The words “Apple” and “iPad” were never spoken during Microsoft’s unveiling yesterday of the company’s new tablet device, the Surface, but they haunted just about every facet of the presentation. First, there was the unusual, Apple-like secrecy surrounding the event — reporters were given just a few days notice that a “major announcement” would be taking place in Los Angeles, and only informed of the specific location just six hours before it was set to begin. (I overheard one reporter from San Francisco saying that he was only able to make a hotel reservation after he’d landed in L.A. that morning, because he wasn’t sure where in the sprawling city he’d have to be.)
When the Surface was finally revealed, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and a few other executives tripped over themselves fetishizing the tablet’s design, repeatedly emphasizing words like “seamless,” and “elegant,” and “perfect.” And much time was spent obsessing over the cutting-edge engineering that allowed for “vapor magnesium” casings that were both unfathomably thin and impressively rigid.
It was plainly obvious that Microsoft was gunning not only for Apple’s hefty market share, but also its zeitgeist-seizing mojo. The one question on all our minds, however, was whether any of us would get to actually use the Microsoft Surface.
Once the event concluded, reporters were brought backstage. Engineers were set up at four successive stations. The first station focused on the design of the Surface, including its integrated and quite convenient “kickstand” and 22 degree beveled edge. (My god, I lost count of how many times I heard the phrase “22 degree beveled edge.”) I got to hold a Surface — that was not powered on — for about 15 seconds. It was just long enough for me to note that its rectangular shape tucked nicely into the crook of my arm, and to realize that the kickstand meant that the back of the Surface did not quite have the pleasing smooth and seamless feel of an iPad.
The second station focused on the creation of those ultra-thin metal casings, which were sitting in individual pieces for the press to hold. They did indeed feel extraordinarily light in my hand, though I didn’t attempt any vigorous test of their rigidity — and neither did any of the Microsoft engineers.
The third station focused on the keyboard covers: the “touch cover,” with finely attuned touch-based keystrokes, and the slightly thicker “type cover,” with clicking buttons for anyone who needs more tactile feedback. Both covers created a more-or-less natural typing experience, but since none were actually connected to a Surface, I do not know how well the covers work as practical keyboards.
The fourth and final station wrapped everything up by showing off how Microsoft’s Windows 8 would work on the Surface, noting how easy multitasking is by simply swiping your finger from the left-hand edge. Then someone finally handed me a working, powered-up Surface, and allowed me to select from a visual list of cocktails to learn what goes into making said cocktail. I swiped to one side to get a quick glimpse at other cocktails that are like the martini I’d selected, and after just three swipes of my finger, the Surface was pulled from my hands and placed in someone else’s.
And that was it. I was told there were a few other Surface’s floating around the area, but unfortunately, I never saw them. So I can’t tell you how a movie looks on its HD widescreen display, I can’t tell you what it’s like to play a game on the Surface, or surf the web, or read a book. And since I wasn’t able to see what it’s like to shoot video with the Surface’s front-and-rear-facing cameras, I can’t resolve an issue that cropped up for me during the presentation, when Windows president Steven Sinofsky explained that the cameras are angled to compensate for the Surface’s — ahem – 22 degree beveled edge. So does that mean that in order to get a straightforward frame, you always have to hold the Surface at an angle?
To be clear, there is a great deal of real potential in the Microsoft Surface. (Apple’s biggest vulnerability here could be the MacBook Air — the robust Surface “Pro” tablet will run the full PC version of Windows 8.) But I could not shake the feeling that Microsoft debuted the Surface well before the device was really ready for prime time. The release date is tethered to the release date for Windows 8, which Microsoft has yet to announce. The New York Times says that will be sometime this fall, although Microsoft has been known in the past to delay major Windows releases. Without a clear sense of when we can get our grubby fingers on this thing, any buzz-y excitement for the Surface that Microsoft hoped to ignite yesterday runs the risk of fizzling out before it ever really gets going.
Of course, when Steve Jobs first introduced the world to what turned out to be the world-changing iPad two-and-a-half years ago, it didn’t immediately make a clean splash either. (It’s just a big iPhone without the phone! There’s no camera! It sounds like a women’s sanitary napkin! And still, no Flash?!)
For now, I can at least deliver one unequivocal rave about the Surface: Cocktails look delicious on it.