Life in the Microsoft Surface line

What those waiting at a Southern California shopping mall had to say about why they lined up early for Microsoft's new tablet.

The line in front of the Microsoft Store in South Coast Plaza, just south of Los Angeles in Costa Mesa, Calif.
Danny Sullivan

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- I'm no stranger to Apple lines. Come prepared with a chair, and a laptop to keep busy, and settle in among the converted. But a Microsoft line? The last time I was in one was for a midnight release of Windows 98. I didn't know what to expect as I joined the line Friday among the Microsoft faithful to get one of the new Microsoft Surface tablets.

I'd called the previous day to the Microsoft Store in my local shopping center, South Coast Plaza, in the Southern California city of Costa Mesa. A store rep said that mall security was allowing a line to begin inside the shopping center at 6 a.m. PT, with the doors opening at 10 a.m.

I figured arriving at 6 a.m. would be overkill. After all, 5 a.m. was early enough for me to get an iPhone 5 when I stood in line last month outside a local Apple store. Despite excitement over Surface and the giveaway for the first 100 people in line, I gambled that arriving at 8 a.m. would still be plenty early.

Prizes for standing in line
Giveaway? I'd seen something late yesterday in the tech headlines about this, a one-year Xbox Music Pass worth $100 for the first 100 people waiting outside any Microsoft store. Later, when I was looking up the exact address of my local store, I even saw this being pitched to me by Microsoft through an ad on Google:

Yes, Bing had a similar ad and both led to the same landing page about Surface being available, as well as info on the Xbox Music Pass as well as a chance to win an actual Xbox:

Personally, neither the pass nor the chance of winning an Xbox got me waiting in line. Rather, I'd missed pre-ordering when Microsoft Surface first went on sale, so by the time I did order one, there was a three-week delay. Just as I've been gripped by "can't wait" excitement for Apple products, I didn't want to be waiting around for my Surface to arrive. I wanted it the day it was out. So, I headed over to line up (and figured I'd cancel or return my mail order later).

Lining up
My worries about a long line were put to rest when I arrived at 7:50 a.m. I was number 10 in line. I also quickly learned that this was no Apple line, as I broke out my folding chair to get comfortable. "Sir, no chairs allowed," a mall security guard told me.

Of course, that issue really had more to do with this particular mall's security crew being crabby than it had to do with Microsoft. The Microsoft employees who came around were all friendly, doing the occasional cheers, welcoming, giving out fruit bars and water. It was mall security that rained on the parade, telling anyone who moved slightly away from the wall to get against it. We were, after all, the head of South Coast's security told me later, a fire hazard.

Yes, all 10 of us were a terrible hazard. By 9:30 a.m., when the doors opened early, our numbers had swelled to an overwhelming 50 to 75. If people were disappointed that there weren't more devotees around, at least everyone was sure to get one of the Xbox Music passes, which some had come for.

John Hung, waiting for Microsoft Surface

"I was expecting a much bigger line," John Hung told me, as we talked while waiting. The 45-year-old from Garden Grove arrived soon after I did. "They showed a picture at Times Square, so I thought there would be more."

I'd seen the same picture of a big party, as well as crowds around the Microsoft "pop-up" store in Times Square. Several others around us all nodded at this comment acknowledging that our numbers were somewhat less -- OK far less -- that those crowds.

Still, everyone I talked with was eager to get their hands on a Surface. The exact reasons were mixed.

Weaning his girlfriend off Apple
For Michael To, in line just ahead of me and working away on Windows 8 running on a Samsung slate, Surface was going to be part of his continued de-Appleization of his girlfriend. 

"I'm slowly converting her away from Apple," the 30-year-old from Garden Grove said. He'd moved her from the iPhone 4 to Windows Phone, and now he thinks the Surface will be better than the Dell XPS laptop he moved her to after weaning her from the Mac. "She's always working on Word and Excel, and this will be really light for her to carry around."

