This week in tech history: Microsoft shows us the Surface

There have always been big differences between Microsoft and Apple, but perhaps the most stark was that Apple made its own computers. Microsoft didn’t. You could buy a Windows PC from dozens of companies, but not Microsoft — something that led Apple to tout its tight system of hardware and software designed to work together. For years, though, it seemed inevitable that Microsoft would make its own Windows hardware, and on June 18th, 2012 the company showed off the original Surface line.

The Surface and Surface Pro both clearly took inspiration from the iPad, which was booming in popularity at the time, but Microsoft put its own spin on tablets. First and foremost, both devices were announced alongside keyboard cover accessories, making them far more suited than the iPad for getting “real work” done. iPads had keyboard support from day one, but the Surface and Windows were far more suited to keyboard-and-mouse control than touch back in 2012.

But the Surface was one of the first times we saw a tablet made alongside a detachable keyboard accessory. The concept was simple: Use this with the keyboard to blast through Excel sheets and Powerpoint presentations, and then take off the keyboard for a touch-centric tablet appearance. But as is so often the case, the devil was in the details — and the first Surface devices didn’t exactly get those details right.

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The first Surface went on sale in October, and there were some immediately obvious issues. From a hardware perspective, the first Surface’s non-adjustable kickstand, relatively low-resolution screen and its awkward 16:9 aspect ratio (which made it all but unusable as a tablet in portrait mode) were hard to overcome. But perhaps more damning was the device’s Windows RT software, which only let you install apps from the Windows Store. Sure, it ran full versions of Microsoft Office, but beyond that the software ecosystem was severely limited. This all made the Surface a bit of a tough sell: It wasn’t better as a tablet than an iPad, and it was more limited than other Windows-powered laptops.

The Surface Pro, which didn’t arrive until February of 2013, came with its own set of issues. On the plus side, it had a far nicer screen than the standard surface, and supported the new Surface Pen accessory. It was also more powerful and ran a full version of Windows 8, which supported the vast array of software that was available for Microsoft’s main OS, even if it wasn’t optimized for touch. But the Surface Pro was simply too big and heavy to be useful as a tablet; battery life was a lot worse than the standard Surface; and it wasn’t the most convenient device to use in your lap because of that kickstand. As such, it was hard to recommend over traditional laptops, particularly when it cost more than $1,000 with a keyboard case.

While Microsoft didn’t get the details all right on its first try, the company did do a good job at relentless iteration and improvement in the following years. It wasn’t long before Microsoft gave up on having a lower-power, limited capability Surface model and put all its efforts behind the Pro, a move that paid off big by 2014. The Surface Pro 3 stepped up to a larger screen but managed to cut down the thickness and weight, while an improved multi-stage kickstand made it more comfortable to use. The Surface Pen got more and more capable, battery life improved, Microsoft ditched the awkward 16:9 display ratio, and by 2015, when the Surface Pro 4 launched, Microsoft was finally delivering on the vision it first presented years earlier.

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This week in tech history: Google unveils the first consumer Chromebooks

Google has been holding I/O, its annual developer conference, in early May for years now. As such, there’s often a lot of notable Google-focused anniversaries to recognize this time of year, and today is no exception. Eight years ago (May 11th, 2011), Google announced the first two commercially-available Chromebooks from Acer and Samsung. At the time, these were just a pair of announcements in the middle of two days of news, but it was a big milestone for Google’s fledgling Chrome OS. And while it took years for Chromebooks to shake a reputation of being devices that were both cheaply-made and not very capable, we can look back now at these laptops as the start of something significant for Google.

The 11.6-inch Acer Chromebook and 12.1-inch Samsung Series 5 Chromebook were cut from similar cloth. Both used low-power Intel Atom processors, used small solid-state drives and claimed impressive battery life, at least for the time: 6.5 hours for the Acer and over 8 hours for the Samsung. With relatively small displays, both computers seemed easily comparable to the many small, low-cost Windows netbooks that were commonplace in the early 2010s. Though with prices starting at $350 and up, these Chromebooks actually cost a bit more than some netbooks running Windows 7 at the time.

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With a semi-expensive price tag of $429 and an unproven OS, Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook wasn’t an obvious winner — but it turned out to be a surprisingly solid option. The hardware itself was study and well-built, the screen was decent, battery life was strong and the performance adequate — provided that you could get by with the many limitations imposed by Chrome OS in 2011. There was basically no offline mode to speak of, Netflix didn’t work and buyers only had 16GB of local storage to work with. At a time when cloud storage was both expensive and not always reliable, a Chromebook was certainly not for everyone.

But even in 2011, it was equally true that much of what one needed a computer for could be done in a web browser, assuming your needs were fairly simple. Gmail, Gchat, Google Docs and Facebook covered a lot of use cases — and while Netflix didn’t work with Chrome OS right off the bat, Google did promise it would add support before long. Add in the new cloud music locker that Google announced at I/O, and a lot of basics were covered. Indeed, when we reviewed the Series 5, we found that while it wasn’t ready to be a main computer, it was far more capable than we might have anticipated.

While Chrome OS felt a bit like another beta product when it launched, the good news it that Google has kept up a steady stream of improvements. Given that Google has a bit of a reputation for abandoning and killing projects at a moment’s notice, the company has been consistently supportive of Chromebooks, eventually turning them into far more than laptops that “can only run a browser.” Features like offline support, better web apps and Google Play / Android compatibility all made the software experience more complete.

At the same time, Google’s hardware partners quickly started selling Chromebooks under $300, making it an ideal option for students or for people who wanted a simple, low-cost laptop as a second computer. And after gaining some traction in the market with those inexpensive laptops, hardware makers followed the lead Google set with its wildly expensive but well-built Chromebook Pixel and started making higher-end Chromebooks of their own.

Now, eight years after these first consumer-ready Chrome OS devices were announced, 21 percent of all laptops sold in the US in Q4 2018 were Chromebooks. Google has also made undeniable progress in education, with one research firm estimating that Chromebooks made up 60 percent of K-12 laptop purchases in 2018. And that strength is based largely around what made Chromebooks attractive in 2011, even when they were still very much a work in progress. There’s something to be said for simplicity and speed.

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