In 2002 the tablet PC was born complete with several companies building the hardware and Microsoft at the helm offering up a touch friendly OS and really trying to drive change. The problem was mainstream Tablet PCs weren’t mature enough and the awesome ones were never marketed or sold in volume. In 2002 the OS of choice was still Windows XP and while it had a touch interface it didn’t work well and wasn’t well suited for the office.
Fast forward a couple years, the Tablet PC effort had failed and touch interface was re-purposed to a new project called Microsoft Surface. Surface was a large tabletop device designed to be an interactive workspace. It would allow users to look up information and manipulate multimedia files such as images and video. You could even program Surface to pull data from your camera by simply placing it on the screen. (Assuming you pre-configured the device and marked it with a barcode.)
Touch interface computing had all but gone away until Apple introduced the iPad and as popular meme posters have stated. “Apple introduces the iPad and the world wets itself like an excited dog”. The iPad follows on the success of the iPhone and iPod by offering the same basic features with a much larger display and more options for interaction. The whole iPhone/iPad movement started with the Apple Newton back in 1993 when PDAs were the rage however, much like the Tablet PC the hardware wasn’t all that good so the effort largely failed.
The common thread here is that hardware enables software. Tablet PCs failed the first time because of hardware (along with a crappy OS and poor marketing) and the Newton was never a huge success because of costs and poor hardware. So what has changed?
High DPI displays, power sipping processors and mobile operating systems like Android, IOS and WebOS are driving the market. The community has followed by creating applications and games that are not only fun but simple enough that you can play with your fingers. Sadly one of the pioneers of the Tablet, Microsoft, got left behind, or have they?
It is no secret that I have an Asus Slate which is basically an Ultrabook with a touch display and disconnected keyboard. The device comes with a Core i5 processor, 4GB of ram, SSD drive and runs Windows 7. The screen is a 1280px touch panel under gorilla glass and has the ability to network over Wifi, Bluetooth and the mobile networks thru tethering. It has replaced my laptop largely due to form factor and the ability to run Photoshop and Illustrator, it is a tiny god. Despite all of the power, features and flexibility the community sees it as nothing more than a broken laptop and I still use a desktop for my main system.
So why are users so quick to disregard power and embrace low powered devices like the iPad? On the surface it would seem that entertainment is the main driving force but the real reason is, most people don’t need a second workstation at home. They may be a game console hooked up to the TV and a work computer at the office. You can check email and social networks from your mobile phone and the tablet is just an extension of that so why have something more powerful that can limit your mobility?
As I see it this is the master plan of Microsoft. The plan started with the Tablet PC, they saw the future of mobile computing and took a chance to get things moving in the right direction. They then started to diversify the market and began splitting tasks and technology. First was gaming and by creating the Xbox and an API that enabled developers to create games for the PC and Xbox they could fragment the PC gaming market with a cheaper alternative. Next was the creation of a Media PC, the split here was twofold. First was to enable Xbox to play videos and the second was to turn the desktop into a media server. Both of these things negate the use of a PC at home and, in turn, double the Microsoft product offerings.
The next major step is Windows 8 and the Metro interface. This new OS removes the traditional desktop and replaces it with a mosaic of tiles to create a sort of dashboard of your applications. Clearly Metro is designed with touch in mind and serves the home user better than a fast paced office environment. Truth be told you can get the same work done on Windows 7 that you can on Windows 8 but there are things we have come to “like” about the Windows 95/7 desktop over the Windows 3.1/Windows 8 version of it. (yes I grouped the two together)
The final step in the Microsoft master plan is to remove the need for a traditional desktop, laptop, Ultrabook and replace them all with tablets. Microsoft Surface comes in two flavors. The first is RT and mostly mimics the iPad and Android tablets. The second is the Surface Pro which closely resembles what Microsoft wanted for the Tablet PC and is almost a duplicate of my Asus Slate. These two devices were clearly created to reinforce Windows 8 and the direction Microsoft is leading us. Neither of these tablets will be able to play Battlefield 3, Starcraft or Skyrim and unless you hook them into an external display will be limited to 1080p screen resolutions at 10.6 inches. That size of screen might work well for movies but even the 12.1 inch display on my Asus Slate is too small to do any intensive image editing or word processing and a smaller display will just make things worse.
Sadly the future of the PC has been written, computers of the future will exist in two camps. The first will be the Tablet which will dominate the casual home. Games will no longer require discrete graphics or the latest Core i7 Sandy Bridge Extreme processor with quad channel memory. Instead you’ll download games from the internet and play them on a console system. Office systems will follow the model of the iMac and feature an all in one design and dual monitor desktops will be a thing of the past. Displays will get larger to accommodate our arcane fingers while we paw around consuming content and answering emails.
The only thing missing from this future is content creation. If we follow this model all creation will be have to be via dictation since onscreen keyboards are still not as efficient as the analog brethren. Multimedia will likely revert back to a more traditional role where we paint on the screen using virtual tools and imaginary paint brushes. Gone will be the days of sitting at a keyboard gathering your thoughts while sipping on a glass of your favorite mead wondering where your life has taken you. Call me nostalgic but I like the process of typing and also going thru the creation process of building a document from scratch. I also find comfort in applying filter algorithms to digital images to create the perfect effect. Yes I can paint by hand and draw with the best of them but you’ll have to believe me when I say drawing on a grease board is completely different than drawing with pen and ink on hardboard. The feel and control is completely different and borderline difficult.
Microsoft Surface is a good move for Microsoft. The hardware will help sell Windows 8 and appears to be a perfect match for where the market is right now. The biggest hurdle will be in educating the public as to why there are two versions of Surface and where they fall in the food chain. Yes you would be surprised at how many professional reviewers get this wrong. Clearly just because a computer has no keyboard doesn’t mean it is an iPad clone nor can you compare a tablet running a Core i5 and Windows 7 against a Tegra 3 based Android tablet. They are completely different and intended for different markets. Despite this I see these reviewers bashing an Ultra tablet for being twice the cost of an iPad and not having an app store.
Lucky for us the future can still change and there is still time to voice our opinions and have some say in what we want our computers to do. Surface may be one possible future or it may be a dead end however one thing is clear if we keep going down this path power and innovation in the computer hardware world will cease to be and our once beloved workstation will become a think of the past.