Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 - Your business future needs the most convenient power PC ever created!

It's clear to me the Surface Pro 2 will set the standard for business and other serious computing in the future. Microsoft is a company that has been successful dominating the business market thereby being a part of the world's economic productivity increase filling an essential role in the offices of most businesses and governments. They are so dominant that most of the news stories and blogs aren't extolling their dominance but rather about how some have struggled successfully to get rid of Windows and how well competitors are doing.

Now for some reason Microsoft seems think it needs to compete with Apple in the leisure content device business and Sony in the game box business. Perhaps it's the pundits and experts who equate short-term consumer sales volume with success - the "what did you earn this morning, who cares about next year or five years from now" mentality. But just maybe Microsoft has found the course to follow for the long-term future.

This week we read about the Black Friday sales of the new Microsoft XBox One which supposedly outsold the new Sony Playstation 4. That's apparently important news for Microsoft because the news also keeps reporting that the Surface (non-Pro version) is still not competing well against the iPad.

The fact is the Surface (non-Pro) 2 with Windows RT and either 32 or 64 GB of storage can compete in the tablet market. And because it has a version of Microsoft Office (yes, including Outlook) on it, it will interface effectively in most business environments. However, it's designed to compete in the consumer marketplace, not really in the business-to-business sales rat race.

But the Surface Pro 2 is something different. And here's where the pundits and maybe even Microsoft marketers are missing the point.

"Ready to own the most productive tablet on the planet?" That is the marketing tag line used by Microsoft. It doesn't really get to the point. "Your business future needs the most convenient power PC ever created!" would be a better, or at least a companion, tag line.

Let me make my point clear - the Surface Pro 2 is a Windows 8.1 PC. It has the power of any Intel-processor-based Windows OS desktop or laptop computer seen in the most up-to-date business or home office. The fact that it is in tablet form with a built-in touch-screen monitor is merely a handy plus. It replaces this...


...with this...


...but it is also a PC...


The "PC" Hardware.

Like all "desktop" computers, the Surface Pro 2 needs to be connected to all the peripherals when it's used at your desk. Here's what we did.

The Pro 2 has one USB 3.0 port and an HDMI port. We chose to connect it to a Plugable UD-3900 USB 3.0 Universal Docking Station. This provides a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 (5 Gbps) link from the Pro 2 to our network via wire, two additional USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports, as well as offering an additional monitor and audio connection.

But we needed more USB 2.0 ports. My wife's existing desktop computer peripheral setup included 6 USB 2.0 devices (keyboard, mouse, scanner, laser printer, label printer, and backup hard drive). So we connected to one of the Docking Station's USB 2.0 ports a Plugable 7 Port High Speed USB 2.0 Hub.  We replaced her old monitor with a HP Pavilion 23TM 23-inch Touchscreen LED Monitor which requires a USB 2.0 connection (for the touchscreen function which is functionally an additional "mouse" connection). Additionally, we've added a Samsung DVD+/-RW Slim USB 3.0/2.0 external drive.

Since her readily accessible data storage needs require substantial disk space (among other factors, she manages our 50,000+ music tracks), two USB 3.0 WD My Passport Ultra 1TB Portable External Hard Drives were attached to the Docking Station.

VoilĂ , we have a desktop computer with a 4th Gen Intel® Core™ i5-4200U Processor (1.6 GHz with Intel Turbo Boost up to 2.6 GHz), with Intel HD Graphics 4400, with 8 GB RAM (Dual-channel LPDDR3), and an internal 256 GB solid state drive plus two 1 TB hard disk drives.

Everything in this hardware configuration works well so far. Because it works so well we proceeded to create the same basic setup for me. One of the most impressive things about the Surface Pro 2 is that they don't get hot - in fact, running for 18 hours they don't seem to get very warm. The HP Touchscreen monitor doesn't get very warm. And the Plugable Docking Station and the WD My Passport external hard drives don't get very warm. Heat is the enemy of computer equipment. That I'm not hearing fans and still there's no heat is impressive and bodes well for the equipment life. But I know I'm tempting fate.

Application Software.

You have to understand that my wife and I ran a computer services business through the 1980's, beginning with a Tandy Model II in 1980. For us there is system software and application software. We understand that ultimate limit on application software is determined by the system software.

