"I never thought I’d write a blog post in Microsoft Word, but here I am doing just that," begins my first blog post on the Surface. Written lying on a rabbit-shaped bench overlooking the sea, with a gentle breeze cooling the heat of the sun on my skin, all is well. A week later when I come to edit and upload it, I discover that Word has lost it.
Act One: All good things come to an end
This story begins back in January. I’d been curious about trying a Surface + Linode combination instead of my 2 year-old iPad + Linode setup. The allure of a full-fat browser that can run Gmail and iPython Notebooks, combined with a keyboard-centric OS has long tempted me. I hadn’t switched, though. Somehow, I had been waiting. At the end of that fateful January amidst the snow and the cold, everything changed.
I was promoted into a management role.
Overnight I find my entire interface to the rest of the company changes. What used to be IM and Mercurial is now emails with attached Word and Powerpoint documents. Within a fortnight the iPad + Linode setup collapses; neither iOS nor Linux nor Google Docs offer credible alternatives for reviewing, editing and returning Office documents and I grit my teeth, install Windows 8 and Office on my laptop and get to work.
Fast forward to April, and I’m wandering through a cherry-blossom filled Washington, exasperated by two months of being tied to a laptop, with all the power, size, screen, weight and fragility restrictions that go along with one. I’ve mostly stopped working in cafes and outdoors, but I miss it. As I walk I weigh up the alternatives. A 13” Air would be a massive step back towards the freedoms I’ve grown used to, but the fanless, robust silence of a tablet continues to attract me, and I don’t want to go back to managing local storage any more than I can help.
Reaching a decision, I drive to a cathedral-like mall and walk out again a few minutes later with a Surface RT and type cover. The time to try a Surface has come. If anything can let me work as flexibly and freely as my iPad in this new corporate world, the Surface can.
Act Two: Flashback
In the following glorious three months of summer and sunshine at my new home by the sea, I get to know the Surface, its glory and its shame. It works, I use it every day. Yet something is missing, something isn’t right. I just can’t fall in love with the Surface.
Back in primary school, my class made Christmas cards for our parents one year. My artistically-gifted friend, who knew the difference between a B and HB pencil, drew out a simple, bold cracker design with a simple twist - you can pull apart the cracker to see the message. No more, no less, but somehow he managed to spend the whole hour working on it.
I thought the pop-up idea was great. My card had a cracker too, and when you opened it there was a fireplace and tree inside and there were extra tabs to pull to make the fire go out and Father Christmas come down and you could open one of the presents under the tree to see my name and I’d fitted most of the words in without squashing them and when I showed the resultant sticky, thumb-printed mess to our teacher he asked me what on earth that was and told me to throw it away and make another.
I didn’t make another, but I did take a long, hard look at my friend’s card. Mine did more; why wasn’t it better? In that moment, I first learned about the relationship between elegance, simplicity and beauty, and my card with all its features and messy edges had none of these things.
Using the Surface gives me the same feeling. I can do more with the Surface, but it is not beautiful, nor do I enjoy using it - or being seen using it. It’s so obviously a business device that putting it on the table in a cafe feels… awkward. Like an imposition, doing office work in a leisure place.
The experience is often disjinting. Rotating the device results in a weird “pop” animation that often leaves desktop windows or even the start screen itself distorted and out of place. It persists in referring to itself as my “PC”. The keyboard doesn’t auto-appear when text fields have the focus in desktop applications. Metro IE sometimes decides to reload all the old open tabs when clicking a link in a mail switches to it, stealing the focus from the new page I just tried to visit. The kickstand is at just the wrong angle for everything and the keyboard, while fine on a table, is spongy and occasionally misses keypresses when used on a lap. Word doesn’t save your work unless you click on a 3.5” disk icon regularly. There are a hundred small things that make the whole experience feel fragile, confused and unsatisfying.
No, I cannot love the Surface. But neither do I discard it. Despite its failings, it does what it claims. It works, and it lets me work, flying through my Gmail with keyboard shortcuts, effortlessly opening, reviewing, changing and reattaching Office documents to emails. Sometimes, it even feels incredibly cool - using an iPython Notebook running on my Linode to graph and explore data from the tablet is absolutely great, even if it’s only possible thanks to the single-click jailbreak.
Act Three: Surprise
You see, there’s something else, something that changes things in ways I never expected: I can read the Surface’s screen in direct sunlight.
While I can just about work on my iPad in the shade of a tree, the Surface screen is clear and bright lying in direct sunlight in the hammock on my balcony, on a pier at the beach, outdoors in a café or on a rug in the garden. This changes the game again. Working in a natural environment can be both beautiful and liberating. It’s just a shame it’s coupled to a device that’s otherwise somehow disappointing.
Visiting my friends in Munich is typical of my mixed feelings for the situation. It’s a 7 hour train journey and a 7 day trip. I take the Surface for working on but also pack the iPad for playing games, so now everything weighs as much as a small laptop would anyway. My friends in Munich consistently tell me how healthy I’m looking. I put it down to my suntan from all those mornings in the hammock with the Surface.
I prefer the experience of working on the iPad. The amazing, unexpected mental freedom of having all my state on an automatically backed-up, always-on Linode coupled to a simple, essentially stateless window onto that world that I could toss around like a paperback book. The ability to open and close it at will, let the battery run flat, leave apps open with the contents unfinished and never give them a second thought.
The Surface doesn’t persist application state. Every week it threatens to restart itself within 2 days to install updates. If I haven’t manually saved work when it does that, the work is lost. Some things are saved on SkyDrive, some on the local disk, which isn’t automatically backed up either. So now I am forced to be aware of this leaky abstraction, to manage the remote and local state and at this point I might as well just have a MacBook Air and be done with it.
It lacks a zen-like calm.
And that’s what this comes down to. If you’re mostly doing non-web development, go for an iPad+Linode. If that combination can’t do the work you’re doing - like the MS Office editing I need to do now - then it’s a choice between the Surface and a laptop, not an iPad. Do I recommend the Surface for working like this? I don’t know. It’s been months and I still don’t know.
I would miss working outside if I had to go back to my laptop full time. Cycling into nature and working in a beautiful spot is fabulous. But these are things the screen lets me do, not the things the Surface lets me do. I expect to see similar screens on other devices soon. A good screen is not fundamental to the form factor or the manufacturer. There are probably options out there already that I haven’t seen because I never thought to look before.
I do know that I almost never use the Surface as a tablet. I use it like a little laptop. Maybe I’ll find the perfect combination of powershell scripts and metro apps to recreate an elegant workflow, but I’m not really motivated to because while I could use shell scripts and python programs on the Linode to work around the iPad’s email limitations I can’t do anything work around the Surface’s deeper usability flaws.
Every time I use it I miss my MacBook a little more.
Update: HN discussion here (including my thoughts on Microsoft Phone).
Update: I forgot to mention my Working in the Cloud mailing list. Articles like this appear there first, sign up if you’re interested in how things go from here!
 Actually it autosaved a file, and when I next tried to open an attachment during a conference call I ignored the annoying little restore blah blah tab. I’ve since learned not to do that. But I shouldn’t have to.