On Monday, at a shrouded-in-mystery press event in Los Angeles, Microsoft introduced a new tablet device called Surface. The device will run a version of Windows 8, the new Microsoft operating system due out this fall. It’s clearly positioned to compete with (or even prevail over) Apple’s iPad.
Image from Bloomberg Businessweek. Other colors will also be available.
The Surface has a touchscreen, but it also has a thin, detachable cover that flips down and doubles as a keyboard. And there’s a kickstand to allow easy viewing of videos. Those features alone would make me a fan.*
And the name? I like it.
I don’t loooove it, but that’s not important. Remember: a successful name is an arranged marriage, not a love match. Besides, this is Microsoft, not some perky, quirky startup. A touch of gravitas is welcome here, especially when you remember what happened when the company tried to get cute.
Microsoft Bob, introduced in 1995 as a user-friendly interface for Windows 95 (aka Worst Windows Version Ever). Dumb name, bad product. “Imagine a whole operating system designed around Clippy, and you get the crux of Microsoft Bob,” wrote Time in a 2010 roundup of “50 Worst Inventions.”
“Surface” sounds smooth, elegant, and well designed. Its French roots serve it well: It could be the name of an architectural firm or a day spa. (The word literally means “above the form.”) As a noun, “Surface” draws attention to the device’s near-two-dimensionality and its glossy exterior; as a verb it suggests ascent: to surface is to come up for air. “Surface” also subtly reinforces the Windows brand: windows are all surface, all transparency.
“Surface” even incorporates “surf,” although I’m unsure whether anyone still says “surf the Internet.”**
Best of all, the name is distinctive. It doesn’t attempt to ape the Apple nomenclature (which by now is nothing if not predictable), and it sounds like a fresh beginning.
Except that it isn’t … not quite. Microsoft originally registered the Surface trademark in 2007 and used it for an LED “smart table” it developed with Samsung. The table is still around; it’s now called PixelSense.
Now, that is an uninspired name. Give me a ring, Microsoft. We’ll talk.
The Surface announcement raises another interesting question: what will be the generic term for all the new category-spanning hybrid devices in our future? In its rave review of the Surface, Buzzfeed wondered, facetiously, whether the professional version would be called a laptablet, a laptoplet, or a tabltop. (How about a tabloid?) We already have non-facetious usages of “phablet,” from “phone” and “tablet”; ABI Research defines the phablet as “larger than a smartphone but bigger than a tablet.”
Mike Pope considers the issue in a post about Surface at his Evolving English II blog:
We can reflect on the fact that while iPod has some small traction as a generic term for a digital-music player, Apple has not succeeded in making iPad, or even just pad, the generic term for this class of computer.
* I know I’m on the wrong side of history, but I detest those smeary touchscreens and the jabbing gestures they require. And I’ve never figured out how to hold an iPad without getting shoulder/neck/arm/wrist cramps.
** As Twitter friend Ian Preston reminded me, it’s not just surf, it’s surf ace, “suggesting browsing excellence.”