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  • So Are We Really in the PC+ Era?

    July 12th, 2012

    Microsoft will never admit fault. Just when you believe they have to hunker down and address serious problems with the company’s future direction, they will confirm yet again that they are clueless. You can see that in the way the Surface tablet — described by CEO Steve Ballmer as nothing more than a “design point” — is being handled.

    If you take Microsoft at face value, the Surface is a genuine product. The ARM-based Windows RT version will appear around the time Windows 8 arrives, at a “competitive” price with existing tablets. I suppose that means the iPad and the larger Android tablets.

    The Intel version will supposedly be out three months later, which would mean early in 2013. That is if you take that claim at face value.

    However, it’s also true that Microsoft’s OEMs are none-too-happy about the state of affairs. You can see that in HP’s decision to concentrate on Intel tablets, a market that has been a total failure for the past decade or so. Just the threat of Microsoft competing with hardware partners on tablets can be a source of serious trouble. Ballmer’s assurances, and that “design point” comment, make it clear that, if the Surface appears, it will only be produced in limited quantities and quietly discontinued once other companies build tablets that Microsoft deems acceptable. That is, if they can really do such a thing.

    It’s not as if the spate of note-books with removable or double-sided screens, the sort of silliness PC makers have been demonstrating over the years, represents anything that customers would ever consider buying. Maybe that’s what forced Microsoft’s hand, but the Surface leaves open more questions than are being answered. As of the time this article was written, specs were bare bones, and shipping prices and exact shipping dates are still missing. Nobody outside of Microsoft, it seems, has actually spent any extended face time with a real fully-functional Surface.

    No, it’s not the same thing as Apple does, by announcing new hardware close to the release date and seeding selected journalists with review samples a week or two earlier. The first generation of a product may be announced weeks or months in advance, such as the first iPhone and first iPad. But even then, the media is allowed to see samples that actually worked. So far as anyone can see, the Surface tablets Microsoft had on display at the recent media rollout were at best barely functional. Or there was at least no evidence they were near-ready for production, since nobody was allowed to spend more than a few seconds with one.

    Yes, a design point, and if you take Microsoft’s checkered history into account, it may well never get beyond the demonstration stage.

    Meantime, Microsoft’s vision of a PC+ era, with Windows everywhere, even on tablets, may be stillborn. The media remains highly skeptical about the prospects for Windows 8. It presents a needless sea change in the successful Windows playbook. Microsoft may be desperate to pull out of a rut, but if it comes at the expense of building another Windows Vista — or something worse — what will Microsoft’s shareholders think?

    To look at the damage of which Windows 8 is capable, consider this contrast, involving an individual upgrading to Mountain Lion from a very early Mac. The basic look and feel of the Mac OS has not changed significantly over the years. Yes, the icons are prettier, there are new standard apps and loads of extra features. But most of the new features are reasonably discoverable, labeled clearly and distinctly, and the reasonably experienced Mac user of any era should be able to figure out what’s going on in short order. If any retraining is involved, it will be a brief process.

    Windows 8, on the other hand, resembles no other version of Windows. Yes, there is a slimmed down Windows desktop lying beneath the Metro overlay. But it’s not as the process of switching back and forth is intuitive. The features are there, but often available only via obscure keystrokes or curious gestures. It’s not as if things are easily discovered.

    What’s more, it’s not as if Microsoft hasn’t been stuck on their curious vision of discoverability for a number of years. Supposedly ditching menu bars, part of graphical operating systems since the first Mac OS, and replacing them with toolbars — I mean ribbons — is supposed to make an app’s features more discoverable. It’s as if Windows users can’t just pull down a menu and see what’s there. So is trying to figure out what some tiny icon represents the better way?

    Well, both are gone with Metro (at least so long as you don’t jump to the Windows desktop), where the endless stream of tiles is supposed to represent a superior way of finding your stuff and getting work done. I suppose for simple functions, such as reading email and surfing the Internet, it may well be simple enough. But as soon as you actually try to do some work with Office, or any other Windows app, Metro-based or otherwise, it can get complicated real fast. Businesses will likely avoid Windows 8 like the plague, even though Microsoft has set an aggressive upgrade price for consumers. Maybe they hope a large user base will encourage businesses to move to Windows 8, under the belief that their employees will gain enough experience on their own not to require serious retraining.

    The real question Microsoft needs to answer is why most efforts to expand beyond the traditional Windows/Office products, or to change them in meaningful ways, have not succeeded. Sure, if Windows 8 exceeds expectations, such as they are, I will be the first to admit I am surprised and wrong to be so skeptical. But I just don’t expect that an apology will be needed. Except from Microsoft for disappointing their most loyal customers once again.



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