Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Thoughts on the Surface Pro 3: One Device To Rule Them All

I never got in on the GPS craze… or pagers…  or the portable media player craze…  or the netbook thing…  or the ebook readers…  or even the tablet thing.  My first cell phone was the only non-smartphone I ever suffered.

As a technologist, I saw the serious value in combining devices… to the point where I decided that I would only ever carry one electronic device… a sufficiently powered, hand held computer for which I would have development tools.  My current oversized smartphone even suffices as a tablet, reader, and semi-connected third display for my PC.  

I now carry all of those individual fad items (and far more) as one unit.  Watches, GPS’s, pagers, portable media players, ebook readers… all fully redundant to the power of my contemporary smartphone… and I can (and do) write apps for it.   I will never waste resources buying smart watches or smart glasses… my smartphone offers just the right amount of accessibility and utility without needing yet more.

I have a similar relationship with my computer.  I have long struggled to find value in a game console.  Sure, there’s a nice Xbox One in my home now, but I definitely don’t log any significant time on it;  it really more or less belongs to my kids.  I have a PC…  The one and only thing it lacks for function is the ability to fold it up and take it with me… which is what I have a smartphone for.  (Yes, work provides me with a laptop, so as the some-time code warrior, I have a laptop that suffices as a desktop… but it’s definitely no tablet.)

I don’t feel I need the best in every technology, but a few things are very important to me in a PC.  I’ve long said I need visual bandwidth…  multiple displays are a must, and not just any.  The displays must have at least 1200 lines of height resolution… width only depends on aspect ration from there, and 4×3 and 16×9 describe the pair I have on my desk as I write this.   Touch would be nice for this, but I don’t have touch now…  I can survive without it.  As a software developer, having a display dedicated to my development tools and another dedicated to alternate info (communications, email, technical documentation, work queues, server desktops, or debug UIs) is a must.  The more I can see on the surface of a monitor, the less time I have to waste hunting for the window that has the info I need in it…  my PC is a content creation station.  I can still take advantage of my oversized smartphone to offload communications (email, video/teleconf/chat, music playlists, etc)  I could easily make use of more displays…  I just don’t physically have room for more on my desk.

My PC is more than just a PC… it’s a workstation.  A laptop won’t even suffice for it…  whenever I am reduced to working on my laptop alone, I feel constricted… like being forced to do detail level work while wearing a diver’s mask and welders gloves.  Work goes much better when I connect a full size keyboard, mouse and displays to the laptop in one form or another.

Of course, my workstation being my own actual personal computer, I also like to play games on it, and so it’s yet more than just a workstation… it’s also a game console.

Needless to say, it’s the things that a tablet can’t do that make a normal tablet superfluous to me.  Most importantly, I can’t fully replace my workstation/gamer console/PC with it…  If I can’t do that, it’s just another display that doesn’t fit on my desk… and I already have a phablet that satisfies my  portable computing needs…. anything more than that would only leave me wanting to just take my workstation with me everywhere.

When I go into Best Buy, or Staples or shop on Dell, I’m asking for a device that bridges the gap between the portability of a tablet, the creation-centricity of a workstation, and the gamer power of a console.  Worse, I get way more bang for the buck out of a desktop system than anything that even claims to be mobile, so replacing it with a mobile system that has close to the performance will be pricey. 

With the release of the Surface Pro 3, it’s very clear that Microsoft is hearing me, and fighting hard to do something about it.   I’m not sure it fully balances cost with my requirements, yet, but the Surface Pro 2 was tempting…   The 3 may get me to bite.   The ability to convert a tablet into a workstation and/or gamer console is definitely on track, plus it has some nice features that make it a better tablet than an iPad.  To match my current set of requirements, I would have to go with at least a mid-range (i5) unit.  The docking station would be a must.  If I kept my current non-touch, 2k display, using the tablet’s 2k display as well, it could finally be the tablet to bite on.  If I could find a good 4k touch enabled display for a reasonable price, that may be the clincher.

Is Surface Pro 3 a breakthrough product for you, or are you already rocking a more complete range of hardware?

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Reliving "Revolutionary" with Windows 8

“What do you think of Windows 8?”   I hear this question all the time… everywhere I go.   I hear people talking about it on the bus, in line at coffee shops, and even in odd places like hospital rooms.  It’s the biggest change we’ve had in the PC in well more than a decade.  Everyone knows this is as big as broadband in everyone’s home.

But… more than a decade?   Really? 

Definitely.  How old would a child be if it was born the last time there was a *true*, major version iteration of Windows?   3?  8…? 

How about…  18?   Yeah…  18… old enough to drive.  Old enough to be looking at colleges. The Daytona (Windows NT) / Chicago (Windows 95) user experience, were it a child, would now be looking at an opportunity to suffer the choice between Romney or Obama.  The experience unleashed on IT and the public introduced us to the Start menu, the Desktop, managed application installs, and several other major features that the enterprise and private user alike have now literally grown up on.

Some might argue that Windows XP was a hefty revision that almost qualifies, but I would say not so much.  Improvements abounded, but the core user experience hasn’t changed by more than revision increments in Windows 98, ME, 2000, XP, 2003, 2008, 7… really…  since Windows 95. 

But, with Windows 8, this changes.  Windows 8 brings us a whole new user experience in the “Modern UI” formerly known as “Metro UI”. 

If you recall, Windows 95 still essentially lived on top of DOS, and had enough of the Windows 3.x framework to run all the apps we’d already come to depend on (like Word 6, Excel 5, and Windows AOL 2.5).  While those programs ran in Chicago, there were compatibility issues, and the user interface really started to look crusty on legacy applications.  I was actually a relatively late adopter, waiting until Windows 98 before I finally succumbed to the dark side. (I had discovered IBM OS/2 Warp and become a fan… it actually took a 1-2 punch to Warp to get me to switch.  1:  When Warp was stable, it was unbeatable, but when it crashed it was unrecoverable, (and crash, it inevitably did).  2:   Command & Conquer / Red Alert, which had an improved video mode that was only available when installed in Windows… and it was even more awesome in that improved resolution mode. )

Just like Windows 95, Windows 8 is a transitional OS.

One of the big things I keep hearing about Windows 8 is… what a P.I.T.A. is is to figure out. “Microsoft is taking a huge risk with this… why are they breaking my Windows?”, I hear.  Or…  “I’m open-minded.  I subjected myself to it until the pain became unbearable.  (I can’t wait until Mac OS X takes over.)”

Transition, though?  Yes.  Transition.  Again, this is the first real full version increment of the Windows user experience that we’ve seen in years, and it all comes down to this Modern UI thing.  It does exactly what Windows 95 did to Windows 3.x on DOS.  It wipes the slate clean and re-imagines how we operate our computers from the ground up using modern human interface devices… (HIDs). 

Touch screen, movement, gestures, enhanced 3D graphics… these are things that started to accelerate development not long after the release of 95, but the world was still on the Windows 95 learning curve.  Hardware was too immature & expensive to develop an OS around them then… So, while you were getting comfortable with your desktop, (if you haven’t noticed) your cell phone’s user experience surpassed your desktop.

So on the surface (no pun intended) this is what Windows 8 is…  it’s a full OS-deep refresh that catches home computing back up to what people have gotten used to in their cellphones.

“Common sense” says this all implies a true P.I.T.A. for people and companies that dig in on it. 

Let’s look a little deeper, though, at what else this represents.  Again, this is a transitional OS.  It does everything the old user experience did… if you dig a bit.  It does this to support the old applications with their freshly encrusted-feeling user experience.  People can continue leveraging your old technology investments.  Indeed, you can continue making investments in the old user experience…  just know that the writing’s on the wall. 

It’s only a matter of time before people do what they inevitably did with Daytona/Chicago… adopt, extend, and embrace, or be extinguished.  

Why?  Because… when it comes down to it, the part that people really hate is not the “user experience” part.   It’s the “NEW” part that hurts.  Once the “NEW” wears off, what you’ve got left is a really genuinely cleaner, better, more efficient UI that leverages new hardware in important ways, and puts it years ahead of desktop OS competition, both in terms of capability, and even in terms of price point…  and pushes that same advantage out seamlessly to a myriad of other devices.  So getting past the sharp learning curve on one device means you’ll be rocking the new UI everywhere in no time.

Like the glory days of the Dot-Com boom, the days of Daytona & Chicago, these will be days of learning and technical renovation, even re-invention.  This is what I see coming with Windows 8 in the desktop, with an added benefit of being even more ubiquitous than it was back in the 90’s.  With the coming of Surface, Windows Phone 8, your apps will have more opportunity to run in more places, on more machines, than ever before…. using more “Star Trek” functionality than we’re yet used to. 

Those looking to remodel that kitchen… here’s your wake up call.  Windows 8’s user experience is representative of what made the Dot Com days so great… (and there were some plus sides.)  It was when leveraging any of the revolutionary new technology became a competitive advantage all by itself.  Early adopters will feel the pinch of the initial investment, but… with some planning, will reap the rewards by having that pain behind them by the time Windows 9 rolls around. 

I, for one, look forward to my new OS overlord.

Tech in the 603, The Granite State Hacker

Hands on Surface

There’s a developing UI paradigm growing, and some of it has been released in the wild.

Multi-point touch screen systems are starting to take shape out of the ether, and it really feels like it’s going to usher in a new era of computing. We’ve talked about a few of them here in the Tech Mill. It’s “Minority Report” without the goofy VR glove.

Microsoft’s offering in this arena is Surface (formerly “Milan”).( http://www.microsoft.com/surface )

From available marketing materials, Surface is much like the other offerings that are under development, with a few interesting differences. Rather than being an interactive “wall”, it’s a “table”. In addition to interacting to a broad range of touch-based gestures, Surface also interacts with objects. Some of it’s marketed use-cases involve direct interaction with smartphone, media, and storage devices.

This week, I’m on a training assignment in New Jersey, but within a bus ride to one of very few instances of Surface “in the wild”.

I made it a secondary objective to hit one of the AT&T stores in mid-town Manhattan.

I had a lot of high expectations for it, so actually getting to play a bit with it struck me as a touch anti-climactic. The UI was great, but it was clear they cut costs on hardware a bit: responsiveness wasn’t quite as smooth as the web demos. It did impress me with the physics modeling of the touch gestures… dragging “cards” around the table with one finger mimicked the behavior of a physical card, pivoting around the un-centered touch point as a real one would.

I was also a bit concerned that the security devices attached to the cell phones they had around the table were some sort of transponder to hide “vapor-ware” special effects. My own phone (an HTC Mogul by Sprint) was ignored when I placed it on the table.

All in all, I was happy to finally get to play with it. Between technology advances and price drops, this UI paradigm will start to make it into the power business user’s desk.

I mean, can you imagine, for example, cube analysis…. data mining… report drilling… and then with a few gestures, you transform the results into charts and graphs… then throw those into a folder on your mobile storage / pda device…

I’m still loving the idea of interactivity between physical and virtual (and/or remote) logical constructs…

Imagine bringing up the file server and your laptop on a “Surface” UI, and litterally loading it with data and installing software with the wave of your hand….

or…

Having a portable “PDA” device with “big” storage… in fact, big enough to contain a virtual PC image… In stand-alone mode, the PDA runs the VPC in a “smart display” UI. When you set it on a Surface, the whole VPC sinks into it. You get access to all the Surface functional resources including horsepower, connectivity, additional storage, and the multi-touch UI while the PDA is in contact. When you’re done, the VPC transfers back to the PDA, and you can take it to the next Surface UI in your room at the hotel, or the board room (which has one giant “Surface” as the board room table.)

The preview is over at AT&T today. According to Wikipedia, Microsoft expects they can get these down to consumer price ranges by 2010 (two years!).