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So … what about Microsoft Surface?

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 Smile) 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.

Why now?

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.

Bottom line

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.

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18 comments on “So … what about Microsoft Surface?”

  1. The list of failures (or, rather, products that failed to be successful) on the other hand is quite lengthy.

    “Microsoft Bob.”

    Microsoft Bob was not a hardware product, which is what I was talking about. The list of software failures is also lengthy, but the success rate as a percentage is higher.

  2. Will it come with Clippy? :-)

    I’m just waiting to see how long it takes someone to root it and replace Windows with Linux… or Hackintosh it.

  3. I suppose I’m in the minority but tablets, laptops and smartphones haven’t decreased my reliance on my desktop – they merely complement it. Prior to their arrival, whenever I left the house I wasn’t “connected” … now I am. But when at home its my desktop all the way.

    With respect to Surface I’ll wait and let others be the proverbial guinea pigs before I take the plunge.

    Agree with you on tablets & phones … they’ve only added flexibility and increased my opportunities to be connected and/or productive. I expect I’ll be one of your guinea pigs, though Smile.

  4. iPad didn’t “roll off the tongue” when it first came out, I remember that there were more “what were they thinking” comments about the name back then.

    The “tabletification” of PC’s may go well from what I’ve seen. My son just loaded the Windows8 preview release on his HP Touchsmart tablet/laptop and it looks really good so far. The touch screen functions are natural to anyone used to a tablet (my wife has an iPad, I have a TouchPad), and when switched to the PC keyboard it boosts the useability just as one would expect.

    Now about the cost??? Tablets need some competition to bring prices in line with other computing devices, this may be the catalyst for that.

  5. Do you think Microsoft might just game things so that apps run just a little better on Microsoft tablets than the competing Windows 8 based tablets? The x86 tablet will likely be more successful than the ARM based tablet, however, with the associated increased power demands, the shorter battery life might keep people in the iPad realm.

    I disagree about “worst product names”, however. That distinction belongs to the MacDonalds McWrap (McCrap).

  6. Leo (or others), I’m wondering what your thoughts are regarding the cost of Windows applications, vs. “apps” for iPad or Android, and the effect that may have on the success of the platform.

  7. You may be correct that ARMs will be dead in 5 years. I think the reason is the proliferation of millions of ‘apps’ in an exponentially unmanageable update cycle. My iPad always seems to need a dozen updates and I don’t have many apps. Since most apps are dependent on a network connection, why bother? I choose mobile internet sites when available and find them more reliable than many entertainment consumption apps if the makers don’t litter them with pop-ups. Apps are popular because it lets a programmer create, the ultimate hello world for a programmer. As with PCs, these individual programmer apps will be consumed and consolidated by the future Microsoft of the app world.

    Windows applications are not very friendly on a tablet. Try some on Citrix. Microsoft has found a big hole with huge pent-up demand. We have seen companies try to go to Citrix apps on iPads only to abandon them and return to laptops because of the other limitations of the iPad. I don’t know how the ARM model will sell, but the Pro model is going to be hot in business. A two pound laptop with a touch screen! I would have bought one yesterday for my business travel. Porting Windows programs to ARM is a challenge but I bet someone is working on a virtual or emulator environment to let ARM apps run on Pro.

    I’m not suggesting that ARM computers will be dead in five years. On the contrary, I think the iPad and its sucessors – as well as Android devices – will alive and well. It’s that ARM version of Microsoft Surface that stands the biggest chance of failing, in my opinion, because of the strength of iPad et. al..


  8. I’ve never made a “fanboy”-related comment in my life….until now, that is….but if MS can somehow develop even a tiny ‘lunatic fringe’ loyalty group (a la i/Mac/Apple fanatics of the world) it could have enormous potential in this market.
    You’re right about the lackluster marketing, Leo. Now that they’re presumably “stuck” with the horrible name (I agree)….they need to at least BLOW THE DOORS off their audience with some OUTRAGEOUS advertising/acceptability campaign… giving the product to every celebrity in Hollywood in exchange for simply a 5-second, on video, endorsement that will collage nicely into a one minute super-spot TV commercial…..and air it incessantly on the five or ten hottest television series……like True Blood, Game of Thrones, etc.
    That’s MY 2 cents, anyway.

  9. If it runs MS Office and has a decent keyboard I’ll be waiting in line for a Pro version. Cost within reasonable limits is not so important. What matters is quiet (= no fan), pad-sized (= truly portable), and able to run MS Office apps (Word and Excel and of course Outlook) are prime for me.

  10. Microsoft usually makes crap.
    It’s almost always made crap.
    We pay for the privilege of using their crap.

    The megalomania of Bill Gates is only matched by the ruthless arrogance of Steve Balmer.
    We are the guinea pigs in this grand experiment of technology & captialism run amok.
    How long will it take to recognize that this is a monumental & expensive waste of time.

    Good, or relatively better taste or not, this doesn’t let Apple of the hook by any means.
    Exploitation is exploitation regardless of who perpetrates it.
    Wake up & smell the microchip…

  11. Hi Leo … I agree with your thoughts in this article. I will get a Surface Pro if the unknowns are answered positive. Very important to me are a GPS and GPS apps, about a 10 hour battery life, a high Res screen, and costs about $700. … Al

  12. I thnk MS has the right idea with the stylus. If it’s a tablet, it needs a stylus. “Office” apps need to accept stylus input, even stylized scrip like Palm’s Graffiti.

    I’ve been using Windows XP for several years. My desktop environment has grown a tangle of roots into my daily life; I don’t want to start over, so a Windows machine looks good. (And I need to run emacs.)
    Regards, Bob

  13. I have an iPad and sorely miss having the MSOffice package, a card reader and a USB interface. As long as those are provided by Surface, I will be a happy camper!

  14. I have an Lenovo Thinkpad tablet with the detachable USB keyboard. Microsoft would do well to look at this device if they want the business market. With Documents to Go and the Quill notebook app I am reaaly happy with the portability and ease of use. The stylus means that handwriting on the tablet is natural as I can rest my hand on the screen. At work we have virtual desktops and so the tablet is really able to do all I need.

  15. Sorry Leo, have to disagree with your statement, “…becoming similar to what IBM and mainframes are today: largely irrelevant.” Since probably 80% of corporate data and probably even a higher percentage of corporate financial data (and your bank data) reside on mainframes, I’d hardly call that irrelevant. And if you check the data (admittedly hard to find), you’ll find that mainframe sales have increased the past few years.

    If you had said irrelevant to the end user markets, maybe.

  16. Why is the LISA never mentioned in the history pages? I know it preceded the Macintosh (my Uni department had one) but it soon faded into the past when Macs hit the deck.

    At my very first interview at Microsoft the interviewer took me to a room where they had a Lisa and spent about half an hour talking about it. I think it was the only Lisa I ever saw.


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