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By Jeff Wing
May 29, 2016
Microsoft, long considered the portly, boring office guy to Apple’s swinging iHipster, is quietly reclaiming market relevance by making its Surface Pro 4 tablet (SP4) indispensable to the construction sector. The Surface Pro 4 is Microsoft’s planted flag in the ultra-fast-growing “Detachables” category––laptops and PCs that convert into powerful grab-and-go tablets. The first Surface Pro debuted in 2012, and in the interim Microsoft’s steep climb to the top of the Power Tablet market has defied expectations.
While sales of the standard tablet have dropped about 6% in the past year, the growing detachables market is set to take off like a rocket, with sales predicted to leap from 16.6 million units in 2015 to a jarring 63.8 million units shipped in 2020 according to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Tablet Tracker forecast.
The tablet and its mobile ‘gateway to the cloud’ functionality have long since become a regular feature of the construction sector, but the jobsite’s tablet revolution was slow to realize that the off-the-shelf tablets GCs were bringing to work were not perfectly suited for the task. The delicate design of the iPad and Android tablet is far from ideal in a work environment that even asks its visitors to wear helmets.
And the underpowered consumer-market tablets were always more interested in portability and entertainment, than in the raw processing power required to actually service complex and dynamic construction projects. Minecraft, yes. Actual skyscraper construction, not so much. And even in the early days of tablet adoption, Microsoft’s decision not to make its OS welcoming to developers kept the Windows app shelves a little bare, and most users stayed away from the earlier Windows portables. But Microsoft’s latest Surface Pro addresses those old limitations, and then some. Developers? Meet your new best friend.
Windows 10 now goes to the extreme other end of the “Happy Developer” spectrum, providing “Bridges” between non-windows apps and the Windows app store. Developers, simply drag and drop your app into the Analysis Tool on the Windows development portal, and Voila! You will immediately see what lines of code need tweaking, and will receive straightforward, actionable guidance on the simple changes that will get your app onto the Windows app store shelves in a jiffy; sometimes just a single line of provided code.
Power-wise, the SP4 packs seam-bursting 6th Gen Intel® Core™ m3, i5, or i7 power into a machine the size of a spiral notebook. Incidentally, that’s enough juice to drive the full strength Windows apps once only found on laptops and desktops. SP4’s solid state drive (SSD) features up to 16GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. And speaking of features, the screen on the SP4 renders your visuals with an amazing clarity any artist would embrace; an eye-popping 2,736-by-1,824-resolution touch display featuring the latest Corning Gorilla Glass 4. Yeah, Gorilla Glass; the tablet’s hard hat.
The Surface Pen stylus responds to 1,024 varying levels of pressure, meaning you can render a thick dark line or thin feathery stroke (and everything in between) just as naturally as you would with a box full of artist’s pencils. This is technology worthy of the skill and nuance of the sketch artist, but of course can also be brought to bear on the marking up of PDFs, docs, drawings, and plans. And the SP4’s Palm Block screen technology means you can rest your hurried hand right on the glass while you write, as if it were a sheet of paper, and then erase it with the Surface Pen and try it again.
What’s the big deal? The lowly #2 pencil can do that. Yeah, but imagine a stack of blank sheets 180 miles high that comes with a bottomless box of creative writing and drawing instruments. The SP4 is a shape-shifting productivity tool whose limits are defined by the reach of one’s imagination.
MS has even bundled into their new platform a silken-voiced digital assistant, Cortana, whose availability as a helpmate in ALL Windows 10 smart devices makes Siri’s attachment to the iPhone alone look old school. And unlike Siri, Cortana’s organic help personality can be tweaked with a nuance that is currently unavailable to Siri, allowing the user, for instance, to tell Cortana what dynamic factoids (sports team scores, stock reports, movie openings––you name it) to report on without being specifically asked.
The hood ornament on the sleek new Windows 10 rollout is surely the Hololens; the breathtaking 3D-rendering computer one wears like a pair of goggles from a Hollywood sci-fi set. The AEC crowd is breathing hard at the possibilities the Hololens environment brings to the design industry, and perhaps to construction design itself. Imagine standing on a job site and not just visualizing a wall on the project while looking at a drawing, but “building” the wall directly onto the structure itself in augmented reality by simply moving your fingers and hands.
Pop the life-sized virtual image with a curt poke of the forefinger and the image (life-sized, mind you) becomes a static, translucent 3D wall you can actually walk around and view from all sides, just as you would a slab of masonry, but translucent. Add the plumbing and electrical elements and see how it flies. If it doesn’t work, make it go away and “build” a new one. The Hololens stands to change the way design and construction are “done”, and speaks to Microsoft’s new game-changing mission. Windows, already the most-used desktop operating system in the construction industry, now powers a beautiful and rugged field tool that is effectively a portable desktop. Surface Pro 4 leverages the power and reach of the Windows 10 environment to set a new standard in the construction tablet market, and is positioned to gain exponentially from the coming detachables epoch.
There are those who remember when Bill Gates and his team invented virtual paper with MS Word, and made the typewriter obsolete overnight. This next epoch could be analogous to that one; a cultural shift in the way we interface with our machines, and the way we build both structures and the future of consumer computing itself.
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