I’ve Seen the Future, and it’s the Microsoft Surface Pro 3

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I was excited to learn that a new Microsoft Store was opening in a mall about 10 minutes from my house (the Oaks in Thousand Oaks, CA), and upon visiting it yesterday was subsequently disappointed to learn that it’s actually just a kiosk. So, my plan of making a quick trip on June 20 to attend the Surface Pro 3 launch event has been quashed.

Nevertheless, the kiosk was well-stocked with the Surface Pro 3, and so I was able to spend some quality time with Microsoft’s newest device. I try to avoid hyperbole, on this blog and elsewhere, because there’s plenty of it already, but I have to say: the Surface Pro 3 is one of the most impressive specimens that I’ve experienced in my 30 or so years of being involved with technology. Furthermore, the Surface Pro 3 is, in my opinion, the single most impressive gadget available (or soon to be available) today, at least based on my short time with it.

Tablet PC Redux?
I should note that I was one of the early adopters of Microsoft’s Tablet PC, with the best example being the Toshiba M200 that I used for years while a sales engineer at Ricoh. I took thousands of pages of handwritten notes in OneNote using the Toshiba, diagramming and documenting business processes for hundreds of customers—notes that are still available today, fully indexed and searchable. The Tablet PC was an excellent device for a salesperson, allowing for freeform note taking that Windows would convert to text in a device that was unobtrusive during a sales call. Typing on a typical notebook puts the device and its screen in between the salesperson and the customer; using a pen on a Tablet PC held in the crook of one’s arm or lying on a desk is no different than using a paper notebook in terms of maintaining a positive and engaging sales experience.

And so, perhaps that experience influences my impression of the Surface Pro 3. For all of the platform’s strengths, Tablet PCs tended to be very expensive (the Toshiba M200 was a little over $2400), relatively heavy (4.4 pounds), and suffered from poor battery life by modern standards (less than 4 hours). For me, then, the Surface Pro 3, at around $1400 for a solid configuration (Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD, keyboard cover), weighing in at 2.4 pounds with the keyboard attached, and offering more than 7 hours of useful battery life, is in one sense the rebirth of the Tablet PC platform. It’s what I imagined more than 10 years ago what the Tablet PC could and should be.

Surface Pro 3: the Ultimate Hybrid?
Judging the Surface Pro 3 solely as Microsoft is doing, that is, comparing it to the MacBook Air (and, by extension, to the typical contemporary ultrabook), I’m still incredibly impressed. It’s a remarkable device, and quite deceptive: it looks and feels like such a solid chunk of metal that it should weigh so much more than it does. And that screen—all I can say is, wow. Its 3:2 configuration and high resolution made even the Windows 8.1 desktop both easy to use by touch and incredibly attractive when scaled appropriately. Overall, I found the Surface Pro 3 to exude quality in a way that exceeds even Apple’s best work, and I honestly believe that Microsoft has produced a device that best represents the potential of contemporary personal computer technology.

Simply put, combined with the Type Cover keyboard, the Surface Pro 3 makes my MacBook Air seem like 1980’s technology. For me, at least, the keyboard cover was a remarkably comfortable input device—I was typing accurately at my full 80+ wpm within a few minutes of using it, given what was for me just the right amount of key travel and responsiveness. And I found the combination comfortable to use on my lap, even when sitting scrunched up a bit on one of the small stools at the Microsoft kiosk. I felt like I was actually using something from 2014, not 2004, and I was struck by a sense of desire that I haven’t felt for a gadget since watching the Palm Pre’s introduction at CES 2009.

Judging the Surface Pro 3 solely as a tablet is equally impressive. Holding it as a tablet is more comfortable than it’s given credit for by some others in the tech press. After all, 1.75 pounds for a 12” tablet with 2160X1440 resolution (216 PPI, or Retina quality) and active pen technology is an incredible achievement. My apologies to anyone who’s offended when I say this, but if you can’t hold 1.75 pounds in the crook of your arm for a few hours of note taking, then perhaps you should hit the gym a little more often.

While the tablet-specific app selection for Windows 8.1 isn’t yet anywhere near the iPad’s (or even that available to Android tablets), Microsoft’s operating system is fully capable of running millions of Windows apps, meaning that in reality more can be done with a Windows 8.1 tablet than can be done with the competition—particularly when actual productivity is required. I’ve written about it before, and I’ll say it again: Windows 8.1 is a far more productive platform than iOS or Android, and it can be just as good for content consumption.

