In defense of Microsoft Surface
Analysis of an unloved platform, and five things Microsoft needs to do to make sense of Windows Surface.
by Daniel W. Rasmus
This isn't a formal review of Microsoft's Surface tablets. Plenty of people can tell you about the original Surface RT's 1366 x 768 pixel display, the NVIDIA Tegra 3 Quad-core processor and the various ports and sensors. And many have—in not-so-glowing terms when software and hardware are examined together.
As I write this, Microsoft has announced the RT's successor, the new Surface 2 with a full 1080p screen (1920 x 1080 pixel), Nvidia Tegra 4, improved cameras, USB 3.0 and free Skype. Impressive though those new features are, they aren't going to change what I am suggesting in this article because it remains to be seen if Microsoft's marketing team recognizes and promotes the new devices' strengths and Microsoft's strategic differentiation, or if they continue trying to be an Apple iPad competitor, which Windows RT is not.
The biggest issue with the original Surface tablet was not the hardware, nor was it really the software, because Windows 8 went well beyond Surface. The real issue with Windows Surface was expectations, misguided expectations that Microsoft continues to foster through its advertising.
Microsoft Surface should not be billed as a competitor to the Apple iPad. In the world outside of Redmond, most people don't care that Apple doesn't zoom out its icons, or accept SD cards or develop its own keyboards. Apple iPad users appreciate the totality of the experience and that is what Microsoft is missing, its own differentiated experience. Interestingly, Microsoft has all of the components to create and own a tablet market that complements the personal and work PC, yet it insists on going after Apple in the consumer market. The biggest mistake with Surface isn't design or manufacturing, it's marketing.
If you go back in time to the Windows CE era and the Pocket PC, when the likes of NEC's MobilePro series represented the flagship for the mobile version of Windows, the play was not to the consumer but to the connected, mobile business user. Unfortunately, the Windows RT push focused squarely on the consumer. Microsoft continues to pursue the intransigent consumer beyond Xbox while consistently ignoring their core customer, the information and knowledge worker.
Windows CE, of course, was a half-baked kludge, but that is not true of Surface with Windows 8 RT (though its inability to run most existing software does appear needlessly kludgy). People may not be particularly enamored with Windows 8 or Windows 8 RT, but if thought of as a portable PC and not just a tablet, Surface can handle much of a mobile worker's needs. It can easily be used to compose Word documents, build Excel spreadsheets and even present PowerPoint presentations. It also manages e-mail with Outlook (for those running the Windows 8.1 preview) and provides access to OneNote notebooks.
Most major consumer and many business-oriented types of applications are in fact available on RT. The Surface software lineup may not have the depth of the Apple store, but if marketed for business, it does not need it. Both the press and Microsoft should stop highlighting the number of apps in the Windows app store, or if the latest version of Infinity Blade runs on Windows RT. It doesn't matter. Office, however, does run on Surface, and Microsoft needs to make that matter.
This could represent a significant defense of Surface RT/Surface 2 because for a lot of business people, a now $349.00 device (or $449 for the new Surface 2) that does everything a PC does will make a great travel companion. A truly modern, light weight device with good battery life and the apps you need to create, communicate and collaborate in a Microsoft world. That's the positioning Surface needs.
The other reason to steer clear of the consumer tablet market is that Windows Surface is the wrong form factor for a tablet. It is absolutely the right form factor for a highly mobile, instant-on PC, but it is unacceptably long to be used in portrait mode. Amazon and Apple have nothing to worry about here.
Five things Microsoft needs to do to make sense of Windows Surface
- 1. Stop the silly anti-iPad campaign. Feature and cost comparisons aren't all aligned with the real facts (like you can just as easily buy a keyboard, for the same price or less for an iPad as the one for Surface will cost) -- and all that memory listed isn't actually available for storage or program executive.
- 2. Bundle the keyboard. Bump the bundle price to include the keyboard. Because the desktop and Office aren't touch-optimized, Surface tablets without a keyboard are only useful for modern UI apps and nothing else. Windows Surface needs a keyboard to be used as a true business device.
- 3. Reposition the Windows Surface line as the PC companion people have always wanted. All your files and critical Microsoft desktop productivity apps in one small, portable, inexpensive form factor.
- 4. Proudly take ownership of the work computing environment. Microsoft should be proud of what they have done with Office and SharePoint, and build on it. Microsoft's commercials do little justice to their position when they jeeringly boast "and full Office." "Full Office" is a Microsoft licensing term for getting all Office components, and that isn't true for the RT version. Several Office components, like Access, don't run on Windows Surface RT.
- 5. Be brave and create a true touch desktop experience. Metro—or the "Modern UI" (I still like the term Metro better)—is fine as a consumption interface, but it is not an interface that deals well with file copying, printing, PC management and other tasks common in the desktop UI. Microsoft needs to truly reinvent the PC experience for touch and tablet, not just offer a snazzy "modern" overlay while leaving a crippled legacy desktop behind a tile to do what they can't do with tiles. All this does is it creates an OS that appears to require antipsychotic drugs to keep its schizophrenia in check.
Instead, Microsoft must systematically reinvent every Microsoft executable that still needs the desktop to run, including Office, and release them as they are complete. And they need to share their progress broadly with the development community so everyone can adhere to the new standards for touch-based apps on Windows. This doesn't mean that the old desktop can't remain to handle laggard legacy applications, like early versions of Mac OS X still included the "classic" Mac OS until everyone had switched over. What it does suggest is that Microsoft no longer ship any legacy applications that require the desktop. Such an approach could truly create a renaissance within the application market, helping developers completely rethink their assumptions. A truly new Microsoft Windows will retain the security and connectivity features required for enterprise computing, and that will help Windows users buy into the migration into the future. It is a risk for Microsoft, but it is the kind of risk the company really must take.
What about Microsoft as hardware manufacturer?
I have no issue with Microsoft being in the hardware business, as long as they recognize that at some point in the future they might be the Microsoft ecosystem hardware business—because Surface 2 and Pro, along with Nokia, make them a clear competitor, not a software platform licensing company. Why would HP, Dell and Lenovo continue to create revenue for a competitor? There are reasons now, like keeping their hardware revenue from completely evaporating, but the future may hold more options than Wintel-based PCs.
Because of where Microsoft finds itself, even adopting these suggestions may not make the Surface a hit within the business community, but I believe there is pent-up demand for a mobile computing device that supports business user needs. Microsoft is going into too many directions right now. It needs to recognize that much of its revenue derives from Windows and Office either directly from enterprise customers or those influenced by enterprise use. It is time for Microsoft to squarely step up and make what they call a "big bet" in Redmond on their bread and butter customers by giving them not just the attention they deserve, but the tools they need to work effectively in the 21st century.
This battle isn't just about Surface for Microsoft, it's about retaining relevancy in a market Microsoft can ill afford to lose.
Daniel W. Rasmus is an independent analyst and strategy consultant. He is a former Vice President at the Giga Information Group and Forrester Research. Dan is the author of five books, including Management by Design (Wiley, 2010) and Listening to the Future (Wiley 2008). He blogs regularly at http://danielwrasmus.com. Additional information can be found at http://danielwrasmus.com.