6 things Apple needs to copy from Microsoft Surface in iOS 7

surfacertThe Microsoft Surface is an easy target. It is Microsoft’s attempt to get into touch computing and it is easy to see it as a me-too iPad competitor. Microsoft is frankly just so uncool that their products get much greater scrutiny, and people delight at picking everything apart.

But, the Surface RT is good. I’ve owned one for over three months now. And here’s the crazy thing: I use it all the time. More than my iPad.

Why? A bunch of reasons really. But six things really make it stand out.

1. Multiple user accounts

The Surface lets you setup multiple user accounts. It’s actually a feature I never use on a real computer, but it’s convenient to have all your settings there when you pick up a tablet.

Multiple accounts means no logging on and off of apps like Gmail and Twitter for old foggies like me who live with their significant others. Tap on your account and everything is as you left it.

I used to think that as tablets get cheaper and cheaper, people will just get one each. Here’s the reality: “Why is the email, Facebook and calendar on this !%$!$$! thing Sarah’s?”

Yes, this could be the definition of “first world problem,” but as tablets become nearly free, you’re more likely to leave one in the bathroom and wish the one in the living room just worked right.

2. Visual Feedback on Touch

visualfeedbackIt’s a subtle-but-great touch.

Every time you touch the surface, a very light-grey, transparent circular dot briefly appears on screen and then quickly shrinks into nothing. When you swipe, a faint grey trails your finger and then almost instantly disappears.

Most Surface users probably don’t even notice this detail, but it is super nice. It helps you understand where your touches are registering and makes every touch feel highly responsive  — more responsive than an iPad.

3. Two apps at a time

outgoing-image44The Surface lets you have one app take up three-quarters of the screen

Have you ever tried to paste your favorite three bits of an article into an email on an iPad? Use cases like that make me bring a laptop on trips.

My most common use case is opening a narrow email client and copying and pasting text from a website or copying and pasting multiple URLs. Or: adding stuff to my calendar when I’m in an email app (this is a huge pain on the iPad). Or: taking notes in Evernote with a web browser open.

4. Flash

Flash is dead. Long live flash!

I hate flash as much as the next guy, but if you use the web for work, it’s a necessary evil. Say you’re the CEO of a real estate startup and you want to check in on your traffic yesterday in Google Analytics. Then Flash is like a long lost friend.

5. Left and Right Arrow Keys

arrowkeysIf you’re a write fast, go-back-and-edit writer like me, editing text with the little iOS magnifying glass is something that unknowingly taxes you every time you do it.

On the Surface, I do what I do to write quickly and efficiently on my laptop: get close enough with the mouse and then use the onscreen arrow keys to get positioned just right. Or: Control + Arrow word by word to the place I want to edit.

6. Music Playback

musicplaybackSomeone deserves a promotion for the work they did on Windows 8′s playback user interface.

You can play music or podcasts in the background on the Surface — like you’d expect. Here’s what the Surface does delightfully right: When you touch either of the volume buttons on the Surface, it shows you the volume level in the upper left hand corner of the screen along with rewind, pause and fast forward buttons.

This is discoverability done right. The first time you want music or a podcast playing in a background app to pause on the Surface, you turn down the volume and from there find out you can pause it.

Conclusion 

This stuff has made the Microsoft Surface something I use on a regular basis. I don’t think it’s enough to make the Surface an “iPad killer” or even to steal a significant part of the market from the iPad, but it’s a strong start. The Surface is an impressive first start with some surprisingly nice features.

As an all-Apple person, I had low expectations for the Surface RT, but it has really impressed.

Galen Ward is the CEO of Estately, a Seattle-based online real estate startup. You can follow him on Twitter @galenward

Disclaimer: Ward’s wife works at Microsoft and their family received their Surface for free. They are also small shareholders in Microsoft. 

  • GG002

    These things are what finally made me buy a tablet (Surface RT), plus some more stuff like very capable Office, full-sized USB port and even native RAW support for photos from my system camera. I never before had use for a tablet, except for watching soap operas and play some games. Thank you Microsoft, and I expect to see more killer features!

  • http://twitter.com/HengDave Dave Heng

    It should probably be pointed out that these features aren’t limited to just the Surface, they’re Windows RT features, so they’re on all of the other RT tablets too. I still agree that the Surface is a great tablet though.

    • http://twitter.com/EricBurgess Eric Burgess

      Dave, keep in mind that the average tablet consumer makes no distinction between different types of Surfaces. It’s just a Surface. RT, RT Tablets and Windows RT means absolutely nothing.

