Earlier this week, Microsoft announced their new “Microsoft Surface” tablet.
While many of the details of the device remain under wraps, enough is known
that speculation on almost every aspect of the device is at a fever pitch.
Not one to shy away from speculation based on partial information, I’ll look
a little at Microsoft’s history with hardware, why I think Microsoft is
entering this market, how good a device this might be, and ultimately, whether
or not it’ll be successful.
This much is certain: Microsoft continues its frustrating tradition of
choosing absolutely awful product names.
Microsoft and hardware
While primarily a software company, Microsoft actually has a long, long history with hardware-related products.
Unfortunately, its successes in hardware have been few. Ultimately, there are three things that come to mind that would actually qualify as successful products: the Microsoft mouse, Microsoft keyboard, and the XBox.
On the other hand, the list of failures (or rather, products that failed to be successful ) is quite lengthy and includes products that you’ve heard of (Zune) and probably many more that you haven’t (the Mac Enhancer comes to mind).
But time and again, Microsoft has shown it’s willing to place significant bets on hardware-related products.
And, clearly, Microsoft Surface is another such bet.
The PC is not dead, as some would have you believe (the Microsoft Surface itself helps make this point), and the PC is most definitely where Microsoft’s strength is.
However, there’s no denying that as a percentage of the devices that people are actually using, the traditional personal computer is at risk, if not already in decline. It’s the portable computer market – meaning both smart phones and tablets – which is growing at a phenomenal rate.
As the tide turns, Microsoft clearly wants a piece of that market. One could argue that they need to be there to avoid the risk of eventually becoming similar to what IBM and mainframes are today: largely irrelevant.
I’ll be the first to agree that Microsoft’s strength is not true product innovation.
Microsoft’s strength is incremental improvement on existing designs and products and marketing muscle to dominate in the market place. Windows was not the first or best graphical user interface1, yet it dominates today. Office was not the first or best suite, word processor, or spreadsheet, yet it dominates today. Hotmail was not the first or best free email system … you get the idea.
And so does Microsoft – whether by learning from others products and ideas2 or by purchasing them outright, Microsoft rarely starts from scratch.
Microsoft Surface is no different. It’s clearly aimed at the iPad and I’m certain that it incorporates many lessons from the iPad and other tablet and mobile devices.
The two-pronged strategy
To me, the single most interesting thing about Surface is that Microsoft decided to take a two-pronged approach to the product:
One version will run Windows RT on ARM-based CPUs, essentially the same approach used by existing tablets and smartphones. Because it uses a different processor, the ARM-based Surface will not be able to run existing Windows applications, even though it’s running Windows RT – applications will need to be written for or ported to the new processor.
The other version will run Windows 8 on x86 based CPUs, making it not just a PC-compatible device, but an actual PC in tablet form. Running Windows 8 Pro, this table will presumably be able to run existing Windows applications.
That they’re doing both is an interesting way to hedge their bets.
There has yet to be a successful Windows-based tablet. The combination of Windows 8’s redesign and Microsoft Surface might break that streak.
Especially with that nifty keyboard built-in to the cover. One of the fundamental issues is that without a keyboard, tablets are difficult content creation devices and many existing Windows applications struggle. They solved that very nicely, turning the Surface into a type of netbook.
What we don’t know
What we don’t know is probably more than we do know and the answers will naturally impact the Surface’s success or failure.
We don’t know what it will cost.
We don’t know when it will be available.
We don’t even know the actual screen resolution.
There’s a lot of information to come, that’s for sure.
Will Surface float?
I want Microsoft to succeed, I really do. The overall market becomes better with competition and choice – in a sense, everyone wins.
But my gut tells me that this is going to be a struggle.
Other than personal preference or taste, I don’t yet see a compelling reason to select the ARM-based Surface over an iPad or even an Android–based tablet. What will ultimately determine the fate of Surface ARM is the number of quality applications that are available on it when it ships. It’s not about quantity, it’s about having compelling applications as well as the applications that have come to be expected on a tablet device.
Presumably, like Android and iOS, Microsoft will leverage its Windows Phone efforts to enable applications to be easily developed for both phone and Surface, but in the long run … as nice as the device might be, this may well be its Achilles heel.
Surface-x86, on the other hand, has a wonderful thing going for it: existing Windows applications.
It also has something working against it: existing Windows applications.
By being a true Windows PC, Surface-x86 will be able to run many, if not most Windows applications. That’s great news as it avoids the issues involved in creating new applications for the ARM-based version. On the other hand, most of those existing Windows applications were not written for a tablet and as a result, it might very well present a frustrating user experience.
I’m convinced that’s perhaps the largest reason for including a keyboard – elegantly provided as it is – with the device.
The x86 version has something else going for it as well. As I wrote in a previous article the importance of platform is decreasing unless you’re in a corporate environment.
Microsoft has a significant presence in corporations and an x86 compatible tablet that could be seen as helping preserve many corporation’s software investment could be a huge, huge win.
Time will tell.
The risk that Microsoft is taking
One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the huge risk that Microsoft is taking.
I’m not really referring to the UI changes in Windows 8 – something I’ve heard many readers refer to negatively as the “tabletification of Windows” and something that they don’t want to see on their traditional PCs. (Though now we understand better exactly why the Windows 8 UI is what it is.)
No, creating their own PC has done something else entirely.
Microsoft is now competing with their own customers.
Hardware manufacturers who might be making their own Windows tablets or netbooks need to purchase Windows from Microsoft. The same Microsoft that’s now making what is arguably a competitive tablet that is a netbook.
About that name
Microsoft has a long history of choosing poor names. In particular, they seem to like to recycle names rather than create new ones, often causing a lot of confusion.
“Surface” was originally the name for Microsoft’s table-based touch screen interface. They’ve been demoing it for years.
Does it relate to the Surface that they’ve just announced? Who knows? No, I don’t expect there to be a lot of confusion, but I do wish that they could have come up with something better, something more original, and perhaps something more descriptive.
Surface just doesn’t roll off the tongue like iPad does. Maybe someday, we’ll get used to it – assuming it succeeds, of course.
The only true innovation here from my perspective is the keyboard/cover, but that’s not be enough. Whether Windows works in the tablet environment is difficult to say, but more importantly whether it’s compelling enough to actually compete with the iPad is completely unclear.
This is far from a slam-dunk for Microsoft, even if all the unknowns are answered favorably.
If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on this: in five years, the ARM-based tablet will be history. Leveraging the x86 legacy, the x86 tablet may well have a future, but just how big a future that will be … I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.
But I am looking forward to playing with one.
1: Neither was the Macintosh
2: While many often accuse Microsoft of outright theft, my take is that it’s rarely (if ever) that clear. We all learn from the world around us all the time. Companies frequently incorporate the lessons and ideas learned by competitors and competitive products in their own. Microsoft’s really no different in this regard, other than perhaps the frequency with which they use this technique to their advantage.