Last week marked a turning point for Microsoft. Finally, after three years, the Redmond juggernaut has a direct, plausible answer to the iPad. At the head of this newly-declared war on Apple is the Surface running Windows RT. In many ways, the Surface has been well-reviewed. People generally like the construction, and find the Metro interface to be an interesting departure from the well-trodden UI of iOS and the iPad. They also find the innovative Type Cover to be a brilliant way to turn a tablet from a consumption-only machine in to something that can legitimately produce content.
But there’s something that all of these reviews agree upon. Windows RT is not complete. Whether it’s the lackluster performance experienced when diving in to the third-party apps, the laggy transitions when rotating the tablet, or the odd way swiping gestures that enact the Charms Bar, Microsoft’s Windows RT was widely reviewed as showing promise, but not quite finished.
This perpetual state of incompleteness is the largest issue currently plaguing Microsoft’s products. Their Metro design language rivals even the best that Apple has to offer. The Surface RT’s design is fantastic. While it is somewhat thick, it’s built using some of the most sophisticated manufacturing specifications in the world. And yet, oddly enough for a company that goes by the name of Microsoft, it’s the software that presents the problems.
Then we come to Windows Phone. Microsoft launched Windows Phone, featuring the unique and tasteful Metro interface, more than two years ago. The OS promised to be disruptive: it offered the portable xBox, the Zune phone, the Office mobile device, and the Outlook machine for the road warrior. And while Windows Phone continues to be a capable OS powering some fantastically-designed phones, all current Windows Phones will not be updated to the latest and greatest OS, details of which are to be announced on Monday. Windows Phone 8 completely replaces the core of the operating system, so while Windows Phone 7 (and 7.5) share a similar name with the newest OS, and are functionally very similar, they are technically completely different. In moving transitioning the kernel of the Windows Phone OS, Microsoft alienated every customer who had previously purchased a Windows Phone. Again, Windows Phone (since release) has seemed perpetually incomplete.
Windows 8 itself has a similar, albeit much more restricted, feeling of being incomplete. The Metro interface is beautiful, and useful, but there are strange design decisions. For example, while the OS is still named “Windows,” I find window management in Windows 8 to a very bad implementation. Microsoft has historically taken the lead in managing applications on a desktop – and yet, in Windows 8, they have forfeited this lead. Windows 8 (and RT) continue to have the desktop for a reason: it is very necessary for “real” work. Metro is a beautiful proof-of-concept. It proves that Microsoft has the chops to design a world-class OS. And, one day (hopefully soon), this new environment can be used completely on its own, and the desktop interface of old can be completely removed, or relegated to a very small portion of the OS, as the traditional command prompt has. But that’s the point: Metro itself isn’t yet complete. It’s new, it’s shiny, and it shows an amazing amount of promise – but it isn’t complete.
Microsoft is competing directly with Apple at a level that hasn’t been seen since the early 1990′s. Surprisingly, Microsoft is competing favorably against Apple in many ways. But, historically, Apple’s greatest asset is that they know how to polish the edges of the product to perfection – or those edges get cut altogether. Microsoft has to learn how to do this, and quickly, if they want to have a shot at regaining the lead in mobile computing. With Windows RT and Windows Phone 8, they have their shot aimed at the right place – all that is left is to polish the bullet.