Like it or not, by the mid 1980's we found ourselves stuck with the Microsoft operating system. One can argue for other systems today. But Windows 8.1 on a Surface Pro 2 offers access to the broadest choices of productive application software because Microsoft operating systems have never locked out software vendors like Apple has. And while I was working with Unix and Xenix machines in the 1990's, open-source Linux doesn't offer software vendors the market or profit potential leaving IT "departments" in the majority of organizations feeling insecure.

Don't get me wrong. We hate Word. We like to have full, complete control of the format of our documents. If you have used WordPerfect, you cannot understand why people use Word. On the other hand, we use Excel and Access. Why not? And yet, I absolutely refuse to allow Outlook on my desktop. Mozilla Thunderbird works more like I would design an email program. And Anytime Organizer is about as close to perfect calendar software as we can find.

While we must have Adobe's Acrobat Pro  (whatever the lastest version number) to communicate and to save documents, I love Corel's PaintShop Pro for photo editing. There's really nothing you can do with Adobe photo software you can't do with PaintShop Pro X6 which costs $75.00 to purchase. And Corel's VideoStudio Pro has incredible features for video editing - $55.50 at Amazon.

We both use what one would call "hobby" software. But we use software that the advanced "hobbiest" needs, versions of which are still not available on any other operating system.

None of this Windows OS software, and the myriad of other application software choices we use, can be run on any tablet but one that has a full version of Windows. We can have this anytime, anywhere we have our Surface Pro 2 tablet. But before moving on to the tablet concept, Windows 8.1 deserves discussion.

Windows 8.1.

The obvious thing about the introduction of Windows 8 was the onslaught of attacks it received when it was introduced. It reminded me of the Vista release, which in retrospect was a bit of a disaster for Microsoft. But after Vista, Windows 7 was acknowledged as a solid OS. And Windows 8.1 is similarly a solid OS.

First let's get rid of the arguments about how good the other tablet operating systems are. Everything you can do on a Windows computer, everything you have done for years, browse networks and the internet, copy and manipulate files, run any of the thousands of Windows supported peripheral or accessory devices, you can do on a Surface Pro 2 with Windows 8.1. (And many of us tech types are discovering we can run a few pieces really old Windows software on Windows 8.1, but that's another story.) It isn't a criticism of Apple's IOS or Android to say they can't compete. They were operating systems designed to run leisure content devices and smart phones.

You can set up Windows 8.1 to boot into the traditional desktop you've used for years. You can set it up with your application software icons on your taskbar or desktop as you have always done.  (I'm not conceding to those who use that word "app" as a synonym for application software ... thanks for nothing Steve Jobs wherever you are.)

Mine with my custom desktop background picture and with Firefox open to Wikipedia looks like this:


What is absent in Windows 8.1 is that traditional "Start Menu" in the lower left corner.  But it's really just relocated.

I'm frankly puzzled by all the grumbling about the missing "Start Menu". First off, I didn't like the "new" Start Menu that we inherited from Vista in Windows 7. In fact, I used a piece of 3rd party software to create an XP-type (really Windows 95) Start Menu. At least the Windows 8.1 Start Menu offers the convenience of the touch app system popularized by the iPhone and iPad (and Android devices).

If you do as we do, you set 8.1 to boot to the traditional desktop. Instead of having to click on a small taskbar icon, you get the Start Menu by pushing the "Windows" key or clicking on the icon at the left end of the taskbar. On my computer this is how the new start menu appears:


If you need to get to a full listing of your application software ...oops, here I have to concede to the term apps... you click a down arrow (or touch screen sweep down) and have a much easier to read and digest app form display of all your programs/apps. And that disiplay includes many OS administrative functions. Also, that  icon on the left end of desktop taskbar when right clicked gives you access to many OS administrative functions. And then there is that pull-out menu system on the right side of your desktop for a different access point. For the first time since XP, I'm not missing that old start menu.


There are changes from Windows 7 just like there were changes from the Window 95/98/Me format to XP format. If you use Windows 7, you'll find Windows 8.1 quite comfortable after you set things up, like you had to do with every Windows upgrade. In fact I have installed it with the dual boot option with Windows 7 on our remaining "big box" computer.

The Tablet.

One cannot ignore the fact that this computer is in tablet form. We bought iPad "1's" early on, fully recognizing that the iPad was, and was intended to be, a leisure content consumption platform. To date, there has been no chance that either an iPad or an Android tablet could function as our "business computers."

