Bias aside, Microsoft's vision truly is superior to its competitors, but will they execute it accordingly and in a timely manner ?
A little about me:
I am a seasoned software dev and former systems architect. My main device is a MacBook Pro Retina with Windows 8 running in Parallels. I believe that OSX on a MacBook, at this point offers the substantially superior desktop experience to the Windows desktop (especially on a notebook), namely due to multiple advances in productivity UI features and the finesse with which the trackpad works and allows gestures/swipes to take advantage of those features. The Windows desktop UI on the other hand is a stale, static and outdated workhorse environment that is badly in need of retirement/revamp, eventually the former of course. So what on earth makes me think Microsoft's vision is the 'superior' one ? Read on.
Surface - A single device with the capacity to be the most capable/valuable one in the world of personal computing.
When I first laid eyes on the Surface I could more or less accurately estimate what the future will hold for it, its limitations and evolutionary path. Back in 2012 I stated that it's a no brainer that the Surface will evolve to be an absolutely no compromise 'super' tablet and a slightly compromised ultrabook. Compromised as an ultrabook because it's inherently limited by the screen size, thin ultra-mobile cover integrated keyboards and the fact that it relies on a kickstand to stay upright as opposed to being hinged to a heavier base with a full fledged keyboard. The full fledged keyboard by the way can still be made possible by simply releasing a bulkier battery/keyboard/hinge-dock attachment that the surface can plug into (As the surface gets lighter, the base will outweigh it, like in a real laptop), thus indeed allowing it to be a no compromise 12"-13" Ultrabook too, with insane battery life to boot !
As SOC's and other components advance there can be no doubt that the Surface will VERY SOON hit the practical limits in respect to 'weight' and 'thinness', where further improvements will no longer be as prioritised and advantageous to the consumer, similar to the decreasing practical advantages of higher screen resolutions that we are seeing today. Battery life is already on par and will only improve. But what makes it a super tablet then ? Well, if being able to serve as a full fledged PC (Optimally with digitiser or when docked) is not enough, enter universal apps ! Yes, it's not just Microsoft's take on form factor flexibility that impresses me, form factor flexibility would be nothing without an appropriate and adaptive UI environment and I am not talking about the ability to switch to desktop, Microsoft appears to be the first to make the move towards an auto-scaling/self-optimising UI engine based on conventions and sophisticated responsive/adaptive techniques.
I said it before and I will say it again, the Surface is not compromised as a tablet in respect to form factor and OS in any way, shape or form ! For the life of me I can't understand where the journo's pulled the 'compromised' as a tablet thing. Yes, the Pro's are too heavy and thick (something that will be rectified by next gen), but the Windows RT based Surfaces are just great tablets ! The only real compromise one makes when buying a surface or any Windows 8/RT based handheld device for that matter is the lacklustre ecosystem of apps and 3rd party accessory support, but that is outside the immediate scope of criteria for how good the Surface is as a tablet when it comes its hardware and OS and more a problem of the entire ecosystem due to its smaller mind-share and young age respectively. Take a Surface 2, give it all the apps and accessory support of the iPad, is it any worse ? I would say NO. Similarly, a thin Surface Pro 2 would also not compromise in any way as a tablet, but it would be a super tablet when required and only when required.
The universal UI engine of the future
I believe this is the hottest and most prioritised piece of technology that Microsoft, Google and Apple are currently working on ! The latter two just have not publicised said projects, but now have in fact realised the advantages and flexibility such UI technology yields and are scrambling to develop the most sophisticated one. I know many that are ever stuck in the status quo will say that Apple etc. promised not to go the convergence route or mix computing paradigms, many of whom didn't believe Microsoft would go on to create universal apps that allowed for a single UI project to be shared across platforms and the UI to scale intelligently, but it did and Apple and Google will follow suit shortly.
What is a universal UI engine you ask?
It's a set of conventions, functions and intelligent UI elements that allows for the creation of UI (be it OS or Application UI) that will scale and adapt to the users screen size and or input method as well as allow for manual/semantic scaling of course.
