On Monday, Microsoft unveiled the Surface at a Los Angeles event that had been shortly announced and shrouded in mystery. The media in attendance didn't know whether to be excited or frustrated, for only hours previously had they been told where the event would be held. Had Microsoft been pulling everyone's leg, or did the trek to Milk Studios merit invitation?
Several weeks ago, Tim Cook was asked in an earnings call what he thought about the convergence of laptops and tablets:
"You can converge a toaster and refrigerator, but these things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user."
The remark, meant to barb at the aspirations of Windows 8, drew the ire of Microsoft's Frank Shaw. Candidly, the public relations executive retorted:
Had I been at Shaw's keyboard, I might have also questioned why Apple's CEO, with such a surname, was not be better acquainted with kitchen appliances. It turns out that Shaw didn't have to rely solely on verbal jabs; Microsoft had a tablet baking.
And it isn't just another slate from just another East-Asian OEM. Complete with kickstand and keyboard, this is a device envisioned and designed by Microsoft. And that is significant. But more significant than Microsoft's impetus for building the tablet itself, is that it is the embodiment of an argument and a question: does convergence result in a better product?
The argument has always been between portability and productivity, and if a device can do both well. The answer, up until now, has been no, with the ghosts of the Samsung Sliding PC (7 Series), the HTC Shift and the Asus Eee Pad Slider haunting the dreams of those who would revel in such flexibility. The devices were either too fat too heavy, or too slow. Not to mention just plain ugly. They were awkward to hold and unproductive. They tacked on old software paradigms to poorly equipped hardware. Each half was hamstrung by the other. They were toaster fridges.
But the Surface promises to deliver where past convergence devices have failed, by rectifying the problem of matching software with hardware. To satisfy the software angle is Windows 8, a dual tablet/desktop OS that any self-respecting nerd should be well-aware of. All machines will be able to take advantage of this OS, but to counter the hardware deficiencies of convergence devices, Microsoft has created the Surface with some unique solutions: an integrated stand, and the Touch Cover.
Although it may appear to be an elementary, perhaps superfluous addition, the stand is key. With tablets, the angle of the display dictates the ability to type, something that is at odds with the typical angle of reading. I know no one who can type effectively at a 70-80 degree angle, or whatever angle the tablet is typically tilted at during reading. Conversely, the angle at which typing is done presents a non-optimal viewing angle, necessitating the user to hunch awkwardly over the display. Who would choose, much less tolerate, working on a laptop bent at such an extreme angle, or prefer to watch a movie on a television titled to the same degree? Yet the majority of tablet users have defaulted to just that in order to take advantage of the virtual keyboard. A keyboard which is full of compromises itself. Touch typing is virtually impossible, and it obscures half of the available screen estate.
To solve this, Microsoft has created the touch cover. A clever cover/keyboard hybrid, the accessory solves the productivity angle. It allows the user to take full advantage of the screen while offering tactile feedback. By simply addressing these two problems, Microsoft may have created a viable convergence device.
Is the Surface in competition with the iPad? Certainly. Does it need to conquer the iPad to prove its viability? Absolutely not. But it does help us to answer a question we have all been asking ourselves, and each other for a number of years. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until the fall or later to see if this toaster oven bakes or burns the convergence experience.