Microsoft's Surface Tablet: The Bungle and the Potential

As I sat playing Battlefield 3 and watching Twitter on my other monitor, I was not unexpectedly shaking my head at the barrage of snide jokes from tech “journalists”, essentially pre-judging the tablet announcement everyone knew Microsoft was going to make because well, it wasn’t an Apple announcement and therefore is a failure by default. I wish I could have stayed on my high horse of smugness but alas, as the show wore on, I began to realise that Microsoft handed them a lot of ammunition for tomorrow. As someone who is only a mild fan of the iPad and was really stoked for a Windows based alternative, I’m now left only slightly more excited about Surface but with far more questions unanswered than I’d like. Microsoft has a potentially hit product on their hands but as usual, bungled the message.

First the good. I think Surface is a great name and repurposing an old and largely dead brand was a great way to keep this under wraps. From a hardware perspective, this thing looks pretty damn slick. Thin, light, powerful (especially the Intel version, holy crap), USB, HDMI and a case that turns into a keyboard and trackpad. If that thing works half as well as it looks, Apple’s Smart Cover just got curb stomped and the Asus Transformer looks bulky and overpriced. I’m also very pleased that they are releasing both ARM and Intel based versions for both the cost conscious and power hungry. As someone whose company has a lot of staff that works in the field and relies on specialised Windows software that needs Intel architecture, these could be a huge boon for us. They’re not much more expensive than laptops but far more convenient for our travelling staff, especially if they come with docking capabilities. The jury is still out on Metro on the desktop for me but I will make that judgement one day soon. iOS and Android are also disasters to get integrated into a Windows domain environment (I’ve heard Android’s improved this, haven’t had a chance to try) and having the native Windows platform will now make that a snap. Both myself and my users like a consistent experience across devices and as someone who thinks Apple’s user experience is both highly flawed and equally overrated, this is potentially a tablet I would want to buy for myself personally as well as for work, rather than splitting an iPad 2 with my girlfriend as I do now.

Pretty much all the rest was the bad. The first criticism every reporter is going to bring up is that there are no Metro apps yet and they’ll rightly say that apps are what make a platform. Microsoft could fix this by reaching out big to the development community (I’m thinking all the mobile game engine developers) and creating dead easy tools. The ARM version of Surface runs similar CPUs to iOS and Android so making “one-click” conversion tools wouldn’t theoretically be too hard and that gives them an instant base of core software to draw people in with. Once that base of apps is there, it’s a lot easier to sell numbers from the get go (this is a place where RIM really bombed it with the PlayBook) and the community will feed itself from there. Also, getting Valve to bring a version of Steam to Windows 8 tablets could be a game changer but with Microsoft’s ties to Xbox, that’s likely a pipe dream, at least on ARM. The problem is, none of this was even hinted at during this show. Apps weren’t really discussed at all from what I read and they didn’t trot out any popular developers to affirm their commitment to Windows 8. Given that none of what I just mentioned has happened on Windows Phone 7, I have to wonder if Microsoft foolishly thinks like RIM did, that developers will flock to their new platform just on the virtue of it existing. Sorry guys, not going to happen. If you don’t get developers on this in a huge way and scream about that from rooftops, this thing will gather dust on shelves.

Then there’s pricing and availability. One of the things I will concede that Apple does better than everyone is announcements. They do the events very well, they always have a date and a price on new products and in most cases, they’re available very shortly thereafter. What we got from Microsoft today was that the ARM version of Surface will come out with Windows 8 (no firm date was given), the Intel versions will ship more or less 3 months later, that version will be comparably prices to Ultrabooks and they aren’t talking about the ARM price at all. Umm…you’re kidding right? Now I know that unlike Apple, Microsoft has a lot of OEM partners they can’t risk pissing off. But make no mistake, the reason they’re doing Surface themselves is because their partners can’t get their act together and release compelling tablets of their own fast enough. Apple is eating the tablet market’s lunch and announcing a product with a nebulous release date that’s months away and refusing to even hint at the price of the ARM model that’s going to be the main driver with consumers is borderline suicidal. They managed to build a lot of excitement by showing the device and then left the most important details hanging in the air. Now it’s going to be left up to speculation and even as the show ended, I saw tweets from people asking what Microsoft’s hiding.

What they needed to do was go “Here’s Surface, here’s awesome software on Surface from people you know, here’s the price, it’s a lot cheaper than the iPad and oh by the way, you can buy the ARM version next week.” That would have blown people’s minds and gotten them positive PR like they’ve never seen. Instead, they went “Here’s Surface, the hardware is cool, no we’re not really showing software, we aren’t giving pricing on the cheap one, the expensive one will cost as much or more than a MacBook Air and it might come out in 4-5 months.” That. Sucks. Apple’s not going to announce the new iPad until next year, why did this have to happen now? What advantage did announcing today have against announcing in November and shipping right away, other than pissing off lazy OEMs who have largely dropped the ball on tablets? What, are Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo etc. going to pout and refuse to launch Windows 8 tablets because you didn’t wait for them? Of course not and if they did, too bad guys, get with the program next time. Tablets are coming hard and anyone who doesn’t have the sense or ability to get in now deserves to get left behind.

Microsoft is far from fighting for their life. There will be more Windows devices sold this year and the total lifetime sales of iPads and iPhones combined. But that’s a balance that can and is already starting to tip and while Windows is going nowhere any time soon, Microsoft has got to get in the tablet ring swinging. Windows Phone 7’s anaemic adoption (despite being the best mobile experience right now) is proof of that. I’m all for a tablet that has more function than form and this could be it. But much like Nintendo at E3, I went in ready to pre-order if convinced and left wondering if this is worth it now. I’m not the only one who thinks this way guys and when many are relying on an Apple fanboy laden tech press for their buying decisions, you can’t afford any missteps. Get your act together Microsoft, fast.

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