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How “just another PC" is about to change your landscape

Right now, we’re on the precipice of what could be a revolution for small to medium business, and I’m very excited about the potential that’s about to be released by Microsoft’s Surface!

Back in June Microsoft announced ‘Surface’ – their response to tablet computing, currently dominated by Apple’s iPad and a slew of affordable Android powered devices.  ‘Surface’ hardware is tablets running Windows 8, or a trimmed down version designed specifically for ARM processors called Windows RT. In this post I’ll focus on the ‘full’ Windows 8 Surface tablet.

Here’s what’s got me bouncing around like a kid on Christmas morning – the Microsoft Surface is just another PC, in a portable package. Now as underwhelming as that sounds, consider the impact:

  1. All of your existing programs, business applications and software will work on your Windows 8 Surface tablet.  No need to buy apps for a new device or platform, you can already use what you already have because it’s just another PC.
  2. Sure, there’s going to be some new window dressing with Windows 8, but because it’s just another pc, you’re already an expert in using it. So is your mum, probably.
  3. Like every other Windows PC in the world, you get access to every one of your files, anywhere.  You don’t need a specific app to copy, move and manage specific file types, and sharing of files isn’t limited to pre vendor configured, currently in favour end points like Facebook and Twitter.  You don’t need a specific app to post MyCatDoingSomethingStupid.jpg to lolcatz.com, because you can access and upload any file, via any browser, to any website.
  4. Like all PC’s made in the last decade, it’s got a USB port. Hello expandable storage, hello external mouse / keyboard, hello Doctor Who TARDIS USB hub, speakers, TV Tuner, game controller and novelty desktop Surface to Air missile launcher toy for the discerning purveyor of cubicle warfare.
  5.  It’s got a keyboard built into the cover.  More on this in a minute.

Now for business this gets even more interesting. Your spread-sheets, databases, SharePoint instance and custom in-house applications are all just as available on a Surface, as they are on any other office PC. Legions of developers world-wide have been developing Windows solutions, add-ons and apps for a very long time, which means that the range of options for selecting an approach that’s appropriate to your need, environment and budget is HUGE. Contrast this with iOS development, which really only has two models – deploy via iTunes – which is great for start-ups, but less so for the SME, or join the iOS Developer Enterprise Program.  Where this misses the point is in the expectation that SME’s will be happy to support two completely different platforms. While the consumer market is proving eager to  ‘go cloud’, businesses still have on-premise infrastructure, standard operating environments, maintenance and update schedules, antivirus, firewalls, VPN’s etc. to manage – to expect the IT department to manage a fleet of devices for one app is asking a lot. With a Surface tablet – it’s just another PC, so the impact is negligible.

Now, back to the keyboard. The iPad is an absolutely wonderful (yes Steve, even magical) way to consume content however it is not as effective a device for producing content. By producing content, I don’t mean creating finger paintings or posting holiday photos to Facebook, I mean the documents, emails, spread-sheets and myriad of other files you create every day in your usual course of business. From a user / computer interaction perspective, gestures are wonderfully expressive when used to indicate a desired action. Swiping a finger to navigate forwards or backwards within a playlist is natural and intuitive, and the ability for the same gesture to behave differently depending on the context in which it’s taken is something that Apple have implemented superbly.  And there’s the crux – gestures need a context within which to work, they cannot be used to create context.  That’s why you can’t gesture an email to your boss asking for next Friday off, you need to make the appropriate gestures at the leave request app, or fall back to the on screen keyboard. This is why we currently have to have an app for that, the app must exist to provide the context, and we have no other choice.

By building a physical keyboard into the Surface’s cover, Microsoft has freed users from having to use apps designed to provide a specific context for a limited set of tasks.  On a Surface, users can do whatever they could do before, just as effectively. So app development on the Surface becomes less about providing a narrow context and more about the value the form factor can bring to your business processes such as mobility, connectivity, location awareness and whatever other peripheral you wish to plug in.

I started this post with a very important qualifier – that is I deliberately espoused the potential for what the surface could bring to the SME market.  Microsoft is renowned for its operating systems, productivity software and desktop applications. Outside of consumer peripherals and the Xbox, developing market leading hardware hasn’t been its key strength.  So while I’m firmly cheering in Microsoft’s corner, they have a lot of ground to cover. In order to succeed, here’s what I think Surface tablets must be:

  • The Surface must be ‘just a PC’ in terms of operating system, connectivity and hardware specifications
  • The Surface must provide a physical keyboard, that is at least as good as a regular, traditional keyboard
  • The Surface must have options for cellular and wireless internet connectivity as well as a GPS receiver
  • The Surface must be able to get through a day on a single battery charge
  • The Surface must be as portable as an iPad

You can do it Microsoft, I’m counting on you.