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The Microsoft Surface Dial Is a Gimmick

The Microsoft Surface Dial Is a Gimmick

Microsoft recently announced the Surface Studio desktop computer with the Surface Dial input device. This article questions the practical value of the Surface Dial.

A lot of people like gadgets and Microsoft seems to understand this very well. Peripheral devices are physical objects. They are tangible and present. Regardless of their usefulness, there’s often a certain “gee whiz” factor with accessories.

The overall trend with computing devices is that accessories are becoming less present. So many peripheral devices have been replaced with virtual counterparts. For example, the physical keyboard on smartphones and tablets has been replaced with a virtual one. Instead of external storage devices, people are relying on cloud based storage.

The modern smartphone and tablet replaces many physical devices. Instead of using a compass or level, your smartphone can perform the same functionality. Smartphones are replacing people’s wallets, airline tickets and media players.

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The problem with virtual devices is that they can’t be sold as accessories. At best, a developer can sell a third-party keyboard, but most are free. Indeed, this is one reason why piracy is so rampant. Many people believe that intangible items, such as media, should be free. A physical device like the Surface Dial has the potential to be profitable, unlike a virtual controller.

There’s also a “magpie effect” with gadgets, especially if they are sleek and shiny. Most people have become bored with keyboards, mice and trackpads. Styluses and pens are nothing new to the computer world. Even 1980s Atari home computers offered a light pen. The pen is too familiar to invoke visceral excitement, but it is useful. Digital artists have been using electronic tablets and styluses for years.

Microsoft has been struggling with an identity crisis over the last few years. Under Steve Ballmer’s leadership, the Redmond tech giant saw a declining market share for Windows. Given the past success of hardware endeavors, such as the Xbox, Microsoft pivoted into hardware under the leadership of Satya Nadella. Their Surface tablets have garnered both critical and commercial success.

Microsoft is now doubling down on touch screen PC technology, transforming Windows into a touch screen enabled operating system. After all, given the complete failure of mobile versions of Windows, Microsoft couldn’t hope to woo developers with a tablet running a mobile operating system. I actually think tablets should run more advanced operating systems than smartphones. But let’s face it, Microsoft had to do this. Developers need to make money, and a big market share helps. Microsoft could not convince developers to create apps for a distinct touch-based operating system.

Microsoft’s new Surface Studio desktop computer is aimed at converting digital media producers into Microsoft fans. Traditionally, high-end audio-visual and graphic design work has been accomplished on the Mac. The Surface Studio, an all-in-one (AiO) computer, is eerily reminiscent of the iMac. In fact, in 2010 Apple patented a touch screen iMac that could fold down horizontally. They never put it into production.

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Apple Patented iMac That's Just Like the Surface Studio

They also patented a virtual dial control, which also never found its way into an actual product.

Apple Patented Virtual Dial Control

Apple product management feels that touch screens are not appropriate for desktop and notebook computing. They’re not ergonomically friendly. Users must shift between the keyboard and trackpad and the touchscreen. If your desktop computer is ergonomically positioned, interacting with the touch screen will quickly cause fatigue, sore shoulders and a sore back.

Newfangled gadgets can make a lot of people forget about ergonomics and how people actually use computers. It’s true that artists, architects and engineers often use drawing boards and drafting tables. It doesn’t mean that these tools offer a superior user experience. It’s just what people had to use before these activities were brought to the computer. Now this work can be accomplished comfortably, without hunching over a drafting table. Different isn’t always better, yet many people can’t make this distinction. The appeal of a new, shiny gadget is often so powerful, it overwhelms and overpowers common sense. The Microsoft Surface Dial is a perfect example of a shiny, new gadget that just doesn’t make sense. This hasn’t stopped the tech media from adulating the new device, crowning Microsoft as the innovative successor to Apple.

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I’m no Apple fan boy, but I think it is premature to claim that Microsoft takes the lead in innovation, especially when they still borrow so much from Apple. I don’t think Apple is exceptionally innovative either. They are known for taking concepts from others, but improving them along the way. They also ape products like Spotify with lackluster results.

It all depends on the product. Both Apple and Microsoft are not monoliths, but technology writers love to pigeonhole corporations into simple generalizations. It makes for great click-bait headlines and lively comments. (I don’t think “Microsoft Surface Dial Is a Gimmick” is a click-bait title, because I think it’s true and it’s not an outrageous conclusion. Leave a comment below if you disagree.)

What Is the Surface Dial?

Microsoft’s Surface Dial is a $99 optional input device that works with the Surface Studio desktop computer and the Surface Pro 4. Users place the Dial on the screen and its functionality changes based on the application. The Dial can be both rotated and clicked.

Third party developers can implement support for the device. Users can control color palette selections, animation timelines, zooming and other features using the Dial. It also offers haptic feedback to make it feel as if the dial is clicking. This is useful when users are focused on the Surface Pen while using the Dial in the background.

Although the Dial can be used independently from the monitor, its most useful applications are unleashed when the device is placed on the screen. The Dial is part of a package of accessories that include a keyboard, mouse and Surface Pen. As most computers are becoming more independent, dropping external accessories and ports, Microsoft counters this trend with a complete collection of gadgets.

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Is the Surface Dial Necessary?

The Surface Dial is an optional accessory. Surface Studio users don’t have to purchase it, however, it will end up rendering certain key applications less useful.

To be blunt, a touchscreen computer shouldn’t require a physical dial control. Instead, a dial or any other virtual control could be presented on the touch screen. Users can interact with the touch screen to rotate the control, move levers, or do just about anything. The screen could also provide haptic feedback, as Apple offers on the iPhone and iPad Pro.

The Surface Dial can actually be rendered as a virtual control. Users can remove the physical device to display a virtual representation of the Dial. Again, why not just make it virtual?

The Surface Dial is just one more gadget to fiddle with. Users must either move their hand to the Dial as it rests on their desk, or pick it up and place it on the screen. It’s a lot of activity to do something as simple change settings or zoom in and out of a document. After the novelty wears off (and the batteries wear out), I think a lot of users will end up putting it away in a desk drawer.

Surface Dial vs. Apple’s TouchBar

Given that Microsoft and Apple debuted products on consecutive days, it only took the blogosphere a nanosecond to compare the two products, which aren’t the same. I immediately saw the headlines — Apple was bested by Microsoft. Wait a minute! These features aren’t the same. One is actually useful, and the other is a gimmick.

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Apple’s TouchBar is quite different from Microsoft’s Surface Dial. For one, it is not an external accessory. You don’t need to worry about carrying the device, knocking it off the table or replacing the battery. The TouchBar is completely built-in. It’s also much more useful.

The TouchBar replaces the function keys on the keyboard. Users no longer have to learn what F1 or F2 represent. It’s all displayed on the TouchBar. Beyond apps, users can control macOS system settings directly from the customizable TouchBar. It can also read your fingerprint, providing advanced security for your device and online shopping. Sure, it doesn’t have the slick appeal of a separate device. Quite honestly, I like the direction computing is heading, where all of these devices are becoming virtual or embedded. You won’t find me toting an iPad Pro and Apple pencil, but I wouldn’t mind owning one of these new MacBook Pros.

The Surface Dial Is a Gimmick

If you’ve witnessed Microsoft’s flashy product event, you may be convinced that the Surface Dial is the best thing since sliced bread. Microsoft presenters rationalize the device as something natural and real-world. After all, when you write or draw with a pen on paper, aren’t you twisting a knob too? Of course not. There’s nothing natural about it. While that may not be a good thing, why make that claim? It comes off a bit “used car dealer-ish” or “infomercial-ish” to me. It slices, dices… If Apple has a reality distortion field, Microsoft has created the reality distortion death star powered by the nearby moon of Endor.


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