Surface looked like a really great idea when Microsoft announced it back in June. The sexiest looking hybrid notebook-tablet ever devised, it took the simple form factor of an iPad but made the cover a legitimate travel keyboard.
The Windows 8 ecosystem would span across, theoretically, my desktop, my tablet, my Xbox 360 and even – mayhaps – my mobile phone. Robust, simple and easy to use when split between a mouse-driven old-fashioned interface and the new Metro (sorry, Modern) UI, it felt like Surface was going to be the first real proof of Microsoft's bold new vision for the future.
I still haven't had full hands-on time with Surface in the office, despite its launch over a week ago. And I'm not pointing fingers at Microsoft, or any of its PR representatives, for not sorting that out just yet. I know these things take time.
But it does mean I've been left only with an end user's view on the RT flavour of the product, which in a way is a shame, but in another means I have a consumer's view on the machine. Huddled as I was around a pop-up store on the tablet's launch day while doing a bit of shopping in a US city after a conference, I got a few scant minutes – wrapped in a Microsoft sales pitch – to assess the advantages of purchasing a Surface RT.
It was fine. Tactile, lightweight, perfectly OK. Respectable touchscreen. Though the keyboard sucked a little more than I would have hoped. It was like typing on the underside of a cheap drinks coaster hardened by stale Bombardier Cask. A hard yet spongy sensation that made my fingers ache after a couple of minutes, and was no more precise than the iPad's nasty on-screen keyboard. "Does it come with Office?" I asked the sales rep. "Sure," they replied, "Office Trial Version comes fully installed!" Argh!
All said and done, it didn't feel worth the £387 I calculated (using Xe.com while the obedient Microsoft slave tried, and failed, to find a currency convertor app on her Windows 8 phone) it would cost me to take one home. And I wouldn't dream of picking one up back in the UK for just shy of £500 with the keyboard cover included.
I also didn't come away too impressed when I asked the rep how well populated the app store was ("Really! There's quite a lot of things on there") or if it interfaced with Xbox Live over and above the multiformat Smart Glass tablet functionality already available ("No, but it may do one day.").
It was around this point when it struck me just how much Microsoft has bungled this consumer launch, and Surface's position in the market. The day the pricing was unveiled, we were faced with a delightful musical number.
This clearly aimed the product at the most fashion-conscious of consumers. School kids, university students, perhaps even "women" (I suspect that's still a boxed-off demographic in itself to many marketeers). To use Surface in its fully intended, keyboard-equipped form, costs a good £100 more than an iPad. People: a 32GB Google Nexus 7 now costs £199.99.
But an iPad has, and always had, the choice of hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from the moment you switched it on. Jumping on the back of the iPhone's developed community, stuffing an iPad with tools for work and play was a no-brainer. And Android caught up quickly and respectably, its open-source nature letting developers climb on board without the need for all kinds of fiddly licensing and devkit agreements.
Microsoft's legacy in this department is the arid wasteland of Windows 7 Phone, and possibly the Zune Music line, the iPod-aping product range Microsoft lit and walked away from, as it fizzed and spluttered to nothing, in the late 2000s.
In fact, I was sitting in a cab with a key figure from a large international software company later that day, and told them of my recent brush with Surface. Shrugging, he replied: "That thing's just going to be the next Zune". I find it hard to disagree.