Acer updates Surface competition view

Who can really say what has led Acer to become Microsoft’s problem child with regard to Surface? The 85% tablet/15$ laptop hybrid represents a relatively high-end tablet offering (but not a particularly high-priced PC offering) that isn’t where Acer’s brand has been. Perhaps the PC manufacturer is miffed because it sees Surface occupying an aspirational position. But so would all of its competitors.

Still, Acer has now made a point of saying that it will sit out Windows RT until it sees how Surface (at least the current Surface RT flavor) is doing. That represents a somewhat more conciliatory tone that we’ve seen in the past, given that Acer had been more opposed to Surface after it had been revealed. It hardly signals an embrace. Perhaps, now that Surface is out there, Acer has moved into the “acceptance” phase of the death of the traditional OS vendor/hardware partner relationship. But, again, why say anything at all. HP, for example, is also holding back on Windows RT devices ;it’s just not publicizing that it’s doing so.

HP, though, seems like it would have taken the wait-and-see approach regardless of Surface wheras Acer had been ready to jump in. Postponing product plans is painful, but at least Acer will now have the benefit of some free market research courtesy of Microsoft.

I touched a Surface and I liked it.

At today’s Windows 8/Surface launch, I got to lay my hands on Surface and its two keyboards. If you are considering picking one up, I’d recommend you visit your local retailer and do the same. It’s a very solid device although its lightness or kickstand feel didn’t immediately stand out. As the ads clearly show, this product is about the keyboards, so that’s what’s worth zooming in on.

It is easy to look at the reported overall inferiority of the typing covers’ suitability for a fast typist and dismiss them, but the controversial touch cover is a pretty impressive achievement. The keys require a bit of natural pressure to activate., but it’s a far better experience than mushy membrane keyboards. Contrary to what some reviews have reported, I had almost no learning curve and felt no discomfort. My immediate accuracy could have been improved, but it was still far beyond and far more comfortable than typing on glass. Speaking of which, the trackpad is comically (even compared to a netbook) small and oddly proportioned, but it will mostly be used for tweaking broad navigation on the touchscreen

That said, for a small premium in thickness, a relatively larger one in thickness, and some jeopardy of gunking up the space between the keys, the tactile touch cover offers an even more improved typing experience,

Also, one word on the hold between the cover on the cover and the Surface. I tried several times to forcefully shake the Surface loose holding it by its cover and could not. That said, it’s good to know that the Surface can survive a spill if dropped.

Marketing a mid-sized mini

Apple devoted a good chunk of the iPad mini introduction doing a direct comparison with the Google Nexus 7 (by ASUS as everyone has clearly forgotten). It was at once necessary and wasted, depending on the audience. For those open to comparing the two, the less convincing focus on the increased screen real esate and the more convincing (if oft-trotted out) focus on tablet app superiority helps to justify the 65 percent price step-up from the baseline. But for many, the availability of a capable $200 tablet is basically the end of the story. Apple’s messaging is of the iPad mini in of the smallest, least expensive iPad, not a relatively big and expensive “small tablet.”

The sad truth for Android tablets is that there have already been two tablets from major manufacturers released at close to the size of the iPad mini — the well-received Galaxy Tab 7.7 and the Motorola Xyboard 8.2. Neither was priced close to the $200 asking amount for the Kindle Fire HD or Nexus 7. In fact, most or all distribution of those models was through carrier stores, which have not been successful in moving tablets to date.

Surface RT: Microsoft should have waited

The first reviews for Surface RT are in and, while there seems to be an appreciation for its hardware features, including its various keyboard covers, most reviewers are disappointed with its software selection, advising readers to wait or at even pass. As I noted in my most recent Switched On column, Windows RT is the tougher test of the appeal of the Windows 8-style environment as it lacks backward compatibility with most desktop-style apps.

Surface RT is making the same mistakes the HP Touchpad and BlackBerry PlayBook did.

One way to look at Surface is Microsoft trying to get ahead of the market and making a validation statement: “Windows RT is viable, and here is how we’re supporting it.” But perhaps Microsoft really expects Surface RT to have an impact this holiday season. In that case, the Surface RT paradox is that Microsoft, far behind in the tablet market, needs to make up ground quickly and that Surface RT is not yet a compelling option from a software perspective. Arriving before Windows 8 has an opportunity to build volume, Surface RT is making the same mistakes the HP Touchpad and BlackBerry PlayBook did.

The difference is that things won’t stay that way. Had Microsoft held off, say, a year on releasing an ARM version of Windows after allowing enough time for a critical mass of “Windows 8-style” apps to build on Windows 8, then Surface RT would be a much more compelling product; that will surely be the case next year.

