I quite like the Surface RT. It must be doomed

The Surface RT is the device Microsoft must hope will cause their Windows 8 strategy to start making sense to the world at large. It’s a tablet along the lines of the iPad, with an optional flappy felt keyboard cover and a cut-down version of Windows 8 on it. Microsoft Office is included, but it won’t run any other software from any prior versions of Windows.

I’ve been using one that we’ve acquired at work, and I rather like it.

The basic interface design is lovely and far more tasteful than iOS which, although very nicely executed, has always been a bit on the cheesy side.

Although Windows 8 on the desktop is made a bit awkward by the need to coexist with “legacy” Windows software, the RT version doesn’t bother with that: its classic desktop mode only exists for running Office and for carrying out the odd hack that you can’t readily do in the new interface, like installing fonts or mounting a network drive to play audio from.

The Touch Cover keyboard isn’t wonderful as a keyboard, but it’s good enough. Its main virtue is that it makes a good cover, so you always have it with you: a keyboard that won’t take up half of your on-screen space. And you can flip it back if you want to put the device on a soft surface (see picture, above) or prop it at a shallower angle than the built-in kickstand will allow.

Available software is very limited and even the included stuff doesn’t always work very well. It’ll often linger for ages over network accesses or even give up completely. It’s great to see my Flickr account as an integrated source of photos in the photo app, but most of the time it seems to give up while synchronising and just tell me “something went wrong”. Plug in a camera with a pile of photos on it, and you get a photo-picker app that spends a tedious age trying to load the photos into a preview pane before giving up and offering you 600 grey rectangles instead.

At the moment this thing seems most useful as a business accessory, good for pushing across the table to illustrate a point from a website or spreadsheet during a meeting. It’s nice to use, and I don’t find myself wishing we’d bought the full Windows 8 version instead (to be released in January, apparently). Rather, it makes me want to work out how to program it.

Microsoft have apparently tried to accommodate everyone in their development environments, allowing apps written in XAML/C#, XAML/C++, HTML5/JavaScript and probably some other things as well, with the result that nobody I talk to seems confident about how best to approach it. The C++ dialect has some extra Microsoft-isms in it as well, just to appease those programmers who feel there isn’t enough of C++ already.

But the tools are available, friendly, and free; a truly impressive stack of example code is available; and at least you don’t need to pay for developer deployments. With a free developer cert you can send your test builds from Visual Studio on a C++ to a Surface across wifi, and do “live” (but slow) interactive testing remotely. Promising then, if you can find the time, but given Microsoft’s record of changing their mind on the developer tools to use here it’s not surprising that uptake might be a bit slow.

(What’s even less clear is where this leaves the type of GPL-licensed open source software I’ve worked on. GPL software certainly wasn’t allowed in the Windows Phone 7 marketplace, the predecessor to the Windows 8 store–though I realise I haven’t checked the terms again recently–and open source has little meaning if the distribution channel is so locked down that nobody could do anything with the source anyway.)

But on the whole, I rather like it. The only thing I really wish for is the ability to uninstall the Arial font.

That I like it is probably a bad sign. I don’t have a history of going for wild commercial successes. If I like it, it’s probably a pointless bagatelle that the public generally won’t get on with. I praise the interface design because it isn’t cheesy, but what I think of as cheesy any normal person would find reassuring and comfortable: Apple know this and have sold stacks of stuff on the basis of it. And even I don’t really like the Surface all that much–I feel generally fond towards it, but I can’t imagine spending all that money on it myself. I’d like to have one, but not yet to the extent that I’d actually pay for it.

(I wrote this post, including importing and cropping the images, on the Surface. It was pleasant enough. I felt it took a bit longer than it would have on a laptop, but not that much longer.)

(p.s. This post feels like it might be in contradiction to my previous one, which was my response to using Windows 8 on a PC. What do you think?)

Windows 8: A bit like OS/2

Today in Technology Analogy Week…

In 1987, three years after the world’s perception of the possibilities of the PC had been changed by the Apple Mac and two years after the Mac’s cheap knockoff Microsoft Windows had been released, the world’s leading PC manufacturer released a new operating system.

OS/2 was the perfected pinnacle of many years’ development by serious software developers. Although IBM had initially worked on it with Microsoft, by the time of release it had become an IBM product alone. It was solid, sophisticated, fairly demanding of PC hardware of its time.

Given the resources, OS/2 worked well. But its compatibility with the popular software of the time—for MS-DOS or Windows—was always a bit awkward. Running such “legacy” software felt uncomfortable, as if you were ignoring the major part of the operating system and always on the verge of tripping up on the edges of its competent compatibility. But legacy software was almost all the software available: very few applications ever turned up in OS/2 native form.

The maddening problem of OS/2 was that it tried too hard to do everything. Its developers did all the right things, but it wasn’t different enough from the other popular operating systems of the time to be something you could choose for its strengths alone. It had to rely on compatibility with whatever everyone else was already using; but its compatibility with the technologically weaker market leader just wasn’t satisfying enough.

(You can see where this is going.)

In 2012, five years after iOS and its cheap knockoff Android, and two after the iPad, the world’s leading PC operating system manufacturer releases its new operating system…

Windows 8, like Windows Phone 7, is broadly a satisfying design—but only if you run nothing but native apps on it.

In the case of Windows 8, “native” means managed-code Modern UI software, a category so nebulously defined that nobody I know has yet explained to me the best method of developing for it. Meanwhile, Microsoft have effectively categorised every existing Windows application as a legacy app: they’re available only on the premium version of Windows (i.e. Windows 8 rather than Windows RT), and only in a subsidiary desktop mode.

Think about that for a moment. Windows 8 was released a few days ago. With it, Microsoft have designated every existing Windows application as a “legacy app”.

But Windows 8 isn’t a clean break. Like OS/2, it tries to do everything. It isn’t different enough from the other popular operating systems, iOS or Android, to be something you could choose for its strengths alone. It has to rely on compatibility with desktop Windows, and its compatibility isn’t very satisfying.

Next in Technology Analogy Week: How Nokia’s decisions during the last two years resemble British bands of the 80s and 90s whose managers have decided they must conquer America