Windows 8 and Surface: 10 things to know

Microsoft's new Windows 8 operating system and Surface tablet have some things going for them, but also some issues that need work, writes Peter Nowak.

New operating system considered big risk for venerable software company

A Microsoft store product adviser displays the new Surface tablet computer as customers enter the store Friday in Seattle. Friday was the first day of sales for the new Windows 8 operating system and the company's new tablet computer.

Microsoft's new Windows 8 operating system and much-anticipated Surface tablet go on sale this morning — two closely linked efforts the company is banking on heavily to help it stay relevant in a rapidly evolving and increasingly mobile world.

Windows 8 has been designed from scratch to work with both traditional computers and the touch screens popularized by smartphones and tablets.

The Surface comes equipped with Windows RT, a mobile version of Windows 8 that runs on less-powerful tablet processors.

Overall, the new operating system is considered a big risk for the venerable software company, which is no longer the dominant force it once was in the technology industry. Despite more than a decade of trying to carve out mobile market share, starting with its Pocket PC, then Windows Mobile and Windows Phone operating systems, Microsoft is virtually invisible in phones and tablets — markets that are currently owned by Apple and Google’s Android.

A Microsoft Surface tablet PC with the optional add-on keyboard is displayed during its launch event with Microsoft Windows 8 in New York. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Windows 8 is a concerted effort by the company to leverage its desktop and laptop computing strengths and make it a bigger player in the mobile computing arena. With PC sales sagging and mobile gadgets claiming an increasing share of hardware sales, Microsoft must become a viable competitor in smartphones and tablets if it's to survive over the long term in the operating system market.

The concept behind the unified Windows 8 operating system — one that works the same way across phones, tablets and computers — is the current holy grail of technology, sought after by all the major OS competitors. The first one to make a popular unified operating system will likely be able to control, or at least greatly influence, the direction of computing into the forseeable future.

Microsoft, for its part, provided journalists in New York with two days of demos of its new operating system and tablet this week. Over that time, some of the pluses and minuses of its quest toward software unification became clear.

Five upsides of Windows 8 and Surface

A Samsung tablet computer running Windows 8 was one of the devices shown at the launch of Microsoft Windows 8 in New York. (Richard Drew/AP)

Interface: At the heart of Windows 8 is Metro, the slick interface optimized for touchscreens. Rather than the standard Windows desktop, where icons represent various applications and files, the new interface features square and rectangular coloured tiles set on a sideways-scrolling carousel. Some of the tiles are "live," which means they rotate and display information. The photo tile, for example, runs a miniature slideshow.

It’s a dynamic interface that incorporates the swipes, pinch-to-zoom and other gestures popularized by Apple on its iPhone and iPad. Windows 8, however, does this in a way that feels unique and is equally fun to use.

Touch is simply a better way to navigate and browse most of the non-work applications that people are now using with photos, videos and music. While touchscreens haven't been popular with traditional mainstream computers, they can work quite well in certain situations. A so-called all-in-one computer with a touchscreen but not necessarily a mouse and keyboard can be a good fit in the kitchen, for example, where you might want to watch streamed video or listen to music while washing dishes.

Many of the new Windows 8 machines available for the retail launch of the operating system have touchscreens. It’s not all about touch, though. The Metro interface also works well with a mouse, or with the trackpad on older computers that don’t have touchscreens.

For users who want the classic Windows layout, it can be accessed with a simple tile push. That way, you can quickly launch into more work-focused applications that require a keyboard and mouse — Excel or Word, for example.

Device variety: Windows 8 is designed to be a flexible platform for hardware makers, enabling them to produce traditional desktops or get creative with designs that leverage the touch interface.

Microsoft’s own Surface device, for one, is somewhere between a tablet and a laptop once its Touch Cover magnetic keyboard is attached. Other manufacturers are using Windows 8 in everything from straight-up tablets to desktop computers to ultrabooks and even, like Lenovo’s Yoga, devices that can change between the various form factors.

Microsoft says more than 1,000 Windows 8 devices are scheduled to be launched over the next year. Some of those are going to experiment with shapes and sizes; some will inevitably flop, but others have the potential to invent entirely new computer concepts. Might a laptop that transforms into a flat table-top computer finally take off?

Office: Windows 8 and Surface are designed specifically to be used for work as well as play, unlike competing tablets that put an emphasis on entertainment apps and media playback. Microsoft says it designed the Surface to be a productivity tool for professionals as well as a consumer device (one of the reasons for the optional keyboard/cover).

Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer says Windows 8 'does bring together the best of the worlds — PC, tablet, work and play.' (AP Photo)

Microsoft has purposely refrained from releasing any significant support for its key Office applications — Word, Excel and PowerPoint — on competitors’ platforms, though. It looks like the company has kept those capabilities for itself to make its own devices the obvious choice for people looking for good productivity tools.

