[ Update, 5 months later: I was right and I knew it. The verdict is in and business websites are reporting that Microsoft’s “Surface” tablet isn’t selling. Even the obnoxious TV adverts which air at an ear-splitting decibel, showing college kids prancing around and writhing in the air while snapping and unsnapping their goofy “Surfaces” can’t save this hi-tech flop. But I knew that the first minute I laid eyes on the comically unnecessary “Surface” last fall. ]
Earlier I had written:
When I saw the new TV advert for “Surface” I fell about laughing myself silly. It just goes to show you: sometimes the most clever new idea on the block is an old idea which never went out of style.
Good design is always characterized by it’s timelessness. It will outlast decades, fads, fashion transformations and often return again years into the future to become the new “vogue” that it was in it’s original heyday. All fashion designers know this. That’s why many times what you see on the runway as the “next big thing” is a retro re-hash of what was vogue once upon a time in the 1940s, 50s or 60s.
Microsoft’s new tablet “Surface” looks tragically similar to what you might get if a good solid laptop and a an Ipad got together, had sex, and had a hybrid baby. The idea for the “Surface” is not new, nor is it particularly clever. The object has to have a third appendage to hold it up as a make-believe laptop, as the keyboard section is not heavy enough to do it alone. It’s never good design when the newer model is a mangled re-working of the original with more working parts and less aesthetic appeal. At first glance, the “Surface” looks like exactly what it is, a pretend laptop which dis-assembles into a tablet. The clunky third piece on the back which holds it all up is kind of sad looking. Peeking into the historical archives of Microsoft you will find they have tinkered with a “tablet” computing machine design since as early as 1991. The “tablet” idea is not new. But for Microsoft, it is rather late in arriving.
The “retro computing movement” has apparently finally come around to some of the fundamental design issues of personal computing. Anyway that you look at the Microsoft Surface, it’s an attempt to wed the carefree coolness and youth of a tablet with the more practical working credentials of a classic computing laptop, proving of course that laptops never went “out of style” in the first place. No one wants to admit this but you can’t really improve much on the design basics of the most practical portable computing device ever invented: the laptop.
I’m sounding off on all of this as a writer. I’ve been both an artist and a writer all my life, and a news blogger for at least five years. I spend a few hours every other day at least, working at my laptop.
I’ve used a laptop, in one form or another, to ply my trade online, for 18 years or more. Before the internet was invented, writers used typewriters of course [ remember typewriters?] and we even used an archaic little vial of super blue-white goo known as “White-Out” to erase our mistakes. A keyboard was not laid out on a one dimensional flat plane on the typewriter, but rows of keys sat in little tiers, one just above the next. WPM [“words per minute” ] mattered to office managers and company owners. It was the era of the written human word as it existed BEFORE the internet: B.I.
When computers began appearing in every American home in the late 1980s and early 1990s the early era computer keyboard continued to look a little bit like the old tiered typewriter keyboards, as most early first and second generation home computers were either little Macintosh affairs or PC towers which came with a separate keyboard, attached to the hard drive with a cable. These keyboards had a little tabs on the bottom that you could use to raise the surface to a slight angle, so that skilled typists could still reach keys at a similar angle to the keyboards that they had used on typewriters for decades before computers were around. [ Naturally I am writing this post with those in mind who are old enough to recall “life before the internet” in comparison to “life after the internet” – and I am fully aware that on WP that may be a rather small minority of readers. ]
The next evolution of the keyboard came with the exploding popularity of laptops, the beloved portable little computing machines which were conveniently sized flat hinged rectangles which opened up into a practical arrangement of computer screen at the top facing the viewer and keyboard as the flat foundation holding the whole thing together, the “lap” part of the “top”. Even the name made perfect sense as it described this new modern electronic object much better than the word “computer,” which could be a word used to describe anything or anyone which can mentally calculate and ‘compute’.
As design pragmatics goes, the laptop will never go out of style as the most utilitarian design for any portable machine used for looking at a computer screen and typing while you do that. Laptops just make sense. The entire arrangement snaps shut into one solid object which one can drop into a briefcase or a backpack and take along with to record life as it happens at the office, at home, at the library, wherever you need to stop sit, plug in [ or not, using an extended battery and wifi ] and start typing.
What never made sense to me about tablets was the non-existent tactile experience of typing and feeling the keys give to record the character. Typing has always made a little sound. Writers are familiar with that sound, the soft tapping of characters on a real [ not virtual ] keyboard. It’s the sound of one human being communicating his or her thoughts to another one. It’s a sound that has been around in one way or another since the invention of keyboards. Using a tablet to type or compose an essay is awkward, clunky, oddly noiseless and for me it has discouraged writing rather than encouraged it. If I had to depend on a tablet to do what I do, I would eventually lose interest in writing. Or I’d just go back to linen paper, a good ink pen and classic longhand.
If I wanted to play and goof off all day online I would carry along a tablet. But if I want to get any real work done, I cannot be without my real and genuine laptop. I don’t want a “faux” make-believe laptop, that snaps together like a Leggo.
So Microsoft, the inventor of the operating system that put the personal computing experience into the offices and homes of 80% of the world’s computer users 30 years ago, has attempted to re-invent the laptop again in late 2012.
Why? Why go to all this trouble to call the object something new and different, when the original object it imitates is still around, still works great, has more varying design makes and models than any car brand out there, and really can’t be improved upon? There are real laptops out there. And now we will have “faux” Microsoft laptops which will be called a “Surface.”
It’s silly. No, really, it’s just silly.
Here’s my theory: Microsoft has fallen into mediocrity in the mega-earnings department in recent years, as Apple’s Ipods, Ipads, Iphones, and I-everythings has blanketed the world in “Appleness”. For the company to remain viable in coming decades they have needed to come out with their own brand of MUST-HAVE personal computing gadgets. It’s nothing more than fashion really. Maybe they have been embarrassed by Apple’s supersonic success with I-products. Why wouldn’t they be? Maybe Apple’s success now threatens the future existence of Microsoft. I’m sure that it does. Maybe it’s just the “green with envy” problem. But for whatever reasons, Microsoft has aired the most screaming up and down, hopping delighted, look-at-me look-at-me TV advert in recent memory for a rather sad and unimaginative laptop knock-off which they have named their new “Surface”.
What goes around comes around. And around. And around.
- Microsoft reveals Surface price (pcpro.co.uk)
- Microsoft tablet Surface to start at $499 (local10.com)
- Microsoft Surface RT’s magnetic power adapter shows up online (wpcentral.com)
- Surface tablet pre-ordering starts now at $499; ships Oct. 26 (nbcnews.com)
- Microsoft Surface: The Price Is Out but Mysteries Remain (techland.time.com)
- Microsoft Surface Price Leaked (forbes.com)
- How to choose a Windows 8 tablet that is right for you (zdnet.com)