Microsoft has guts. It’s what you get when you’re the underdog. Either that or you curl into an RIM-shaped ball and die. Microsoft is the underdog because no matter how many hundreds of millions of people use its software, the cool and the future belong to Apple. Or belonged, perhaps. After yesterday’s Surface event — assuming they don’t fumble the execution — Gates’s children may have found the weapon to stop the heirs of Jobs and turn the tide.
That weapon is Microsoft Surface. And it’s beautiful. Beautiful, functional, simple and honest. Surface just bumped the MacBook Air and the iPad to the back seat, and it did so by hewing tightly to everything that Apple’s Jonny Ive holds dear, according to the 10 principles of his Jedi design master, Dieter Rams:
Good design principles for both hardware and software
• Good design is innovative
Surface uses a new manufacturing process — VaporMg — that reduces its weight while keeping it strong. That process also allows for a built-in kickstand that is invisible when using the product in tablet mode. It may seem obvious, but it’s innovative and puts it into laptop mode easily. It’s the same story when it comes to using the cover as a keyboard — it has its own design breakthroughs. And with the combination of multitouch and pressure-sensitive pen technology in the Pro model. This is something that you can’t find built into any tablet or computer available today.
The software user experience is also innovative. It’s not just an evolution of the Palm or a Newton springboard. Metro’s live tiles offer information in real time without having to launch apps. It allows for multitasking with split screens. It was created from scratch for touch, but it also works with a physical keyboard and trackpad. Metro is, without a doubt, the most innovative user experience both on Earth and on the USS Enterprise.
• Good design makes a product useful
The touchscreen, the case keyboard and the built-in stand, together with the powerful Ivy Bridge brains in the Pro version, make Surface more useful than both tablets and ultrabooks. Surface adapts to your usage at any time, on the sofa or at your desk. In fact, it’s the first morphing computer that actually makes sense.
This also extends to the software. The live tiles, the multitasking and Surface’s ability to run full professional programs like Photoshop all open the scope of a computing device that can both entertain you and work for you at the same time.
• Good design is aesthetic
Surface is beautiful when it’s turned off — like the iPad and MacBook Air — and it’s also beautiful when it’s turned on. It defines simple and sleek minimalism. The software has exactly the same attributes.
Everyone who has seen and touched it thinks the Surface itself is gorgeous. Metro is perfect for it: colourful, simple, without the horrible artifice of skeuomorphism omnipresent in OS X and iOS.
• Good design helps us to understand a product
Surface’s hardware and software is self-explanatory. Three seconds with the product and you know how to transform it from tablet to ultrabook. Boot it and you will be able to fully understand Metro immediately, discovering its more advanced features quickly.
• Good design is unobtrusive
With Surface, there’s nothing to get in your way. Hardware-wise, it’s a tablet designed to be held, with angles that are comfortable in your hands. Microsoft claims that, in ultrabook mode, the keyboard is better than any other keyboard — although the fact that they wouldn’t let anyone touch it may belie that sentiment. But the keyboard is undeniably unobtrusive, disappearing every time you cover your tablet’s display. And the built-in trackpad allows you to edit any part of a document without having to lift your hands off the keyboard. It’s certainly more elegant than Apple’s wireless accessory solutions.
The same thing happens with Metro. It never gets in the way of the most important thing: your information.
• Good design is honest
Devoid of artifice, Surface and Metro are both designed to serve their respective functions. There’s no gratuitious eye candy. Every curve, every part and notch in the hardware is there to make its mission possible. In Metro, even the smallest animations have been designed to convey a meaning. Nothing is there just for fun. Unlike iOS and OS X, there are no artificial skins, no leather, no trying to fake real objects that are already obsolete in the real world.
• Good design is durable
Microsoft stressed that the VaporMg process is extremely durable. The screen uses Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, like most high-end devices in the market, and the keyboard appears solidly built too. Metro will stand the test of time because it doesn’t use outdated visual metaphors. It’s transparent to the user — all information, no adornment. iOS feels dated next to it. Metro’s user experience is one that I see going well into this century, for as long as we use touchscreens.
• Good design is consequent to the last detail
Clearly, the philosophy of Surface is united across hardware and software. Everything responds to the same values. Every detail is part of a single idea and responds to all these principles.
This is where Apple fails. The hardware is consequent to the last detail, but the user experience is not consistent with the principles established in the hardware. Objectively and comparatively, it’s a mess. Ive’s designs are tainted by Forstall’s leather.
• Good design is as little design as possible
Both Microsoft and Apple’s hardware follow this rule strictly. But Microsoft outdoes Apple by taking this principle to the user experience too, as explained above.
The design in Metro is as minimal as it can get, unlike the land of fake surfaces and shiny knobs in iOS or OS X. Information is God in the Metro universe, and every graphic element is there to show it in the clearest way possible. In other words, there are no frivolous graphical elements to get in the way.
Excited? You should be
If Microsoft doesn’t fumble the execution — which means that the price and the battery life should be competitive with Apple’s offerings, and that keyboard lives up to its billing — it has a real chance of stopping the seemingly unstoppable Apple empire, or at least slowing it down.
If it fulfils its promise, if Microsoft Surface Pro is $US800 or $US900 and can pull six or seven hours of battery life, then things will change. It’s going to be hard, since they don’t have the app ecosystem yet, but that will come eventually. Microsoft has the user base, the developer base and the deep pockets to make sure of that.
The only thing Microsoft was missing until yesterday was a better platform. Now all the pieces are in place for a fair war, just like the good old days.
Later this year, you will have two choices: you can either get a MacBook Air for work and an iPad for play, or you can get a beautifully designed, ultra-fast tablet with a sleek touch interface that can also be a full computer with the power of an ultrabook.
The iPad started a new era in computing, but for all its undeniable hardware innovation and beauty, it carries a legacy. It’s a truly useful and fun colour Newton on gorgeous, zippy hardware. And the MacBook Air is perhaps the perfect ultrabook, the pinnacle of Apple’s laptop evolution. But, sadly, it runs an OS X/iOS Frankenlion, and it represents the end of an era, not the future. Both are extremely good and successful products, but when you look at them as a complete package of hardware and software, they fail to pass the stringent 10 principles test advanced by Dieter Rams.
But Surface is new from the ground up. It’s a coherent product that can be a tablet like the iPad and an ultrabook like the MacBook Air. A new product that merges the old and the new into something that seems to work quite nicely.
Surface could be the first device to fulfil the promise of the New Computing Era ushered in by the iPad. This is going to be fun.