The Surface tablet comes bundled with Office 2013, Microsoft's latest suite of productivity applications.

Ports galore: The Surface features a number of ports, including USB, video and a separate power plug. Microsoft says the dedicated power port allows the device to be fully charged within two hours. It was impossible to test that at the demos, but if true, that’s significantly faster than other tablets.

The USB plug gives the tablet a huge advantage over the iPad, the Surface’s main competitor. With it, Microsoft says its tablet is compatible with more than 420 million peripherals, from printers to keyboards.

That’s going to enable some interesting apps, particularly when it comes to gaming. Video games have proven to be big hits on tablets, so attaching an Xbox controller, for example, will allow game developers to take their products to a level that more closely approximates console experiences.

Low upgrade cost: At $39 for people upgrading from previous Microsoft operating systems, Windows 8 is a relatively affordable upgrade.

Moreover, the company says that most computers currently running Windows 7 will not only be able to handle Windows 8 just fine, they’ll also work better. Windows 8 will improve the battery life and boot-up time of those older machines by more than 30 per cent.

Again, it was tough to verify those claims in the short demo time provided, but if true, they’re both welcome upgrades.

Five downsides:

Lack of apps: The Surface is launching with about 10,000 apps, many of which won’t be available in Canada. Apple, on the other hand, has more than 270,000 applications optimized for the iPad.

Microsoft executives downplay this disadvantage by suggesting that competitors’ numbers are overblown. Apple’s app store, for example, counts many apps twice — once for the free preview version and again for the paid version.

No matter how you count them, though, Apple has far more apps, and numbers do ultimately matter. The larger the total number of apps, the more likely it is that there will be applications for niche users. Specialized professionals — such as cinematographers or doctors — have many apps available to them through Apple, but a much more limited selection through other competitors. Taken together, those many niche apps give Apple a huge user base, which translates into more app developers designing for the iPad. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

Further to that, Microsoft is also missing several key apps at launch. There’s no Facebook or Twitter app, for example. Executives say that missing those apps is no big deal since these popular social media networks can be accessed via a web browser. That’s also true, but users have come to expect apps for tablets, and they also tend to want a more simplified and streamlined experience on mobile devices than what they get on their desktops.

Price: The basic Surface with 32 gigabytes of storage is selling for $499. While that’s double the storage of Apple’s similarly priced basic iPad, it’s still likely too high a price, since no tablet maker yet (other than Apple) has been able to sell in high volumes at that price point. Other tablets have found success when priced between $200 and $300.

Microsoft hopes the Surface’s office productivity capabilities make it worth the higher sticker price to prospective buyers, but for professional users the tablet’s cost actually goes up another $120 since the Touch Cover keyboard is extra. With fewer apps available and a lower-resolution screen than the iPad, the Surface is going to have a tough time enticing buyers to shell out that much.

Ergonomics: Curiously, with the Surface being pitched as a productivity device, there’s a looming question mark as to how comfortable the Touch Cover keyboard is going to be to use over an extended period of time. It’s no secret that typing on a touch screen is murder, but is doing so on a flat keyboard with no palm rests any better?

You can plug in a regular keyboard via the USB port if you choose, but the drawback is that a full keyboard would make the Surface less portable, negating some of the advantages of having a tablet rather than a notebook in the first place.

Productivity power users: It’s great that Windows 8 lets you convert back to the standard Windows desktop when you want to do some serious work, but that raises the question: What if office work is mostly what you do?

Indeed, productivity power users — the people who use Excel and Word all day on, say Windows 7 machines — don’t have much reason to upgrade to Windows 8. It’s a great interface for media consumption and perhaps communication, but the operating system itself doesn’t provide many work benefits.

Differentiation: While Windows 8 offers manufacturers different input options to design around, from keyboard to touchscreen, Microsoft is maintaining a relatively tight grip over what device makers can do with Windows 8 itself. In contrast, manufacturers have gravitated to Android because they can change the look and feel of the operating system and how people navigate, allowing a lot of differentiation between competing products.

Microsoft's control over the the operating system means Windows 8 devices are likely destined to look and work in much the same way. While some will experiment with the hardware, there are only so many ways to vary it and still have it work well with Microsoft's standard software. That will likely limit the amount of variation among Windows 8 devices, and drive manufacturers to put more emphasis on popular designs that compete mainly on price.

That's good news for consumers from a cost point of view. The worry for the industry, however, is that there’ll be a repeat of what has happened with PCs, where there's very little that manufacturers can do to innovate and really stand out from each other beyond trying to include interesting bundled apps.