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Microsoft in Motion: Windows 8 and Surface

04 novembre 2012 — Parimal Satyal

Windows 8 is a big deal for Microsoft for three reasons: they are introducing a completely new user interface that challenges conventions solidified over the last 20 years, betting on the convergence of the tablet and the PC, and for the first time in their history, producing their own computing hardware.

Just over a week ago, Microsoft launched Windows 8 to much fanfare. That same day, those of us enrolled in 'Global and Digital Media' (taught by Thierry Jadot, President of Aegis France and Thomas Jamet, President of Moxie) at Sciences Po's School of Communication had the unique opportunity to visit Microsoft headquarters here in Paris and get an inside look at the company and its new operating system.

Windows 8: A Transition

The first of three presentations was a live demonstration of Windows 8. After a small technological hiccup—the projector wouldn’t work and the presentation had to be moved to a different room—we were introduced to a very friendly-looking Start screen with brightly colored ‘live tiles’ showing weather information, new email messages, news headlines and updates from the user’s social networks. This is perhaps the most striking and immediately visible change and one to which I think many users will initially be resistant. Microsoft wants this very personalized Start screen, which replaces the familiar Start menu, to be the portal to virtually everything on your computer. It is the new face of Windows 8 and, frankly, it’s beautiful. The tiles view, unlike anything we’ve seen from either Apple or the Linux world, is a refreshing piece of innovation from Microsoft. With one serious flaw: lack of confidence on the company’s part.

Windows 8 has two modes: the tile-based view for Windows 8-style apps (flat, colorful, typographic full-screen applications) and the traditional Windows 7 desktop, albeit without the Start menu. This will confuse users. The traditional mode is, of course, important to be able to run more complex applications like Excel and Photoshop that Microsoft can obviously not afford to ignore, but the separation of these visually distinct (but functionally similar) modes seriously compromises the cohesiveness of the experience. If only Microsoft were just a little more aggressive about pushing the new interface and extending it make it possible to port even Photoshop into a Windows 8-style application, I’m certain they could make new operating system as exciting as Windows 98 was when it first came out. But as it were, this slick new tile-based interface seems less like a new interaction paradigm and more like a pretty façade slapped on to same old (boring) Windows 7.

My guess is that it will not be until the next major version of Windows that they are able to completely and confidently embrace this new direction. Until then, Windows 8 is likely to be a transitional OS that, by taking users to alien and often uncomfortable territories, serves to (perhaps too) gently push users towards Microsoft’s vision of the future of personal computing.

A Touch of Innovation

Carole Benichou, directrice marketing des audiences at Microsoft France, does not hesitate to declare that “touch has become a new standard.” It’s clear from her presentation that Microsoft is betting big on touch; in fact, Windows 8 seems to be built primarily around it. I personally have not yet had a chance to properly play around with the new OS, but the first time I saw it in action, I found myself unconsciously wanting to reach out and swipe the screen (the makings of an inspired design, perhaps). Microsoft insists, however, that Windows 8 will be just as useable without a touch-capable display through the traditional keyboard-mouse setup; indeed, Microsoft sees touch complementing traditional input methods rather than completely replacing them.

This is significant. Whereas Apple, which currently produces by far the most successful touch-based OS and device, is keeping its multitouch mobile devices (running iOS) largely separate from its traditional full-feature systems (running OS X), Microsoft is betting on convergence. This couldn’t be more evident than in the design of its first tablet computer Surface.

Scratching the Surface

Surface is Microsoft’s answer to the iPad. There’s no two ways about it. Even the technical and marketing executives presenting to us didn’t hide this, mentioning the iPad several times in their presentations. What was very refreshing, however, was the total lack of snark or bashing of the Apple tablet -- they recognized that the iPad had changed the industry and created a new market by being an excellently designed product that users wanted. There was even a sense of humility that, together with a strong sense of pride that permeated the room, betrayed the notion that this could really be the next big thing. Because it can. “Everything you can do with a PC, you can do with Surface,” said Carole, demonstrating the colorful Touch Cover that so effortlessly provides a near-full size keyboard for touch-typing on the tablet. “There’s no frontier between laptop and tablet”. This is precisely why Surface is an ambitious project. Whereas the iPad has largely been about consuming content—magazines, books, music, movies—Microsoft is also actively pushing Surface as a device to create content. In Microsoft’s vision of the future, college students will soon forgo laptops and netbooks for Surface. This level of boldness can only be a good thing in a market so far almost entirely dominated by one device.

Surface comes in two versions: ‘Surface with Windows RT’ is an ARM-based device that’s comparable to the iPad and Android tablets in that it is essentially a mobile device running a mobile operating system. These will only run Windows 8-style applications (except Office, which still confusingly requires users to switch to the traditional Windows 7-like mode); ‘Surface with Windows 8 Professional’, on the other hand is a full laptop replacement in the guise of a tablet.

The RT-based device (which is already available, starting at 489€ in Europe), despite preorders being sold out, will likely take a while to establish footing in market. Microsoft understands that, as they reiterated in their presentation, “it’s going to be about apps”. Microsoft desperately needs its app ecosystem to be more rich, more appealing before it can seen as a viable alternative to the Apple Store.

The Pro version is deeply intriguing. It offers, for the first time, the entire Windows platform in a very portable, multi-touch device with which you can also interact with a keyboard. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before. One minute you could be flipping through a magazine in portrait mode and the next, editing your 60-page report in Office in landscape mode using the Touch Cover keyboard. You could be painting and dragging layers around with your fingers in Photoshop and inputting precise values via the keyboard and mouse (attachable via included USB ports).

What does all this imply? Will touch be the de-facto standard for all mobile devices? Can Microsoft succeed in convincing the world that a marriage of the laptop and the tablet will be a happy one? Have we, finally, a worthy adversary to the venerable iPad?

Not quite, this is only Microsoft’s first and rather late foray into the tablet world and it has much to learn about the market. Early reviews have so far ranged from extremely positive (for Touch Cover, the sleek design, live-tiles) to extremely scathing (steep learning curve, unpolished software -- the included email client is apparently abysmal). But very soon, if Microsoft is able to keep its newfound vision and attitude and be more willing to trust its own design, it might seriously be the device that puts a ding in the Apple-dominated tablet universe.