When Microsoft launched Windows 8 last week, it was the culmination of a long wait. For most folks, it was a rather jarring thrust into the future. For better or worse, the operating system that introduces the touch-oriented Metro UI to the Windows environment had arrived.
No one is more excited about the launch than Microsoft. The company has launched pop-up holiday stores at malls across America to promote the new OS and the Surface RT. I had a chance to check in with one of these stores at Aventura Mall in Miami, Florida.
The Microsoft team had set up a kiosk in the center aisle. When I arrived, the place was bustling with folks seeing Surface for the first time. A good number of people were waiting in line to claim their reserved tablets as well. Microsoft employees bustled from customer to customer extolling the virtues of Live Tiles and promising that more apps were on the way.
When I arrived, I was quickly shuffled by PR to the manager of the Microsoft store, Kyle. He was, in his Lumia 900-like cyan shirt, about what you’d expect from a Microsoft rep, but when pressed, he became refreshingly frank. I asked him what the core objective of the pop-up store was. He told me that it wasn’t sales. He quickly asserted that sales were important, but that was a caveat. Kyle told me that the primary objective given to him was to get folks to touch the Surface and Windows 8. After that, he drained the PR-speak swamp completely, “This is about consumers having a great experience with Microsoft that they may not have had in a long time.” My eyes went wide. He said, “Yes, really.”
From there, I asked him to pitch me on Surface and Windows RT. It was my first experience with the Surface. The hardware, as has been said elsewhere, is handsome and solid. The real attraction is the Touch Cover. The colors pop and the magnetizing click emitted when attached to the Surface is satisfying. There is no way to adequately describe how thoughtfully designed the Touch Cover’s connection with Surface is. Get it in your hands.
As effusive as I am about the hardware’s merits, the software situation is a bit thornier. Windows 8 RT is buttery smooth. I did not detect any of the app slowdown oft-mentioned in reviews in my admittedly brief hands-on. Seeing Microsoft Word on a tablet was a poignant moment. This machine is meant to do work when it needs to.
Oddly enough, it’s the role that tablets have traditionally filled that the Surface struggles with. It is not a device of conspicuous consumption. Netflix is there, as is the New York Times, Microsoft’s new Xbox Music service checks in as well. But, and there are some big buts here, there’s no Facebook app. There’s no Twitter. There’s barely a dedicated anything app. Microsoft bashed its head against this wall with Windows Phone two years ago. The level of success that Microsoft achieves drawing developers to the Windows 8 Store hinges the fate of the Surface RT and Windows RT as a whole.
The Surface wasn’t the only product at the Microsoft booth. There was the Asus Vivo Tab RT, a plasticky but still well made machine. If you’ve seen one of the Taiwanese company’s Transformer Android tablets, you’ve seen the Vivo Tab. A third touch-enabled product was the Sony Vaio T13. This ultrabook has been tested before, having received good reviews, however most consumers seemed to skip the laptop completely in order to get their fingers on the Surface. Most were impressed.
On more than one occasion I heard an audible “Woah!” from users clicking in the Touch and Type Covers for the first time. The simplicity of Windows 8 showed as well. I timed a child that found his way from the Start Screen to Cut The Rope in six seconds flat. On the less than rosy side, many consumers questioned how many apps were available. No one was impressed by the 5,000 the reps quoted, even they sounded a bit limp when asked about it. Portrait orientation for the Surface raised eyebrows as well. Many noticed the 16:9 orientation would not make as comfortable a reading experience as on the iPad, let alone the smaller Nexus 7.
I spoke with Senad, a customer, software developer and self-professed Apple guy as he played with the Surface for the first time. He admitted that he was impressed by the hardware, especially the Touch Cover. He noted the hotkeys would make for a quick-moving experience through the OS. More than anything, Senad said that he was, “Happy Microsoft showed up to the party.”
I visited a few other stores in the mall. I made the journey to the Apple Store and a Sony Style store, too. The Apple Store was not hurting for customers the day of the Surface’s launch. Their manager, when asked about Windows 8’s launch could only offer a standard “no comment.”
Most of the customers at the Apple Store were trying to get their hands on an iPhone 5. A sign awaited these eager consumers. The store had already exhausted their supply of 5’s. It was before noon.
My experience at the Sony Style store was more interesting, and for Microsoft, worrying. The retail environment was ready. Sony had prepared the T13 Ultrabook, E series laptop, Duo convertible and an assortment of all-in-ones loaded with Windows 8. The employees on the other hand, were not well-versed in Windows 8. That became clear when I asked the employees to run me through their Windows 8 consumer pitch. They all demurred and referred me to the store manager, who did manage a competent walkthrough of the OS.
I floated around the Sony Style store for a while after my demo, fidgeting with the Duo convertible. The sliding mechanism feels solid and far from flimsy. When activated, it reveals a surprisingly comfortable keyboard and a ThinkPad-like mousing nub. The nub is atrocious for navigating Windows 8. There is no trackpad and hence no two-finger gestures. On the upside, the touchscreen is very responsive. When used in tablet mode, the Duo is too heavy to call comfortable. The Surface outclasses this product in every way it physically can.
The T13 Ultrabook, is an impressive piece of hardware. The slim machine powers through Windows 8 and the touchscreen is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, Sony is showing that it is only cutting its teeth on Windows 8 hardware. The hinge on the laptop is rather flimsy, leading to quite a bit of screen shaking when touching around the OS. Bear in mind, the hinge is perfectly serviceable for opening and closing the machine, but it is painfully clear that it was not designed for constant poking. To put it in real-world terms, you would be inclined to hold the screen in place with one hand while playing Fruit Ninja. Two-finger gestures were a pain as well. Navigating Windows 8 with a Trackpad is a nightmare when the gesture for scrolling the Start Screen doesn’t work. I have high hopes for touch-enabled laptops and Windows 8, but their time has not come yet.
In the meantime, a customer had come into the store. He was playing around with the Start Screen on one of the larger all-in-one computers. A rep flitted towards him and asked if he could help. The customer produced an SD card from his pocket and asked the rep how he would pull photos from it on Windows 8. The rep simply did not know. He tried valiantly, but asked for assistance from another rep. This rep also failed to retrieve the images from the SD card. When the task was finally finished, there were four chin-scratching, arm-crossing Sony Style employees at the computer. The customer was off to the side, swiping idly at his iPhone. This crystallized Microsoft’s Windows 8 strategy for me. The road ahead for Redmond will be a long one.