      • US_First

        Ya right.. Until something goes wrong and then its just Microsoft.

  • http://twitter.com/mjh483 Jun Hyeon

    The reason iPad has been so successful is that it doesn’t try to replace your laptop. It’s a whole new device. It doesn’t try to serve every user like you.

    • jim

      I completely agree with Jun, the iPad is not a personal computer. its a personal media device. If I wanted to use a computer, i’d use my macbook air.

      • http://www.twitter.com/wixostrix WixosTrix

        You don’t say?

      • http://twitter.com/fijiaaron Aaron Evans

        If I wanted to watch TV, I’d do it on my TV. That’s all people use an iPad for anyway.

        • Daniel

          Not at all true. I use my iPad Mini for a wide range of functions, from taking notes in class (with a Bluetooth keyboard) to reading ebooks to e-mail to chat to playing games. I have all sorts of apps, and I use them all.

          That said, it’s not really a substitute for a laptop, but that’s more due to Apple’s fear of cannibalizing its more expensive Mac line than to the device’s actual power. iOS does not allow the use of a mouse or touchpad even though Android does. The iWork apps for iPad are quite capable if only there were a better way to interface with them.

    • Ryan Parrish

      The iPad is successful because Apple is better at marketing and getting volume into stores, not because their technology is any better. There is literally nothing the iPad does that some other tablet hasn’t done better either before or shortly after each iteration was announced.

      • Battiato1981

        Apple is the undisputed master of touch screen UI, the first to market a powerful tablet that is simple enough for even kids to navigate, and with an unrivaled array of apps available to use on it. Oh yeah, they’re not bad at marketing either …

        • http://www.twitter.com/wixostrix WixosTrix

          Kids are pretty savvy with tech in general. My friends 3 year old brother had no problem grasping the gestures in Fresh Paint once I showed him how to do it. iOS is simple, but it’s hardly the best touch screen ui

    • Chris

      And which point said, “Try to replace your laptop”?

    • http://twitter.com/galenward Galen Ward

      That the iPad is a totally different device is 100% why it’s so successful: I totally agree.

      That said, people including me use it increasingly in place of a traditional laptop. And it can learn some lessons from the surface in terms of productivity.

    • Faraz Riaz

      I rather have something that can be used in any situation. I have a smart phone and I don’t see the point of have a mobile OS with large screen. After I have used a “Surface Pro” I am thinking “What and who is the iPad for.”

  • Robert

    To Jun and Ryan,

    You said that the iPad is successful bec it doesn’t try to replace your laptop, and/or try to please every user. Ok, let’s paraphrase your comments. Let’s bring in the successful iPhone. Well, it’s trying to replace an mp3 player, a phone and a mini computing device – browsing the web, open emails, Facebook, eBooks reader, etc. So, how is that for not trying to please “every user”? In today’s world of devices, it pays to carry one device that does a lot. The surface RT is new. If the RT came out 5 years ahead of the ipad, don’t you think people would also be laughing at the ipad’s capabilities compared to the rt? All this is called brand loyalty. People have been loyal to the iPad for years. Let’s cite another example. The Windows OS. It’s been around for 3 decades. The mac is a terrific product, yet it could only attract 5-7% of the global market share. Windows owns the mac here. The OSX could only boast maybe 50-60 million total licenses sold. Windows 7 alone already has over 600 million licenses sold. Windows XP still has over 200 million users worldwide. Over 90% of businesses still use windows, and windows servers. So apple computers barely even scratched window’s deep user base. Windows 8 licenses already sold over 60 million licenses. Give it maybe 3-4 years, windows 8 and rt tablets/devices could outsell the iPad if not catch up to it. Microsoft is just patiently waiting. They have over 90% of the OS market share. They can patiently wait while buyers slowly upgrade their laptops and desktops to touchscreen devices or laptops.

    • Ryan Parrish

      That’s a good point. I guess I lumped brand loyalty in my mind with general marketing when I should have mentioned that distinctly. It can’t be underestimated how much inertia people have with an established brand once they’ve committed time and resources to it, hence the continued prevalence of Windows.

    • http://NewWorldRising.com/ jkcomics

      Bing it on..!

      First of all what if the Surface came out 5 years before the iPad? It didn’t. Get used to it.

      Second, everything you say about how long Windows has been around and it’s market dominance is now obsolete in the tablet war. See, now the iPad is sitting where Windows used to be – right on top the throne. And now we get to watch MicroSoft play catch up. We’ll see how good they are till it all goes Zune right by them..!

