Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Do You Wanna Touch

Traditional laptops may have reached an evolutionary dead-end (or, more charitably, a plateau), but it is an amazing time for things that … aren't quite traditional laptops.

The Nexus 7 is excellent, the Nexus 10 looks fantastic, I can't wait to get my hands on the twice-as-fast iPad 4, the new Chromebooks are finally decent and priced right, and then there's the Microsoft Surface RT. In short, it is a fantastic time to be a computer nerd.

Revenge of the nerds

I love computers, always have, always will. My strategy with new computing devices is simple: I buy 'em all, then try living with them. The devices that fall away from me over time – the ones that gather dust, or that I forget about – are the ones I eventually get rid of. So long, Kindle Fire! I knew that the Nexus 7 was really working for me when I gave mine to my father as a spontaneous gift while he was visiting, then missed it sorely when waiting for the replacement to arrive.

As I use these devices, I've grown more and more sold on the idea that touch is going to dominate the next era of computing. This reductionism is inevitable and part of the natural evolution of computers. Remove the mouse. Remove the keyboard. Remove the monitor. Reducing a computer to its absolute minumum leads us inexorably, inevitably to the tablet (or, if a bit smaller, the phone). All you're left with is a flat, featureless slate that invites you to touch it. Welcome to the future, here's your … rectangle.

tablets

I've stopped thinking of touch as some exotic, add-in technology contained in specialized devices. I belatedly realized that I love to touch computers. And why not? We constantly point and gesture at everything in our lives, including our screens. It's completely natural to want to interact with computers by touching them. That's why the more unfortunate among us have displays covered in filthy fingerprints.

Although I love my touch devices, one thing I've noticed is that they are a major disincentive to writing actual paragraphs. On screen keyboards get the job done, but if I have to scrawl more than a Twitter length reply to someone on a tablet or phone, it's so much effort that I just avoid doing it altogether, postponing indefinitely until I can be in front of a keyboard. By the time that happens I've probably forgotten what I wanted to say in the first place, or that I even needed to reply at all. Multiply that by millions or billions, and you have a whole generation technologically locked into a backwater of minimal communication. Yelp, for example, does not allow posting reviews from their mobile app because when they did, all they got was LOL OMG raspberry poop Emoji.

Omg-raspberry-poop

It's not good. In fact, it's a little scary. I realize that there are plenty of ways of creating content that don't involve writing, but writing is pretty damn fundamental to communication and civilization as we know it. Anything that adds a significant barrier to the act of placing words on a page is kind of dangerous – and a major regression from the world where every computer had a keyboard in front of it, inviting people to write and communicate with each other. So the idea that billions of people in the future will be staring at touchscreen computers, Instagramming and fingerpainting their thoughts to each other, leaves me with deeply mixed feelings. As Joey Hess said:

If it doesn't have a keyboard, I feel that my thoughts are being forced out through a straw.

When I pre-ordered the Microsoft Surface RT, I wasn't expecting much. This is a version one device from a company that has never built a computer before, running a brand new and controversial operating system. On paper, it doesn't seem like a significant change from all the other tablets on the market, and its primary differentiating feature – the touch keyboard – can be viewed as merely flipping a regular laptop over, so the "fat" side is on the display rather than the keyboard.

Laptop vs. Surface

Surface is just like the first iPad in that it has all the flaws and rough edges you'd expect in a version one device. But it is also like the first iPad in that there is undeniably the core of something revelatory and transformative here – a vision of the future of computing that doesn't sacrifice either keyboard or touch.

Reviewers think Surface is intended to be a tablet killer, but it isn't. It's a laptop killer. After living with the Surface RT for a few days now, I'm convinced that this form factor is the replacement and way forward for the stagnant laptop. I can't even remember the last time I was this excited about a computer. The more I use it, the more I think that touch plus keyboard is the future of all laptops.

How wonderful it is to flip open the Surface and quickly type a 4 paragraph email response when I need to. How wonderful it is to browse the web and touch whatever I want to. And switching between the two modes of interaction – sometimes typing, sometimes touching – is completely natural. Remember when I talked about two-fisted computing, referring to the mouse and keyboard working in harmony? With Surface, I found that also applies to touch. In spades.

The Surface RT in my lap

This isn't a review, per se, but let me get into a few specifics:

  • Yes, it is ridiculous that the keyboard cover is not included in the base Surface, as the near-perfect integration of keyboard with touch is the whole story here. Don't even consider buying a Surface without the touch keyboard cover. Within an hour or so I was hitting 80% of my regular typing speed on it, and it's firm enough to be used on a lap without too much loss of accuracy. Astonishingly, the tiny fabric touchpad is quite good, better than the ones I've used on many laptops. Which probably says more about the sad state of the PC ecosystem than it does about Surface, but still.
  • Yeah, yeah, it doesn't run x86 apps. So your beloved copy of Windows Landscape Designer 1998 won't run on Surface RT. You'll need to wait a few months for Surface Pro to do that, but you'll pay the Intel Premium™ in price, battery life, and size. Rumor has it that Intel will get their act together with Haswell, and finally be competitive with ARM in price, performance, and power consumption, but I'll believe that when I see it.
  • The hardware design is beyond reproach; I'd even argue it's better than Apple quality hardware design. Unless you're required by God to hate all things touched by Microsoft, There's no way you could handle a Surface and not think that this is a genuinely well made thing.
  • The default Surface mail application is an embarrassment and everyone associated with it should be fired. Android and iOS both have decent default mail apps, as well they should, because email is bedrock. Not having this right really hurts. If Microsoft doesn't get their A Team "hey dummies, all you have to do is just copy Sparrow already" team on that soon, they'll be sorry.
  • Many of the native applications currently available run poorly on Surface RT due to lack of optimization and testing for the ARM platform versus x86. Probably not terribly different from the iPad 1 on launch day, but it remains to be seen how quickly that will get resolved.
  • The web browser is stellar and a model of how the Internet should work on a tablet. You are almost always in fullscreen mode, swiping around with nothing but content on your screen, the way it should be. However, back button performance is bizarrely slow, and the way IE10 handles web hovers is poor, much worse than Mobile Safari and Chrome. Try upvoting a comment on Stack Overflow to see what I mean.

Notice how the 2010 iPad 1 is already obsolete? Expect the same thing with the Surface RT. It's a fascinating glimpse into the future, but it'll be totally utterly obsolete in 2 years. Do not buy this device expecting longevity. Buy it because you want to see tomorrow today.

The received wisdom about touchscreen interaction with computers was that it didn't work. That you'd get "gorilla arm". That's why we had to have special tablet devices. But Surface proves that's not true; typing and touching are spectacularly compatible, at least for laptops. And I'm beginning to wonder about my desktop a little, because lately I'm starting to I think I wanna touch that, too.

[advertisement] How are you showing off your awesome? Create a Stack Overflow Careers profile and show off all of your hard work from Stack Overflow, Github, and virtually every other coding site. Who knows, you might even get recruited for a great new position!

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror