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Surface RT, Microsoft's bid for a 'thing' of its own

Jon Phillips | Oct. 25, 2012
Microsoft desperately needs a "thing"—a big thing that transcends the nerdy world of consumer electronics and achieves hero status among mobile-hardware wonks and civilians alike. The iPad is a thing. The Kindle Fire is a thing. Each tablet is a shared cultural experience that's practically effervescent in mainstream consumer appeal.

A rather un-appy conclusion

The Windows Store inventory is alarmingly short of high-profile apps. The U.S. version of the Store is still well below the magic 5000-app plateau, and at this point you won't find official apps for CNN, Dropbox, Facebook, Hulu, IMDb, Twitter, and YouTube, among numerous other big-name stalwarts of the mobile world.

This isn't just a problem because Microsoft needs a busy, buzzing software marketplace if it's to realize its greater goals. It's a problem because the features and operation of so many preinstalled Windows RT apps will make you yearn for third-party alternatives.

The Music app gives you access to a huge catalog of free, streaming music, and for some people it may eliminate the desire to download Rdio or Spotify (neither of which is available in the Windows Store, by the way). But as a file-management tool for your own music collection, the Music app is light on features and customization options, and inscrutable in how it works. At first glance it looks like a wrapper for Xbox Music, and users might take a while to grasp that it's Surface RT's only built-in music player.

And then there's the People app, a central depository for all social media associations. The app invites you to connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other buckets of humanity, but once all your social media is thrown together, it's disorienting to see your disparate contacts sharing the same space. Even worse, as a Twitter client, People is precious in design but completely lacking in powerat least as far as I can tell.

Can I tweet an image? Unclear. Can I get a collapsed, more space-efficient view of the tweets of all my follows? Unclear. Do I have a way to remove Facebook updates from my "What's new" stream without hiding Facebook friends in my contacts list? It's impossible to tell.

And that's the problem with many of the preinstalled apps: They seem to lack many standard features, but you're never quite sure if they're actually dumbed-down, or if you just haven't stumbled upon the feature you're looking for.

I synced Calendar with my Google account, but Microsoft's app doesn't show individual calendars that have been shared with me. Can I add those views? If so, the operation isnt immediately obvious. Similarly, the Mail app wouldn't let me add my Gmail account. Is this because my account requires two-factor identification, and Windows RT doesn't recognize that? I don't know. The app simply reports, "That email address or password didn't work."

Bottom line

Microsoft desperately needs a hardware phenom to put a physical face on the ethereal trappings of its new Windows software. Hence Surface RT, the first personal computing device the company has ever created in its nearly 40-year history. But you can't simply buy your way into the "thing" club. You need to make a sexy, groundbreaking product that actually worksand then consumers assign it "thing" status through swarm intelligence, via social media and word of mouth.


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