As for coming out early, To said he likes to turn out for first-day events. "I was there for the first day for the iPhone 3, the 3G, the 3GS, the 4, and the 4S for my friend," he said. He'd also heard about the Xbox Music Pass so he came to score one of those.

Robert Bojorquez with his new Surface

The Windows ecosystem
Robert Bojorquez, 30 and from Cudahy, was out early because he didn't want to wait, having seen online that Surface was sold out for immediate delivery. "I actually took the day off," he said.

Why Surface? "My ecosystem for the last two years has pretty much been the Windows Phone," he said, and he uses a Windows computer, too. He wants Surface to give him the convenience of a tablet when he wants it but the ability to use it as a regular computer, as well.

Office apps attract
Next to him, Zack -- a 26-year-old from Irvine -- had a similar reason for wanting Surface. It meant he could surf the Web, which doesn't require a full-blown computer, yet still have the ability to fire up Excel or OneNote -- Windows programs he often uses -- when he needs to do some heavy-lifting. 

"I need my Office apps," he said, saying he'd used the original Asus Transformer but didn't feel Android had the productivity apps he wanted.

As for coming out early, he'd seen somewhere about the Xbox Music Pass and the Xbox giveaway so he turned out at 6 a.m. to be number four in line. "Maybe I should have waited," he said, reflecting that arriving so early didn't make much of a difference in his line position.

And the prizes
Well, at least he still saved a little sleep over the person at the front, who arrived at 4:45 a.m. I didn't get his name. Just as I was wrapping up talking with him, the store announced it would open 30 minutes early, so I had to scramble.

"I'm replacing the iPad, so it's going to do everything the iPad can except not have as many apps," he told me. But for him, less could still be more. The apps Surface does have include Office, something he wanted -- and he liked how he could have two different apps open in separate windows at the same time.

As for coming out early, it was for the free stuff being given away, he said. He's a regular to this particular Microsoft store, having won two laptops there, "three or four phones," and received some $25 gift cards the store gives out to those who do the Bing Challenge in person.

Just before the line moved, there had been one drawing for an Xbox. After it moved, plenty of people there got yellow wristbands entitling them to an Xbox Music Pass, including myself.

The line was also split into two, those who had gotten reservation cards earlier in the week guaranteeing they get a Surface for purchase, and the rest of us. But oddly, those without the cards got in first. The man in front of me was the first to enter the Microsoft store, to cheers. I was second. No cheers, sniff.

Welcome to the Microsoft Store
Entering the store was a revelation to me. I knew the area where I live, Orange County, was home to the second-ever Microsoft store. But that's in a city further to the south of me, Mission Viejo. Until yesterday, I had no idea South Coast Plaza -- only a few miles from my home -- had one too.

I was greeted by an employee who walked me through the Surface options, all in the same type of helpful manner I'm used to when buying at an Apple Store. I went for the basic Surface model I knew I wanted. I tried one of the colorful "Touch" covers that felt as terrible to type on as I expected. In contrast, the black "Type" cover felt great.

My Surface, having an "out of box" experience

Next, he helped me have an "out of box" experience with the Surface, opening it up, letting me sign-in and giving me an overview of how it works.

The store had quite a collection of touch-screen laptops (in fact, it only carries touch-screen laptops now), and I decided to get an inexpensive one for now, so that I can try the Windows 8 experience with a computer designed to take full advantage of it, as opposed to just trying to test it out by running it virtually on my Mac.

Heading out at 10:30 a.m., an hour after the early opening, I saw the line had gotten longer, having grown to about 100 people. Plenty of them were clearly there not because they hoped to get some type of prize but because they wanted the Surface, and they wanted it that day. When I called at around 6:30 p.m. later in the day, I was told the lines were gone and the Surface was still in stock.

That was my experience. It obviously varies for others, from the rush in Times Square, to smaller but significant lines and turnouts all over the U.S. 

All the best if you're playing with a new Surface or Windows 8 device, or just an upgraded Windows 8 machine on launch day!

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