During Apple's Q2 2012 earnings call in April 2012, CEO Tim Cook said that "anything can be forced to converge, but the problem is that products are about tradeoffs, and you begin to make tradeoffs to the point where what you have left doesn't please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but those things are probably not gonna be pleasing to the user."

Like many things people say without having a competitor's product to even stare at, Cook was wrong. Unplugged from the docking station, our desktop computers fully function as tablets. Further, with the HDMI output plugged into our TV, it is a fully functional IPTV device using the normal apps plus offering through a selection of normal browsers (IE, Firefox, Chrome) full access to any IPTV source.

As a leisure content consumption platform, while the Windows App Store had 130,892 total apps as of December 1, it does not yet have as many of the "fun" apps available to users of the iPad or an Android tablet. I suspect in time most will get there. As of December the top five free apps in the U.S. are Facebook, Netflix, Skype, Google Search, and Hill Climb Racing. The top five paid apps are Asphalt 8 Airborne, Asphalt 7 Heat, Fruit Ninja, Rayman Jungle Run, and Angry Birds Star Wars.

The only comment I can make is that if I'm going to walk off a subway platform because my eyes are fixed on my tablet, I would hope that I would not be consuming leisure content, but rather completely engrossed in preparing a thorough analysis on my latest space-time hypothesis using a combination of complex application software.

Nonetheless, if there turns out to be some app we can't live without or wait for, we can run an Android emulator on our Surface Pro 2's or use our iPad "1's".

In summary, contained in this hardware is a desktop computer that also is an IPTV device and a tablet, albeit one with its type cover that weighs 33% more than the latest iPad with a cover though about the same as my iPad "1" with its cover. That weight is the only Tim Cook type of tradeoff I could find in the hardware.

The Future.

Because Microsoft's core business is the Windows OS business, the Microsoft Store and Microsoft ads seem to be supporting third party Windows computer manufacturers/retailers like Dell and HP as well as their own Surface line. In a way, that takes away from the Surface Pro 2. But it also tells me that Microsoft built the Surface Pro 2 to make a point to the other Windows OS hardware manufacturers. Hopefully they'll get the point and focus on replacing the average Windows desktop computer with hardware even better, or maybe cheaper, than the Surface Pro 2.

In the meantime, one needs to be aware of the gaming side of the equation. Right now Windows 8.1 offers an Xbox app that, from a serious gamers standpoint, is very limited. Nonetheless, we are now seeing the initial rollout of what Microsoft has termed a unified development path for its Windows 8.1, Windows Phone 8.1 and Xbox environments. In a meeting with financial analysts, the new Windows Chief Terry Myerson recently noted:
...We really should have one silicon interface for all our devices. We should have one set of developer APIs on all our devices. And all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on our devices.
 It has already been confirmed that Windows 8.1 Apps will run on the Xbox One. And Microsoft introduced on December 3 a beta version of Project Spark. It is game-maker software for Windows 8.1, Xbox 360, and the new Xbox One console. It will allow developers, enthusiasts, and gamers to build a game within a game. Players can build custom worlds, characters, and animations from an Xbox One or a Windows 8.1 PC to play across both platforms.

And so, within Windows 8.1 the serious developer can now create apps not only for Android, but for Microsoft  device. Further she can run her small business from the same hardware platform while maintaining a complex Access data base, keeping accounting records that will keep her CPA and IRS happy, using complex Excel spreadsheets, preparing presentations, writing documentation and correspondence, paying her bills onlline using a browser (or an app), keeping complex genealogical records, playing solitaire and Angry Birds, listening to music and watching movies, managing her email and calendar.  And if she wants, she can unplug her Surface Pro 2 from her office desktop peripherals and continuing doing all of that on her tablet-form PC at the coffee shop or while lounging on her bed at home.

That's the Microsoft view of the future, Mr. Cook. Even though you don't yet have an OS X Mavericks Intel i5 tablet you still have one advantage - no wise parent will allow their six-year-old to play with their Surface Pro 2 because it is far more than a leisure content consumption platform. So while the Surface Pro 2 is all the parent needs to own, they may need buy an iPod Nano for the kid though a Windows 8.1 Phone may also be in the kid's future.