The New Microsoft Surface Tablet and the Rear-view Mirror Effect [Mobile]

Herbert Marshall McLuhan, the late, great philosper, who is known for coining powerful expressions, such as “the medium is the message,” had one quote in particular that has stuck with me for a long time, namely:

“The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”

This became known as the rear-view mirror effect.

We march backwards into the future” Wow. Very powerful stuff indeed.

I believe this helps us understand what we are seeing today in this new era of mobile computing. It’s human nature to hold on to principles we feel comfortable with, as we tackle new paradigm shifts. I’m seeing this everywhere in eLearning and mLearning, including how tool vendors scramble to figure out how to get their users from eLearning to mLearning.

And I saw this effect again yesterday as I watched Microsoft unveiled their upcoming Tablet called Surface.

I admire the fact that in designing and manufacturing a Tablet, Microsoft chose not to “copycat” the iPad and instead took a chance with a bold new approach to Tablet computing.

Having said that, I’m not sure I agree with their approach as compared to Apple with their iPad.

In fact I think Microsoft’s latest move epitomizes what Mr. McLuhan meant by the rear-view mirror effect. Microsoft is holding on to everything they know about the PC as they figure out how to compete in a mobile, Post-PC era.

While watching the Keynote video, I noticed Steven Sinofsky from Microsoft described Microsoft’s vision of the tablet as follows:

“We have a vision for reimagining the Tablet, we see a Tablet that has been designed the way Windows has been designed. We see a Tablet that represents a unique vision for the seamless expression of entertainment and creativity. A Tablet that works and play that way that you want to. A tablet that’s a great PC. A PC that’s a great Tablet.”

I was right there with him until he said “A Tablet that’s a great PC. A PC that’s a great Tablet.”

And then I heard another thing that made me think that Microsoft doesn’t really understand mobile. This one is from Steve Ballmer himself

“If you use your PC to design and create things, this is for you. Imagine if we built this so we could use all the apps you’re familiar with.”

In seeing the demos in the video, it’s clear to me that Microsoft really looks at a Tablet as a traditional PC. The Surface even comes with a USB port, so does mean users will be able to attach a mouse? What about the beauty of touch computing? They also showed a full blown version of Word running on the Tablet. They are literally taking everything in Windows in “shrinking” it down for the 10″ tablet display.

Imagine if Adobe would have decided to port the behemoth Photoshop software to the iPad instead of developing Photoshop Touch? I think it would have a disaster. Or imagine if Avid Studios would have done the same with their desktop software instead of developing a unique Tablet experience as they did with Avid Studio, their iPad app?

I’m sure there are lots of people, who will argue that we do in fact need all the PC apps to run on a Tablet, but I disagree, I think Mobile presents new opportunities and as such we need experiences uniquely designed for mobile, without a mouse and certainly without full-blown MS Office applications.

This is how I think about eLearning vs. mLearning. We have an opportunity in the Industry to revolutionize learning with a “less is more” attitude and whatever we do, we should not simply convert our desktop eLearning to HTML5 and call it mobile learning.



Share your thoughts and ReTweet this post if you can spare a click or a finger tap.

Read more of my thoughts on Mobile and Mobile Learning here:


  • I love what you said about the rear view mirror effect, and I think that’s very much applicable to the big picture mobile revolution. However, I don’t think everyone is in a position to pony up for technology for the sake of technology. These kinds of devices have short life spans (2-3 years at most) before we move on to the next thing. If we’re not on the very front lines of the revolution, it behooves us to buy in to a device that integrates antiquated work flows and products, because the realities around us haven’t caught up yet.

    For me, the real issue with a tablet is that it doesn’t have the utility of other devices. I spend hours every day typing at 100-120 words per minute. You simply cannot do that on a touch screen with today’s technology. Tablets as we know them are geared toward consuming content more than creating it. For now at least, my Kindle, my smart phone, and my $2000 laptop (not to mention traditional TV and cable that I can stream to) are enough for that.

    If you give me a tablet that can run some sophisticated software + be connected to a keyboard and/or mouse + maybe connect to an extra monitor, then it’s suddenly a dual purpose device and I’m a lot more interested. The screen real estate is always going to be a concern for me, even if the productivity apps (what we still call software) catch up for touchscreen only devices.

    • I think that Microsoft (and RIM for that matter) were very complacent about what Apple and Google were up to regarding mobile devices, being very dismissive until it was too late and have been left way behind. I see iPads everywhere. I was at a birthday party in the week where the host gave his speech from one (no spring chicken either). Today I’ve seen a couple in a supermarket with their shopping list on one. Cloud based apps such as Dropbox allow people to write content on one device and pick it up on all they have.

      Tablets have attracted people who normally wouldn’t bother with even a laptop at home. They are much more ‘personal’ devices. Quick to boot up, good battery life and a great way of consuming content, that normally would have been via print magazines and the like. I’ve cancelled a couple of print subscriptions and gone over to the iPad versions.

      As for Microsoft, I’m not sure what they expect to happen with the Surface, it seems that they wanted to be seen to be doing something, and after all the iPad bashing they’ve done, it would have been somewhat hypocritical of them to come out with their own iPad (and perhaps they still remember what happened to the Zune!). I still don’t think they get the tablet market, and given that they seem to be still very enterprise centric, this device had to appeal to that market.

      Apple came from a consumer angle, and have seen it spread to the enterprise, possibly catching them by surprise? I can’t see Apple losing much sleep over the Surface. I just wish there was an Android tablet that was up to giving the iPad a decent fight.

  • I agree with you RJ. You can’t just start using tablets as PC. They both have their roles and jobs. Imagine TV manufacturers coming out with tablets for watching movies instead of building large crisp TVs that we put up in the Man Den. Sure you can watch TV or movies on a tablet but it is a richer experience on the “big” screen. I can type a Word document on my Playbook (it comes with MS Word) but it is still much slower and doesn’t have all the features of the desktop version of Word.
    I’m looking forward to seeing the Surface tablet but to focus on this device as a “PC” replacement is not a good idea.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes