While working at Activision some 16 years ago, I negotiated with Microsoft to build out an Internet presence around our marque game title, Mech Warrior Three. Microsoft offered to build and host the site for free on MSN. I told them that we didn’t want to be trapped inside the walled garden of MSN, we wanted it out in the open, on the World Wide Web. Microsoft responded that to put it out on the web would cost $25,000 per month.

For Microsoft, in those early Internet days, the dream of a captive customer base remained alive.  Bill Gates had to shake up the entire company to cure it of that delusion.

Now Microsoft is the visionary. With the Surface they are leading the industry out of a world of limited and limiting devices, and into a new world where the device becomes a useful, integrated component of our lives.  Why am I so bullish, when the Surface failed to sell out and the reviews are so negative?  First, here is some context.

I run a boutique investment bank that sells software companies. Our clients expect us to stay on top of technology trends. Our staff, technology junkies all, are the earliest of early adopters, running the latest Android and Apple devices through their paces, then trading up to the newest shiny thing. Devices are so endemic that Exchange server, which initially limited to 10 the number of devices each user could connect and synchronize to, had to be reconfigured to raise the limit to 20. It was no surprise when the first Surfaces started popping up in the office on October 26th. We quickly realized, however, that this device is different.

My view on the “bring your own device” movement is that the proliferation of devices has actually reduced productivity.  Smart phones and tablets are great content consumption devices.  People watch movies, check social status, listen to music, read a book.  They also glance at email and then think to themselves, “Hmm. . . I better respond to that when I get to a desk.”  Or “Hmm. . . . I will need to print that boarding pass when I get to a desk.”  Or “Hmm. . . I should really get my vacation photos off the memory card in my phone.  I will have to take care of that when I get to a desk, because there is no card slot or USB port on my tablet.”  Or “Hmm. . . to respond to this message, I need to review a document that is on one of the file shares on the server, but I can’t access them from my tablet so I will have to take care of that when I get to a desk.”  The list goes on.

Nat Burgess on the GeekWire radio show earlier this year.

The devices don’t have to be clumsy and poorly integrated with IT infrastructure.  They are clumsy and poorly integrated for two reasons. First, to keep the user experience simple.  Steve Jobs wanted one button on the iPhone.  Software developers have to adapt. But simplicity is also a smokescreen for the second factor, which relates directly to revenue.  By creating a walled garden that opens only to the application store, vendors have locked users into paying for a lot of basic functionality.

For example, if you want to get a file onto your tablet, do you a) drag it onto the tablet from your computer?  Or b) try to remember which computer the tablet is paired with, find that computer, get the file onto it, import it into your iTunes, plug in the tablet, and wait while all your movies transfer? Cloud storage services such as Dropbox have solved this problem for consumers, but Dropbox has already been compromised and the consumer cloud services are not enterprise-ready.  Nor does your CFO want yet another monthly charge on your corporate credit card, paying for data storage without management or archive.

Alternatively, if you want to access a file share on the network-attached storage, do you a) map the NAS drive and open it on your tablet?  Or b) purchase and install an app (tablet vendor keeps ~30% of the purchase price), configure it to point to the IP address of the share, and then find that app every time you want to access the share?

Actually, that was a trick question because even if you successfully open the directory containing the file, you almost certainly won’t be able to open or edit the file itself so, really, what is the point? Might as well kick back and watch YouTube videos on the amazing HD tablet screen. Which is the problem.  The solution would be a tablet that is smart about the tech ecosystem around it, can stand comfortably on a desk or function as a tablet, has a compact but usable keyboard, and is compatible with the document formats that we work in every day.

That pretty much sums up the Surface.  Within 20 minutes of turning it on, we had mapped network drives, printed documents to network printers, edited Word and Excel documents, updated our Dynamics CRM system through the IE 10 browser, flipped through a book on Kindle, streamed music from a network share and from a Google music account and, yes, we also watched a YouTube video.

The hardware design is also worth a mention.  A flip-out kickstand adds immensely to the utility of the device.  I found it effective on a desk as well as in my lap.  The touch cover is nowhere near as good as a traditional keyboard, but vastly more effective and usable than any other tablet input device that I have tried, including Bluetooth keyboards.

The new Surface brings utility and productivity to the tablet form factor.  It has some rough edges and will definitely appeal more to tech-savvy, productivity-oriented early adopters than to people who are looking to a tablet primarily for entertainment value.  But nonetheless it is a game changer.  It breaks down the walled garden.

Nat Burgess is president of Corum Group, a Seattle area M&A advisory firm.

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Comments

  • Domomite

    AT&T offers an enterprise cloud service for businesses. The service is cheap for the access it provides. You receive unlimited PC storage, remote access, email, fax, print, and collaborate from your cloud. I can even allow my vendors access to the docs and files I allow them access to. $10.00 per month for all this and the security that comes along with it.

  • Dave

    Great commentary Nat. I’m really curious how you like the limited versions of Office apps. I had assumed I’d need to wait until the Surface Pro versions come out to find something really useful in an enterprise setting where I really need Excel and PowerPoint, plus some Word, when on the road.

    Looks like you got the cool looking keyboard that is on the ads. Anyone in your firm get the slightly thicker keyboard which looks to be a little more functional if you are trying to find a laptop replacement?

    • DUDE

      BIG MISTAKE SIR M SURFACE WAS A INSTANT SELL OUT

    • Wyn6

      Do you require macros or third-party add-ons in Office? If not, the Home and Student versions could suit your needs. There are a few more features they’re missing, which being in enterprise, you may or may not need.
      If you can live without some of those features, Surface RT can serve you well. If not, then Surface Pro or another Intel/AMD tablet may be in order.

    • lan

      The Sony Viao Duo (core i7, 8gb ram, 1920×1080 11.5″ screen) is
      expensive but a great alternative to Surface for those that need full
      laptop replacement today.

  • http://twitter.com/JAYLEXPWn Alex

    Type Cover IS A must

    • http://ceklog.kindel.com/ Charlie Kindel

      I disagree. I have been shocked at how good the Touch cover is to type on. In fact, I found the Type Cover HARDER to type on. I know this is a matter of personal taste, so I’m not suggesting you are wrong that you like the Type Cover; just saying for some (many?) the Touch cover is fantastic.

    • SilverSee

      I disagree as well, although I find the Type Cover to be a phenomenal mobile keyboard. I think the Touch Cover is quite good, and becomes easier with use.
      In addition, the Windows 8 / RT on-screen keyboard is excellent in its own right. Windows Phone has a phenomenal on-screen keyboard, and Windows 8 / RT brings the same attention to detail to the larger form factor, in my opinion.

    • mark

      Touch cover -we’re all getting on with in my family

  • ninjacut

    Agree completely, people will soon realize how good this product is. The shortsighted and ignorant bloggers have no clue and are blabbering nonsense.

  • mssux

    How are you defining “walled garden”? Almost all the activities you described doing require Microsoft products also. Microsoft has always built walled gardens and is trying again with surface.

    • http://chris.pirillo.com/ Chris Pirillo

      Be careful when you tell the truth. Some people don’t like it.

      • http://twitter.com/a1rphones Bong Puno

        Be careful with comments coming from a fanboy, mostly they are not making sense like the one above!

        • http://chris.pirillo.com/ Chris Pirillo

          Yes, I agree.

          Sent from my Windows Phone

          • Bryan R.

            I highly doubt you own a Windows Phone. If you do, it’s probably a review unit.

          • http://twitter.com/MrXBob Mr XBob

            He buys them (as he bought Surface) merely to try and show that he’s not an Apple fanboy. But everyone knows he is. He’s so ridiculously smug and anti-anything-that-isn’t-Apple in 99.9999% of his videos/live streams/reviews/opinions.

            One of the most repulsive personalities on the planet.

      • http://twitter.com/MrXBob Mr XBob

        You just described yourself. Amazing

    • http://twitter.com/MrXBob Mr XBob

      The point is that these Microsoft products allow you to do everything you’ve always been able to do – rather than block everything off inside a closed system (as iOS often does). The vast majority of things in this article can’t be done on an iPad without paid-for apps from third parties – and even then they mostly required you to ‘jailbreak’ your device.

      • http://oswco.com dartdog

        oh you must be thinking about that open source tablet system,, isn’t that Android??

        • http://twitter.com/MrXBob Mr XBob

          Show me an android tablet that lets you connect any USB device and install any standard Windows software, work with any printer/scanner (wired or wireless), Xbox controllers, Steam, absolutely anything that you can do on your PC. Right out of the box.

          No Android device can do that. Surface Pro can.

          Surface RT is the only walled-garden Windows 8 device. End of discussion.

          Get a clue before attempting to discuss what you know nothing about.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001080966933 Walden Gajo

    I completely agree with your summation about the Surface RT. The very first thing I did after I received and opened up my Surface RT was to try to open up network files and try the print functionality and to my surprise, it was like a natural occurrence.
    I’ve had 6 iPads in position from Version 1 -3 and they all end up being used by my kids for just playing and watching YouTube videos. Totally useless productivity wise without the help of apps.
    The built-in functionality of a file system and printer capability for me will be the greatest driver for the success of Windows 8 based tablets.
    As a note, when I told my wife about the MS Surface Tablet, her initial reaction was that it is not apple and it doesn’t matter how great it is. But once she used it and typed her school papers on Word and able to print it, now she has my Surface RT tablet and selling her iPad 3 on craigslist so I get my funds for another Surface.
    I can also say that the SmartGlass integration is really a very plus.
    I think MS will own the living room via XBox.

  • Tom Brander

    Woah, the mere fact that you are still on exchange server indicates that y’all are not the leading edge tech people you think yourselves to be, Google Apps does all of what you describe way cheaper and with far less friction, and across all platforms. Shared drive done shared docs, done edit on device done print from device done instant sync done many device instant sync, done.. All done quite a while ago and quite mature. And did I mention at about 1/10th the cost?

    • http://twitter.com/MrXBob Mr XBob

      SkyDrive does everything you mentioned – all for free.

  • Tommy Lantern

    Surface is sold out here by Thursday. Bellevue Square just got new shipment Friday but the sell rate will deplete before next one. My friend in Atlanta can’t get one today as sold out at Microsoft store in Buckhead Atlanta.

    I got one Fedex on pre-order and the Fed Ex guy said it is the biggest ship item across the counrty right now (not just Seattle).
    I have an iPad and it is in the drawer. The Surface just blows iPad away on multiple fronts !

    If I may prognosticate – Surface is going to be a really big hit and dent iPad sales this holiday season.

  • Nathan O

    Great commentary. I feel the same way about the reception of the surface.

  • Pucker

    Great article, and I totally agree. I’ve been using a Surface since it launched, and love the device.

    My thoughts/experiences……

    I would never think to do real work on the IPad. Using Office, or remoting into my workstation are things I do every day, while carrying the Surface.

    The first time I wanted to print a document — it had already found the wireless printer. No setup required. It just worked.

    Walk into the living room and it just melds with the XBOX. Seamlessly.

    My kid’s pick it up and it’s as easy to use as the IPad.

    It’s young, but for being a few weeks old, it’s remarkably refined. The app store is new too, but will inevitably fill out.

    Ultimately, it’s the real IPad 2. The ‘grown up’ IPad. An excuse to not carry around that Dell Clunker anymore.

    It’s a revolutionary device with a huge future.

  • Walt French

    A device designed to be for the “PC Plus” era is better as an adjunct to the Enterprise PC? And a tablet designed for free-and-easy mobility is … freer and easier?

    I’m absolutely shocked that Microsoft would design something that is more complex but is a better member of the Microsoft ecosystem.

  • Frankie

    If your idea of breaking out of the walled garden is making an ARM device that has apps that only come from the M$ store than I guess you nailed it. Not being able to use any Windows app makes this device a walled garden.

    • Tom

      You lost credibility with “M$”; it’s not 1995 in our college dorms anymore. A walled garden would be if there are only Windows RT apps, devices and accessories. But any app build for Windows 8 will run on Windows RT, it has a full size USB port and micro SD card, all standard interfaces.

      Any Windows app compiled for Intel/AMD isn’t going to work on Surface RT but Microsoft made it such that apps built for the store/metro will run on Windows 8 and RT. There’s also a full size USB port and micro SD card slot making it far more accessible than any other similar device.
      If that wasn’t enough, the upcoming Surface Pro based on Intel chips will support legacy apps. So you have plenty of choice.

  • http://www.philosophynews.com Paul Pardi

    I’ve found that Windows RT on Surface is more than sufficient or most office related productivity needs I have. When I have the rare need to use software that isn’t on my RT device, there is a Remote Desktop app in the store that allows users to remote into any Windows machine (including Windows Server machines). When the need arises, I RDC into a Windows 8 desktop machine and do what I need to. Couple this with all the ‘laptop’ features of the Surface and that’s a winning combination.

  • Joel A. Edge

    I thought that was the purpose of a Microsoft built tablet, to put that wall up a bit higher and keep out Apple and Google.

  • Jon Ross

    Small correction: “Mech Warrior Three” should be “MechWarrior III”. I remember buying it bunded with a force-feedback Microsoft Sidewinder joystick.

  • MrElectrifyer

    Only drawback is that it doesn’t have GPS nor Cellular data support :| No big deal as it will always be where me and my freed iPhone are, ready to accept tethering via bluetooth/Wi-Fi :D

  • Mike

    New app to Windows Store for Surface RT and Win 8 Google Cloud Printing (Both 32 and 64 bit supported).

    KumoPrint is a new app that integrates very well with Google Cloud Print and the Surface RT making the idea of non compatible printers obsolete.

    Check out the app on the Microsoft Store:

    http://apps.microsoft.com/windows/en-us/app/ba5ea024-97a4-4df4-b018-3ac181174b14

    Happy Printing!

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