Compromise, Or Don't

In an excellent and largely misunderstood article, Matt Baxter-Reynolds recently pointed out the real-life, day-to-day issues with using the  Microsoft Surface Pro on the move. By starting with the form-factor of the moment, a tablet, and then adding a kickstand and keyboard, Microsoft inadvertently threw away 30 years of iterative portable computing design.  The result is a device with a 10" screen and a footprint larger than a 13" Macbook Pro (and indeed larger than any other ultrabook or MacBook Air). The same as a 15" MacBook Pro, in fact. Not only is the footprint larger, it's less stable, since you have a hinge with no hold between the keyboard and screen, and then a half-centimetre bit of plastic to hold the screen up instead. Google's recently announced Chromebook Pixel is competing in the same space as the Surface Pro, and by virtue of price bracket, that also means the same space as the MacBook Air. It runs ChromeOS, so everything you do is cloud / browser-based. I'm not going to debate the pros and cons of this model now: suffice to say there are people out there who love this thin-client  setup (it's not new, it's just it's time is finally coming), and are within reach of wifi for enough hours a day for this to work for them.

What the Chromebook brings to the table is a touchscreen (just), it's incredibly portable and has all the advantages of an actual laptop in design. Well, I say all: from a physical point of view it has the same advantages. It's a clamshell, and so you can sit there tapping away on a real keyboard with it perched on your knee.

Where Google have thought differently of course is by making the Pixel a thin client. For me though, that means they have throw away all the reasons I still use a MacBook Air as my portable machine and haven't gone to an iPad. When I'm out and about, I still want to do the kinds of computing tasks just not possible on an iPad yet. I want to code in objective c and Java, compile apps, run them on a simulator or a device. I want to write Python scripts. I want to open Ableton Live and work on a DJ mix or new tune. I want to open Photoshop and edit a PSD, then save a PNG and add it to an app or website or a mix I'm uploading to SoundCloud.

I admit, the kind of things I do with my MacBook Air are niche. Not everyone writes apps or dance music. Why not I have no idea, but that's another story. But these reasons keep me on a traditional laptop, at least for now. Microsoft and Google should be praised for thinking outside of the box. So far though, these alternative offerings both throw away the best bits of what they are trying to replace, yet cost the same. The iPad doesn't try to do what a laptop does. It does a subset of what a laptop can do, some of those things it does better, and of course it costs around a half to a third of the price. The Surface (RT) does something similar. Similarly, the lower end Chromebooks do a subset of what a laptop can do, and cost around a quarter of the price.

There's a weird trend in the media to think that compromise is a bad thing. It isn't: compromise is the key to good design. The iPad, and to some extent the Surface RT and the low-end chromebooks: these are the great examples of compromise in design. Compromise is designed right-in. It's a feature. You get something that is great at a subset of tasks.

The problem that the Surface Pro and Google's Pixel have: they pretend there is no compromise, but in fact they have the the worst kind: unexpected compromises.