The Surface Pro is an answer to a question asked two years ago, not today
This week, the Surface Pro has hit the street and promptly 'sold out'. It's an impressive device, one that I'm very excited about. Not only does it have the best screen on a PC to date (it's hard to believe we still don't have anything retina quality), it's also got the best industrial design we've seen to date in the PC market.
Despite this, the Surface Pro shows a lack of understanding from Microsoft of the market as it currently stands. They've figured out that industrial design is important, but have forgotten that the software is just as important.
Two years ago, when the iPad was new, people cried out for a tablet from Microsoft. People wanted to work and play on the go with a full Windows PC, and the Surface now 'answers' that need, but it doesn't address (or even try to address) the world as it is now.
It's not clear if it is through sheer ignorance or just having missed the point, but Microsoft touted the Surface Pro's “connected standby” extensively through the development of Windows 8. If you're not aware what connected standby is, it's like your smartphone. You turn the screen off, but the device is still receiving notifications and emails and will make noises to tell you about them.
Somehow, in thinking up this Microsoft forgot that you actually need an internet connection all the time to make this useful. They didn't include a 3G modem. Sure, notifications around the house are useful, but there's a whole new level of connected users now who want to get these on the go. One could argue that it's easy enough to pull out your smartphone, make a WiFi hotspot and then grab the tablet and check them, but that negates the point. You'd have checked the notifications on your phone already in that time.
This functionality has been around for some time on the iPad 3G and is well loved by people who want to receive their emails and other notifications on the fly, on a device that is much larger than their phone. I don't understand how Microsoft could miss it. At all. Many have said that it might come in the second generation Surface, but for now, it's simply not there and that is inexcusable.
Now, this leads us straight into the second problem. The half-baked version of Office that's on Surface devices as well as other tablets. Peter Bright wrote on Ars Technica late last week:
What I cannot fathom, however, is why Office 2013 exists. Or rather, why it exists in its current form. Just what Microsoft has been doing in that two and a half years, I couldn't tell you, because Office 2013 doesn't feel like it's had two and a half years of work on it.
This bewilders me, and I've mentioned it often on Twitter. For the company touting a PC that has the “full Office experience” on a tablet, it's a pretty terrible experience. The “touch” functionality is a joke, and it does not make any sense as to why in the space of the three years that Windows 8 was developed that the Office team were only able to come up with one Metro app (Onenote MX).
Microsoft seems to be delivering the message that for a great tablet Office experience it's best to just ditch the touch and use the keyboard and mouse that they nicely included for you, but it's the wrong message to be giving to users.
The actual way that Office still seems to work again seems to ignore the always connected reality of the world as it is today. Office faces a tough challenge now, as when it previously existed there weren't any alternatives, but now, as online alternatives rapidly become popular it's clear that they might not be moving fast enough.
Google understands the connected world of 2013 better than everyone else. They have had their online document editing software – Drive – for a few years now. What I don't understand is how Microsoft didn't see this and think “oh, that makes sense.” Yes, Google Drive is very basic, but it's also very good at what it does.
Saving a document to Skydrive is an exercise in stupidity compared to Google Drive (in which you click create and it's saved instantly) and is actually not a straightforward process. Look at the file dialog below. This could have been done a thousand times better and doesn't make any obvious sense to the user as to what this actually is, or how they would be to find it at a later date.
Am I saving in my Skydrive? Who knows. It looks to me like I'm saving to a website.
Not only this, even when set up to save to Skydrive it doesn't act like a “cloud” solution still. Word still saves sporadically (not as you type) and the sharing features still insist that you should have Outlook installed. They also don't seem to work in real time with other users, despite it being three years since Google introduced the world to that. Why not make saving to Skydrive default now? Isn't it time we saved all our documents in the cloud anyway? Corporate customers can always disable that functionality.
The frustrating thing here, is that Microsoft does have their version of a cloud editing suite (Office 365/Skydrive web apps) but you're unlikely to use this in the real world unless you decide to go to Skydrive in a web browser.
It's this combination of issues as well as others that I believe have added to the challenges the device faces and has caused many media outlets to state things such as The Verge who said that “it tries to do everything but misses doing anything really well.”
It's even more amazing to me that while the Surface Pro is the “do it all PC” and is targeted at the office worker who wants to get their spreadsheets done (I think?), it cannot even make it through a 5 hour flight on battery. You're tethered to that charger. I don't care if it's a “full PC” - the Surface Pro is joining a tablet lineup of which many members can get through a whole day on a charge. That's important, especially considering that there are alternatives out there to Office now.
Apologists have said that Intel may have dropped the ball as we wait for their Haswel chips, but that's no excuse, and there are already customers to be lost by going to market with this now.
There are many compromises and just as many excuses, and the issues seem to come down to a lack of understanding of the market and a rush to get something on sale by Microsoft. Many will say that it's “good enough” but who wants to buy a “good enough” device now when you can get a great one from someone else right now? It just doesn't make sense.
I wanted to love the Surface Pro, but just can't. It's an answer to something I wanted two years ago, not something that fills my needs today.