      • US_First

        The OS rules the hardware. The point is that no matter how established the iPad gets, it will only replace Windows when it runs Windows. This is the one and only reason Apple computers gained any prominence. They made them capable of running Windows and thus capable of getting work done. So one could be quirky and productive.

  • http://www.twitter.com/wixostrix WixosTrix

    Another visual cue it has is with switches. If you press and hold as you move your finger there will be a little string attached to it and the switch.

    The music playback controls is something I really like, but wish there was a way to bring it up with the mouse.

    I’ve been using my Surface as my primary computer (temporarily until I build a new Desktop) for about a month now and while performance can be iffy sometimes, IT has really exceeded my expectations as such a device. These types of devices can will increasing become peoples primary computing devices and Microsoft is preparing itself for that world with the Surface products and Windows RT.

    People are talking so much about throwing the desktop away from these devices but it makes them incredibly powerful. Obviously, the modern UI needs to be developed enough to include more advanced controls so you can stay out of it completely, and we already see that happening in the leaked Blue update screenshots. But it’s awesome to be able to attach my monitor, which has extra USB ports to have a keyboard and mouse attached that only takes up one of the four. Most of what I do happens to be online and now Flash works everywhere. I use bit.ly and Pocket, and those integrate with Desktop IE perfectly. Overall extension support clearly falls unimaginable short of Firefox and Chrome. I mean I guess it will get there, but I’m not holding my breath for it.

  • Bizzy419

    Microsoft has great features that most people don’t realize are available. When you use other devices you miss will miss the small easy things Microsoft provides in an os. From the phone to tablets.

    • http://www.ehirsh.com/ Evan Hirsh

      Like the ability to print. Seriously, how did Apple not even think that I might want to print a damn web page from my Tablet? With Windows I can just open the charms menu, devices, and click my printer.

    • http://twitter.com/KingLomo AK

      The left and right keys are genius

  • joe2500

    these are on all win8 devices for the most part… it’s really slick. I’ve stopped using my ipad, for flash access alone… no more “you need to download” do-loops that you can’t get out of.

  • @gaucho206

    to geekwire et al: try excluding “thing” from your writing. it forces you to use better, more descriptive words. doing so makes your writing richer. i.e. 6 concepts Apple needs to copy from Microsoft Surface in iOS 7. 6 ideas Apple needs to copy from Microsoft Surface in iOS 7. 6 features Apple needs to copy from Microsoft Surface in iOS 7.
    yes. i am the a-hole pointing out something that no one else really cares about. correction. i am the a-hole pointing out an issue that no one else really cares about.

    • http://twitter.com/galenward Galen Ward

      Ha – I love this. This was my headline and you’re right – that would make it stronger.

  • voleheart

    wow your wife works at Microsoft and you are an Apple guy! how are you still married?

    • http://twitter.com/galenward Galen Ward

      We make it work!

      • voleheart

        that is true love my friend. ever see The Princess Bride? u would know what I mean. don’t take this as being trollish but what made u a Apple man? and next do u think you are coming to Microsoft now or are just thinking of getting idk a Surface pro? just wonderin.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jasondouglasfarris Jason Farris

    Useful: Surface FTW
    Infotaining: iPad FTW
    Everyone I know owns an iPad, and they all just sit there on their desks doing nothing until it’s time to walk a funny cat picture around the office. The Surface’s on the other hand are part of everyone’s daily flow, and as the Pro’s rollout, are starting to take the place of desktops.

  • Plextorman

    ex long time iPad user here: I agree on all points, especially the nice volume button feature surprise. Such a good tablet, such a shame Microsoft sucks at marketing.
    And one major point pro Surface: NO iTunes! I can only express mathematically how much I hate that over-bloated useless POS called ITunes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/robbie.paplin Robbie Paplin

    Who are you and what have you done with the real Galen?

    Anyway, I think when Windows “Blue” and Intel’s “Haswell” starts shipping in the next Surface, things will get really interesting, Microsoft had to make battery life / backward compatibility trade offs for Surface RT & Surface Pro that placed them in an awkward spot competitively for this generation.

  • http://twitter.com/PoopsTech PooPsTech

    6 things? Well, not too too bad, eh? Since Microsoft has copies 6000 things from Apple platforms, be it desktop or mobile. Hell why not? Apple COPY the 6. lOlz

  • Nancy Fuentes

    YES YES YES…..make these suggestions to Apple!

  • hf

    yeah because this product is a HUGE hit. apple definitely needs to copy microsoft