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Microsoft’s design team put thought into how the Surface user interface flows. (Keith Bedford/REUTERS)
Microsoft’s design team put thought into how the Surface user interface flows. (Keith Bedford/REUTERS)

TECHNOLOGY

Pretty vs. useful: with Surface Microsoft declares a winner Add to ...

Years from now, when digital archeologists sift through carbon rings of petrified tweets and the oily sludge of long-discarded iPads, they’ll mark the launch of the Microsoft Surface as a turning point, the moment the consumer electronics industry fully conceded that pretty is more important than useful.

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The Surface – Microsoft’s first in-house competitor to Apple’s iPad and the product chosen to lead the ticker-tape parade hyping the launch of the Windows 8 operating system – is pretty. In fact, the 10.6-inch tablet, with its floating-tile user interface and its magnesium-alloy exterior, is prettier than the iPad, or any other tablet, for that matter. That such a product should originate from the same company whose flagship operating system for decades plagued users with the single ugliest sight in consumer technology – the blue screen of death – is in of itself astounding.

The prevailing narrative in the technology world over the past half-decade or so has been the transition from desktop to mobile. In a way, this seems obvious, thanks to the white-hot popularity of smartphones and tablets. But it is also inevitable. A few decades ago, a computer was a heat-spewing colossus that could only fit in a warehouse. Eventually, it shrunk to the point where it could fit on an office desk, and then shrunk further until it fit in your pocket. Eventually, it’ll fit under your fingernail or embed in your skull, depending on which William Gibson novel reality is currently headed toward. The entire trajectory of consumer electronics has been a war of extremes – more pixels in thinner screens, faster processors in smaller spaces – bounded only by the laws of physics.

Rather than Big to Small, the more interesting transition in consumer technology has been the one from Ugly to Pretty. The older versions of Windows, for example, were Ugly – a concept that extends beyond the fact that Windows had a user interface that was not incredibly pleasing to look at. Ugly also meant that you could open up the guts of the software and really get your hands dirty. If you wanted to, you could burrow deep into the registry editor and change the most minute, obscure settings at the heart of the software, and if you messed up, you risked burning the whole operating system to the ground. And because Windows was (and still is) the great middle ground of the technology world, its status as certifiably Ugly meant that millions of users throughout the 80s and 90s were introduced to computing as something that was hands-on, malleable, open.

But over the past few years, Apple changed all that. The iPhone’s central bargain – the reason it became one of the best-selling products of all time – was between control and simplicity. In exchange for giving up the right to tinker with the insides of the software or hardware in any meaningful way, you were treated to a beautiful device that just worked. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know how to use a computer in order to use a computer. That transition, more than anything else, is the reason Apple became the most valuable tech company on Earth.

For years, Microsoft resisted this shift. But as the company started trying to get in on the smartphone market, it began to show signs of change. The Windows Phone operating system marked a rare Microsoft foray into the world of design-first software – in other words, software that looked good. Quickly, that philosophy spread across the company, and with the recently released Windows 8, it came to define Microsoft’s most ubiquitous product.

Microsoft did itself no favours with the way it announced the Surface, so it’s helpful to decipher the company’s sales strategy. There are, fundamentally, two versions of the tablet (excluding the various memory specifications). The first, which is available now and starts at about $520, comes with Windows RT – Microsoft’s fancy name for a version of Windows 8 that includes both the cool-looking “Metro” interface that’s built primarily for mobile devices and the more traditional Desktop interface. But Windows RT has one major limitation: it cannot run any programs that aren’t from Microsoft’s App Store. That means you can’t install any traditional Windows 7 software.

The second (likely much more expensive) version of the Surface runs on the full version of Windows 8, meaning you can install programs as you wish. Microsoft has yet to announce a launch date or pricing for this version, but generally, the Windows RT model is meant to compete with the iPads of the world, while the more expensive model is meant to replace a higher-end laptop.

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