Palm Pre Redux?
Of course, the Palm Pre analogy may appear quite apt when considering the Surface Pro 3. Like the Palm Pre, Microsoft’s device suffers from being so different from what’s considered the mainstream that some people may be unable to make the conceptual leap. The Surface Pro 3 just looks different, and it’s not an iPad or even an Android tablet (or MacBook or ultrabook), and so it’s unlikely to achieve real success in terms of units sold. At the same time, Windows 8.1 really is far behind iOS and Android in terms of its tablet ecosystem, in spite of what I wrote above, just like webOS suffered immensely from a lack of quality apps and content.

However, Microsoft isn’t Palm. While the latter was a struggling company on its last legs financially, and reliant upon selling the Palm Pre via a third place wireless carrier in Sprint that wasn’t fully invested in the smartphone, Microsoft has billions of dollars in cash and doesn’t actually need the Surface Pro 3 to be a commercial success. Indeed, selling millions and millions of units isn’t the product’s purpose (although I’m sure Microsoft wouldn’t mind doing so). Rather, the Surface Pro 3 is intended to show what’s possible with the Windows 8.1 platform. Judging by that standard, Microsoft has hit the ball not only out of the ballpark, but well off the continent.

The Tech Chat’s Future
I’m currently working to make writing a more important part of my life. Accordingly, I’m going to invest some of my limited funds in a Surface Pro 3, because I think it represents at least one important aspect of the future of the personal computer industry. Indeed, as a technology fanatic, I see Microsoft’s vision in general as incredibly compelling: one operating system running on every personal computer imaginable: ultra-powerful desktop systems, light yet well-performing ultrabooks, highly portable yet productive tablets, and intelligent smartphones. The fact that Windows 8.1 is driving the creation of hybrid devices like the Surface Pro 3 only enhances that vision.

Think about it for a minute. At some point, developers will be able to write one application that will run appropriately on any device, from a desktop to a smartphone, and I believe Microsoft will achieve a level of “Continuity” between these devices that makes Apple’s approach seem constrained and short-sighted. Remember, we’re not talking about making OS X work well with iOS; we’re talking about the same operating system running on every conceivable kind of computing device. That’s powerful stuff if Microsoft can pull it off.

Again, I don’t mean to engage in hyperbole, but I do believe that only Microsoft is positioned to lead the industry forward. The only things holding them back are execution and marketing, and I say this a bit tongue-in-cheek because both are business fundamentals that both Apple and Google have excelled at where Microsoft has recently failed miserably. But, I see very real signs that Microsoft is relearning how to do both, and their competition underestimates them at great peril.

Therefore, I’m even going buy a Windows Phone to replace my Nexus 5, and go all-in on Microsoft products. I’ve thus answered my own question about the future of The Tech Chat—I’ll become a Microsoft and Windows evangelist. There’s a risk there, of course, that I’ll be following the same path as I did when I invested myself so heavily in webOS. Again, though, Microsoft isn’t Palm, and I sense a vibrancy and tenacity in Microsoft that reminds me of the company it once was back when it was the industry’s recognized leader. Don’t misunderstand me: this blog won’t only be about Microsoft products. Technology is an incredibly robust topic for a writer, and I plan on exploiting it. But as far as the computer platform in which I’m going to be invested, it’s going to be all Microsoft from here on out (or at least for as long as it makes at least marginally good sense).

I think such a bet will pay off this time, and while I may hedge that bet a little by remaining conversant in iOS, OS X, and Android, I’m confident that betting on Microsoft is a safe thing to do. The Surface Pro 3 only reinforces my confidence, by demonstrating that Microsoft is serious about being successful in this new world, post-PC or whatever you want to call it.

Microsoft, if you’re reading this, don’t let me down. And if you want to lend a hand, don’t hesitate to give me a shout out and some of the same access and attention as you give to the bigger, more established sites. I’m starting from scratch here, and trust me, I’ll be honest in my evaluation of how well you execute your vision. But, if I make this investment, I’ll be serious about it myself, and I could certainly benefit from some support.

Conclusion
And so, readers, pardon me if I’m coming across a bit strong here. But I really do believe that the technology industry took a wrong turn starting with the iPad, sacrificing productivity for consumption. I see a parallel with our culture in general, with attention spans contracting, with the 140 character tweet replacing the 100,000 word novel and a three-minute video being too long to watch, with simplicity and ease-of-use (read, intellectual laziness) killing off the willingness and ability to invest a little time in learning how to use a tool that, while a bit more complicated, can make one able to accomplish so much more.

Can Microsoft alter this trend with devices like the Surface Pro 3 and a platform like Windows 8.1? Can productivity and consumption be melded, and technology return to its roots as something that enables our ability to actively accomplish things rather than passively consume what others produce? I can’t say for sure that Microsoft can accomplish such a feat, but I certainly hope so. And I’ll be investing quite a bit in that hope, starting June 20th when I pick up my Surface Pro 3.

Wish me luck, and let me know what you think—even if it’s only to tell me I’m crazy.

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