Friday, June 22, 2012

Microsoft Surface, Windows 8 and WP8: Suddenly it is brilliant

There's a world outside of Apple, and a major portion of that world is still powered by Microsoft. I think MS is the most maligned company in the history of technology. It is considered cool to hate on Microsoft, deride its products, and laugh at its supposed incompetence.

I beg to differ.

For one thing, Windows remains a towering achievement. It is easy for Apple to create extremely elegant interfaces because they control all the hardware aspects of their products. On the other hand, whenever Microsoft presses a DVD with Windows on it, it has no idea on which device it is going to land. They don't know what processor will it run on, which motherboard, chipset, sound card, video card, RAM, montior, or hard disk it will have to work with. Yet it works. Have you ever installed Windows on a machine and seen it not work?

So, Windows works on 90% of personal computers in the world. It runs any software as long as it is designed for Windows. If you start to count the sheer number of manufacturers involved in your PC or laptop, you will come up short no matter what. There's the brand (such as HP, Dell or Acer), then there is the display, memory, processor, motherboard, chipset, sound card, modem, LAN card, speakers, USB ports, power ports, display connection, bluetooth radio, memory, optical drive....chances are, a different company is responsible for EACH of these components. On the software side, there's your OS, your office suite, your drivers for all the abovementioned components, and anything that you might care to install. Again, they might be coming from dozens of different companies. Yet it all works.

Windows and Office alone make MS the most important company in computing today.

A few days ago, Microsoft unveiled their own computing hardware, namely the Surface tablets. Both tablets are supposed to run Windows 8, will have touchscreen displays and brilliant covers that double as portable, lightweight keyboards. A few days before that, MS had released a 'release preview' of Windows 8 operating system. Two days ago, they unveiled Windows Phone 8, the latest version of their mobile OS.

See the screenshot above. See something similar? Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 (WP8) share their core components. This is a world first as far as I know. Yes, Android shares its kernel with Linux. But this is entirely different. As you can plainly see, for the first time there is a possibility of having the same user interface and apps on a laptop, a tablet and a phone. I believe we are on the verge of a major revolution in personal computing.

Let's start with Surface. The most popular tablet today is the iPad and I must admit that it might well be the best. It sports a beautiful high-resolution display and Apple's bulletproof app ecosystem. In reality, though, it is just a big iPhone. It does NOT have the power of the desktop as far as productivity is concerned. Similarly, Android tablets also offer numerous options for media consumption, but precious little in the way of creation. We can say that tablets are hampered by their media focus and lack of hardware keyboards, amongst other things, in terms of enabling users to get any actual work done.

Ask yourself: can you create a PowerPoint presentation on a tablet? No. For productivity applications like Office, Photoshop, and other tools, the PC (or Mac) remains the only choice. You cannot write a novel or create your company's budget on a tablet.

The Surface, on the other hand, enables you to do just that while retaining the attractive media capabilities of a tablet, namely portability, long battery life and touchscreen interface. I see that as a foolproof formula.

Today's phones, while extremely capable, again would not allow you to be productive due to size limitations. Phones are not supposed to be productivity tools; rather, they are appropriate for media consumption, web browsing and social media. Which means that right now, there isn't much use for a tablet.

That brings to the conclusion that a perfect all-in-one device would be something that fits in your pocket, yet grows its screen to 10 inches and sprouts a keyboard should you need to do any actual work. Microsoft's recent announcements are the closest to that scenario.

Take Windows 8. Its user interface has been thoroughly revamped so that it resembles that of WP8 and is optimized for touchscreens. Yet, it has a full-fledged OS underneath with technologies like DirectX and other APIs that enable developers to utilize the hardware fully. More importantly, those same technologies will be shared by Windows Phone 8 because the kernels of the desktop and mobile OS are now shared. Unlike Android and iOS, that might bring desktop-like power to mobile applications.

To put it simply, this is the answer to the riddle that why a smartphone today does not perform as well as a desktop despite having desktop-like specs such as quad-core processors, dedicated graphics, HD screens and 1 GB of RAM. Mobile OS's today lack the necessary bandwidth to be able to utilize the hardware to its full capacity, and it is understandable due to battery time considerations.

So in near future I imagine this scenario: I am working on a Microsoft Office document on my laptop. I push that document to my Surface tablet through either a networking connection or a cloud based storage service. I continue to work on Surface and then push it to my WP8-powered phone. Since all three devices have the same version of MS Office, the document opens perfectly. I can take the phone to others and show around the document, make some necessary changes. And those changes are instantly reflected in the document on the other two devices.

I think MS are on the brink of something revolutionary here; they just have to get it right. There are plenty of ways where they can mess up. I am also concerned that MS are on a winning streak of late - XBox360, Office 2010, Windows 7 - and there's always a chance of things messing up!

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