For MacBook, thinness is the new screen size

Yesterday’a revamping of Apple’s MacBook product line resulted in a product portfolio curiosity. Apple’s notebook lineup now varies about as much by girth as it does by screen size. MacBooks remain available in three screen sizes but the 13″ model is also available in three thicknesses — the ultrathin MacBook Air, the slim MacBook Pro with Retina Display, and the classic MacBook Pro with SuperDrive (unbranded as such). Of course, there are other differences among these models such as storage options, ports and screen resolutions. Still, the MacBook line now can be thought of as having three sub-lines: Air, Pro and Pro with Retina Display.

Making them even more like product lines,  they tend to have similarities across the screen sizes. While the Air and Retina lines both lack optical drives, the former is obviously engineered for the ultimate in portability and a cloud-friendly lifestyle while the latter is for the leading-edge power user, with the non-Retina Pros playing very much in the mainstream. As Phil Schiller noted, the 13″ MacBook Pro is Apple’s best-selling notebook and seems likely to remain so after its Retina-equipped sibling.

Chromebook: Breaking through the clamshell mystique

An old Yogi Berra quote could be applied to the notebook market: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Microosft has subtly snubbed the popular clamshell with its first Windows device, Surface, even as it seeks to recreate some of the form factor’s advantages. I’ve ben writing for a while about the lack of interest from Apple and Android device providers in getting their mobile phone operating systems into clamshells. But despite all the challenges facing any new operating system, particularly one as unconventional as Chrome OS, Google and its partners Acer and Samsung had the courage to put it into conventional form factors like desktops (Chromeboxes) and notebooks (Chromebooks).

Indeed, Chrome has become a simple notebook OS alternative to Windows and Mac for consumers, a truer “netbook” than was ever produced by a Windows vendor, even more so than the original netBook from Psion. And in a time that even Microsoft is willing to throw out backward compatibility to take advantage of ARM processors, Chrome has found the mobile home it needs in the new Samsung Chromebook. The battery life may not be up to that of the iPad, but the 6.5 hours of battery life it delivers is at least in a user interface optimized for a keyboard and trackpad-driven form factor.

As James Kendrick points out in this ZDNet piece, Chrome is now becoming more functional offline. This is helpful because, in contrast to his rhetorical ending (“When was the last time your computer was offline, anyway? Probably doesn’t happen all that often.”), it’s still far too frequent. Worse, in at least some scenarios such long, sometimes international flights — it can be a prime productivity opportunity.

Obviating Office on the iPad

The potential of this seems rather murky. Obviously, there are several office suite alternatives already for the iPad as well as remote desktop solutions. And even if there were a more concerted effort between Apple and VMWare to offer hosted Microsoft Office, there would still be a place for the popular office suite on the iPad, even in the enterprise.

Of course, such a native version would have to closer to a Windows 8-style app implementation than the current “touch-optimized” but fundamentally desktop-style version. The next version of Office will likely be offered in a Windows 8-style version as an option, much like Internet Explorer.

iPad mini: the Retina Display question

Most coverage that we’ve seen of the rumored iPad mini notes that it won’t have a Retina Display. There is, however, a counterargument.  Clearly, Apple has been on a Retina tear (although hopefully without any actual torn retinae) as it has become a defining and increasingly anticipated feature crossing many product lines: MacBook, iPhone and iPod. If Apple was willing to put a Retina Display on the iPod touch, why wouldn’t it put one on the iPad mini? The technology is clearly available. The display on the imminent Barnes & Noble Nook HD is Retina-sharp. Adding credence to this is rumors that the iPad mini may start at $329, which would be relatively high for the sub-8″ tablet category even given that Apple is profitable (and quite) on hardware. Pulling off a Retina Display iPad mini at $299 would be a coup.

On crowdfunded kitchen gadgets

Companies keep trying to affix touchscreens to our refrigerators and develop more infomercial-friendly variations of the blender, but the kitchen still remains a relatively low-tech sanctuary. Even as we hurtle toward a Wall-E-era existence of complete automation and leisure, the simple joys of preparing a meal in one’s own kitchen can be invigorating.

My latest Backed or Whacked column for TechCrunch examines three Kickstarter funding campaigns for kitchen gadgets.

On Surface RT’s price point

Beyond Surface’s clicky hardware amenities and accessories, it will come down to a preference for features such as the panoramic Live Tile home screen, which avoids much of the icon clutter of the iPad, side-by-side apps, and Charms, which allow apps to communicate with each other in a more standardized way than we see on Apple’s tablet.

 My latest Switched On column examines the value proposition of Surface RT.