A simple example would include launching say a metro version of Photoshop on a tablet, the UI would be optimised for touch if used as a tablet with a finger, but dock it, latch a keyboard/trackpad onto it or bring a digitiser up to it and the UI will scale to present a more complex control layout when available, with more elements visible and typically tabbed/hidden menus expanded, increasing productivity and functionality. Eventually getting advanced enough to negate the need for classic desktop apps entirely ! This I believe is future of metro UI/applications. This is also the only way to allow for true, instant, seamless ubiquitous computing, whereby allowing users to load that same app/UI on any screen and preserve state entirely, not just sync saved settings from the cloud whilst using a different application on a different platform and only if it's available.
The desktop/Metro merger that we have today is just a temporary stand in, a non graceful (A straight to Z) jump solution that skips everything in between, not to mention it does not permit to seamlessly and instantly carry over state, UI positioning and whatnot across apps. Hence this is the reason why WinRT/Metro will eventually swallow the desktop, relinquishing it to nothing more than a legacy app that can be launched from some x86 versions of Windows, I don't think dependencies will even be loaded up by default unless this is set manually. The cool UI concepts of OSX such as mission control/workspaces will be realised in the metro UI engine in their own way, not the classic desktop. Microsoft is trying to make this transition to an all Metro world as smooth as possible, this can be seen in the upcoming Windows threshold, where Metro applications can run in windowed mode. Windows threshold will tie over legacy application/desktop users whilst Microsoft also releases a Metro only versions of Windows for X86 as it does already for ARM, as we all now herd rumours, this version will merge Windows Phone and Windows RT, hopefully this is where the OS UI scaling will come in, because just as well I want to dock my phone and get a desktop grade UI up on the external screen.
Where are we today ?
With Office Metro on the horizon and the Surface already being a beautiful, high quality device with arguably the best industrial design faculties in the industry things are looking up for Microsoft in the mobile world, even on the consumer side of it. The ecosystem is of course still marred by poor quality apps, selection and being a distant third priority for 3rd party developers and accessory/equipment makers, even on the browser side IE mobile deliver a subpar experience to chrome and iOS as web-devs do not bother optimising/testing for it. With threshold on the horizon the docked Surface and Windows 8 experience respectively will improve significantly and reduce the jarring effect of switching between metro and desktop by allowing Metro apps to run in Windowed mode and bringing back a metrofied start menu of sorts. Hopefully we will soon see the ONE OS come to realisation early next year, with a purely consumer geared version of Windows coming to x86 and ARM that will merge both Windows Phone and Windows RT, so expect crazy powerful phones/tablets that will scale metro apps.
The most important thing for Microsoft on the consumer side now is to continue getting involved with accessory makers, developers and acquiring them when warranted, this will in effect auto-add value to the ecosystem by virtue of having the means to buy promising/popular assets alone. Skype was a good purchase in my opinion. Continue open sourcing as many technologies as possible and reducing\eliminating licensing costs for Windows on purely consumer geared devices. Also avoid focusing on desktop apps and move as many assets to cloud backed web-apps and metro apps.
Product oversight and quality control must improve. Windows 8.1 should have been released in October 2012, the faults with 8.0 were that obvious. Do not release if it does not feel right, there are many people that can pick up a device use it and in the span of a day to a week or so tell you that it's not as intuitive and hassle free as would be acceptable in today's market. Microsoft knew Windows 8.0 was a half-baked POS technology tester and the first party apps abysmal, still released it though, probably for the better in that case, since live trial of OS and evolution through user feedback is superior, but at great expense to image. For their sake, they should avoid doing this often, but I would say they are also guilty of this with the XBOX One and Kinect 2.0, which is royal turd in my opinion, the XBOX brand may in fact collapse/get sold in the face of steep competition and unless Microsoft updated the software fast, but that's another story.
Overall I really like where Microsoft is heading with the Surface, Universal apps and future version(s) of Windows. For their sake, they should strive to execute that vision soon and well enough, otherwise their more mindshare dominant competition will bring those technologies to maturity and reap the benefits.