac laptop in tandem.
At least as long as there are larger Mac laptops to use.