Sunday, 24 June 2012

On the surface

Do we need another tablet device? Hasn’t everyone who needs one got an iPad or an Android tablet? What was Microsoft thinking when it announced its own manufactured Surface tablet device this week?

Microsoft has a mixed history with hardware – you perhaps tend to forget about things like the Microsoft mouse, the keyboard, the IntelliMouse, etc, which you see around and were successes. And we all know about the ubiquitous Xbox and Kinect, but conversation after conversation seems to remind us about the Zune mp3 player and the Kin smartphone (which went on sale and disappeared from market in an amazingly short period of time) that weren’t such great successes.

So what exactly has Microsoft announced? Well, we know that the Surface tablet will come in two versions — one that runs on ARM and one on Intel chips. There will be two versions of Windows 8 – one for each chip. We also know that it comes with a USB port and includes a snap-on cover that acts as a keyboard and there’s a kickstand. You can see a picture of it here. It’s 9.3 millimetres thick and it weighs under 1.5 pounds (if I’m allowed to mix Imperial and metric units), which is a bit thinner and a bit heavier than the iPad. The screen size is slightly larger and (like Android devices) uses the more preferable 16:9 aspect ratio – iPad’s use a 4:3 ratio (like old-style TVs). We also know the Windows 8 Pro version on Intel will be slightly thicker and will have a stylus to allow users to make handwritten notes on documents!

That’s about all the detail – the rest is a bit vague, such as delivery dates, prices, etc. If the ARM version is the same price as an Android tablet, and offers much the same capability, what’s the selling point? If it offered Office bundled in, that might work – certainly in a business sense.

If the Intel version actually ran applications rather than cut-down apps – and bear in mind Apple has scaled down applications to add to the apps available with each iPad announcement – then Microsoft will have a winner. The pricing problem is that a laptop could be cheaper than the new Surface tablet. Therefore the tablet has to score points in terms of thinness in order to justify the extra money spent on it. So how much RAM are you going to be able to have? What can you actually run on it? These, along with price, are the questions that businesses are going to ask.

With the soaring sales of tablet devices, Microsoft needs to be in this space. But the fact they are making their own hardware (like Apple) must come as a blow to other hardware companies, like Dell and HP, that build Windows-based tablets.

To be honest, I’d really like an ultra-thin tablet-like PC that I could do real work on using high-end applications (such as Adobe’s Creative Suite). One that I could carry around like a book, that didn’t need its own bag and other baggage. One with battery life that lasts for a long meeting – at least three hours – while I’m doing more than just browsing minutes in Word and forecasts in Excel.

One day!

One a completely different topic, you’ll be interested to know that Mozilla (the Firefox browser people) have announced Thimble, which is part of the Webmaker project. Thimble is designed to help people write and edit basic HTML and CSS in a Web-based code editor. You can start from scratch or pick a project. Like Dreamweaver, you get instant previews. There’s a code editor on the left and your preview on the right. You can then publish your site to the Web in a Webmaker domain with just one click. Have a go at

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