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Scratch the Surface

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Debate swirling around Microsoft’s proposed Surface tablet misses the point about the significance of Windows 8, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It’s almost a mantra in the computer business that you write off Microsoft at your peril. The company’s Windows operating system runs most of the world’s computers, it has tens of billions of dollars in the bank, and its Office software sets the standard for productivity tools in the working world.

Yet, it remains fashionable to predict its demise or declare it is unable to innovate and is about to be supplanted by Google or Apple.

That summed up the response to Microsoft’s announcement last month that it would release its own tablet computer, to be called the Surface. (see http://www.microsoft.com/surface/en/us/about.aspx ). Its most striking feature is a thin, touch-sensitive cover that folds out into a keyboard, with a built-in trackpad. It will run the new Windows 8 operating system, in two configurations: a lower-end version called Windows RT, and the business-oriented Windows Pro.

The most striking feature of Windows 8, in turn, is that it provides a tablet-style look and feel, while allowing the user to dip under the surface into the traditional Windows desktop. In short, it provides both the entertainment ‚ or ‚consumption‚ ‚ appeal of tablets, and the productivity ‚ or ‚creation‚ ‚ of traditional computers.

The announcement of the Surface was met with howls of both delight and derision. The market was more divided on whether a Microsoft device was a good idea or not than on the potential quality of the device. If this was Microsoft’s answer to the tablet revolution, said many critics, the company was in serious trouble. Which just proves that many critics remain unable to separate their perspective from what is fashionable to believe.

Here is a different ‚truth‚ : the Surface does not matter. Not because it is or isn’t a great device. Rather, it’s because it is merely an example of what is possible with Windows 8. If you want to understand the direction of the Windows operating system and of Microsoft’s tablet strategy, you need to look beyond the Surface.

At last week’s TechEd Europe 2012 conference hosted by Microsoft in Amsterdam, the Surface was not even mentioned. A lengthy keynote address by corporate vice president Antoine Leblond included demonstrations of Windows 8 capabilities on other devices, but not a word about Microsoft’s own tablet. A subsequent full-day media event under the banner ‚Exploring Windows 8‚ did not touch the Surface.

Rather, both events included something far more significant: demonstrations of Windows 8 running on a current Asus tablet and a Samsung Series 7 Slate computer ‚ a device much like a tablet, but with a larger screen and the power of a normal computer.

The principal program manager of the Windows 8 User Experience Team, Chaitanya Sareen, started off his demonstration of the Slate while seated on a couch. Gradually, he moved over to a desk, where he slipped it into a small computer dock, and began operating it via a wireless keyboard ‚ without missing a beat in showing off the capabilities of the device.

Windows 8 allows for a wide variety of finger gestures on tablets, from swiping a finger across the edges for bringing up controls and commands to tapping for performing an action to the Apple-pioneered pinch or stretch gesture for zooming. Significantly, in Windows 8, every one of these gestures has a mouse as well as a keyboard equivalent movement or command.

While the media at TechEd Europe remained voraciously hungry for the new Microsoft device, many were oblivious to the fact that they were being shown a bigger and more important picture: existing devices are ready for Windows 8, and the computer does not have to be reinvented to accommodate it.

So scratch the Surface off the list of devices that you are awaiting for evidence that Microsoft is still in the game.

Can it rival the iPad? The fact is, that’s the wrong question. Windows 8 is far bigger than that. When the final version is released in October, it may just redefine what is fashionable to believe.

(See Arthur Goldstuck’s review of Windows 8 running on a Samsung Series 7 Slate here)

* Arthur Goldstuck is editor-in-chief of Gadget. Follow him on Twitter at @art2gee

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