Surface represents Microsoft’s 21st-century approach to computing, arguably as innovative as the previous century’s move from Windows from DOS. The touch-enabled, tile-based user interface answers Apple’s iPad and Google’s Android.
More importantly, it represents the natural evolution of the Windows user – and developer– base into tablet computing. Surface moves beyond PC-style direct-access to files–refocusing users on content, not the technical expertise needed to access and manipulate it.
Making this magic happen is the new frontier for developers.
Following is a fast first look at what Microsoft hopes will soon become your favored environment.
New Surface Tablet: Multiple Choices for Developers
First, a quick look at the hardware. The Surface itself comes in several varieties.
The first, available today, uses an ultra-lower power processor licensed from ARM Holdings plc (Cambridge, U.K.) and running the Windows Runtime (RT) version of the new Windows 8 operating system.
The second Surface (available soon) will use an Intel Core i5 processor running the Windows 8 Pro OS.
Surface with Windows RT will only run software available in the new Windows Store. It comes comes preloaded with Microsoft Office Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.
The upcoming Surface with Windows 8 Pro will run apps from the Windows Store as well as existing Windows 7 applications. It arrives preloaded with Windows Mail and Messaging, SkyDrive, Internet Explorer 10, and Bing along with streaming access to Xbox Music, Video, and Games.
Windows RT Surface: Nvidia quad-core, “All Day” battery Life
The most unique aspect of Microsoft’s Surface running Windows RT is that the underlying hardware is based on a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor with a graphics-processor unit (GPU) that supports single-instruction-multiple-data (SIMD) execution.
Parallel programming gives apps simultaneous access to all four ARM Cortex-A9 cores plus the GPUs 64-bit SIMD and eight pixel-shader units.
The biggest surprise with the Tegra 3 processor is that it also has a fifth “companion” core that keeps running at low frequency whenever the user is idle or just listening to music or playing videos.
As a result, Surface running Windows RT is “always on” while still providing an “all day” battery lifetime from a 31.5 Watt-hour battery. In contrast the Surface with Windows 8 Pro requires a larger 42 Watt-hour battery making it 2 pounds and 13.5 millimeters thick compared to 1.5 pounds and just 9.33 millimeters thick for Surface with Windows RT.
Win 8 OS for Tablets: For OEMs Only
The new Windows 8 operating system for tablets is only being licensed to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) directly, not stand-alone as a consumer product as with Windows 7.
Architecturally, the biggest difference is that application code is interpreted before directives are sent to underlying hardware. That means the same Windows 8 apps can run on either ARM or x86 processors. Both alternatives have been embraced by scores of OEMs, who promise to offer a host of Surface-like tablets by Christmas.
Can you handle it? Two-handed, hi-def, wide touch screen
The 10.6-inch widescreen (16:9) touchscreen sets new standards for the industry, offering 10-point multi-touch capability that can track all the digits of both hands on a high-definition 1920-by-1024 pixel display for the Surface with Windows 8 Pro. The Surface with Windows RT has a screen with the same dimensions, but with five-point multi-touch capability for tracking the location up to five fingers at a resolution of 1366-by-768 pixels.
In addition to being touch-enabled, both Surface varieties from Microsoft and all the models forthcoming from OEMs, are also studded with micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS), including an accelerometer for tracking screen orientation, a gyroscope for tracking fine rotational and a digital compass for location-based services. Each of these MEMS chips offers full 3-D sensing for tracking motion, rotation and location, respectively, yielding together what designers call nine degrees-of-freedom (9-DOF) realtime sensing, which can be accessed by programmers for any app.
Three app types supported by Windows 8
The second are for .NET using Microsoft Silverlight or Windows Presentation Foundation using the Extensible Application Markup Language (XAML, pronounced “zammel”). Code can be C++, C#, or Visual Basic.
And to take full advantage of the graphics hardware, DirectX can be used with native C++ and HLSL (High Level Shading Language).
For Developers Only: Easy UI Standardization
Metro-style apps for the Windows Store will run on any Surface as well as the legions of other ARM- and Intel-based tablets that will become available from OEMs in 2013. To get in on that market, programmers need to adhere to the “fast and fluid” tiled-screen metaphor by using asynchronous parallel programs managed with tools like Microsoft’s Parallel Patterns Library, or for .NET its Task Parallel Library.
User interface standardization is simplified with dozens of user-interface routines and animations accessible by any programmer to make the tile-metaphor consistent for all apps.
Microsoft Surface: Deep security, Virtualization Galore
The Surface with Windows RT uses the Windows Defender software suite for encryption and security, but the Windows 8 Pro uses Intel’s on-chip hardware for remote management, provisioning and security scanning, making it the likely choice for enterprises.
Extra functionality provided by the Intel processor includes the Windows Media Center and Remote Desktop as well as services from Windows Servers that include Hyper-Visor virtualization, Virtual Hard Disk booting, Group Policy centralized management, BitLocker’s automatic volume encryption/decryption and Encrypted File Systems.
Start at Windows Developers Center
The best place to start when developing any Windows 8 app is the Windows Developers Center where programmers of any level can find help and download resources–from traditional software-development kits (SDKs) a la Windows 8 desktop apps, to tutorials, templates, programming tools, compilers and other resources for Windows Store apps.