Archive for June, 2012

Just below the Surface

June 20th, 2012 No comments

Everyone already hates Microsoft’s Surface which shouldn’t really be surprising, because, when I say “everyone,” of course, I mean internet pundits who hated the iPod, iPhone, iPad and most everything else they now love to death (and provide as evidence for why they hate the Surface). Look at those headlines in the links: “Surface table guaranteed to fail”, “Will Microsoft Surface Sink?”, “Microsoft’s table could be a major loser.” Hopefully Microsoft subscribes to the ‘say whatever you wish, just spell my name right‘ school of marketing.

I don’t want a Surface. Of course, I don’t really want an iPad either. These are great devices for consuming content, which, of course, is most of what we do, but I haven’t seen how I would even successfully edit a blog post on an iPad. (I have to switch back and forth between many, many pages to find links, for example.) Ultimately, I like tablets, but they’re just too expensive for my current usage to justify one. And I don’t want a Surface because I am a Mac user. I doubt that there would be much added value for me using a Windows-based tablet with my Mac based laptop. But then, I am not the target market and none of this is to say I don’t think Microsoft is doing something right here.

Apple took its desktop operating system and scaled it back so that it could work on a mobile device. It’s the same programming language and borrows much from the existing infrastructure. Microsoft is doing the same thing. It remains to be seen just what they’re leaving out in order to make it effective for mobile devices, and what you leave out is often critical to success, but it enables existing developers to make minor modifications to existing applications quickly.

Apple built a “there’s an app for that” eco-system which competitors are finding it hard to break through. Microsoft has a huge leg up if their tablet runs PC software—for real—not just new software with the same name, like the used to do for WindowsMobile. Microsoft can pretty much claim they have more apps that even Apple’s juggernaut of an app store. They are a few steps behind; typically Windows apps aren’t selling for $0.99, but if you can ensure a bigger pirate-free market for applications as Apple has done with its AppStore, you can convince developers to accept less on a per unit sale. Apple’s own software, for example its office-like suite iWorks, sold for $49 – $79 but dropped to $19.99 the day the AppStore for MacOS went live. Other developers followed suit. Microsoft needs a functioning online store, and a market that will use it (Surface owners) but clearly, they have been putting these pieces in place.

Apple owns the whole widget; which really means they can be a bit more secretive about what they’re going to sell, they can integrate features more carefully and thoughtfully, and they can optimize performance. Microsoft could always do this, and while it’s only been really nice mice, a very successful Xbox and a not so impressive Zune so far, there is no reason Microsoft can’t make stuff they make software for. Much of the gnashing of teeth has transpired since Microsoft decided to compete with their partners, but really, where are ASUS (who complained) or Dell (who didn’t) really going to go for their operating system? Let’s face it, Windows is still around 92% of the desktop OS market and not in a great deal of danger if their partners get a little miffed. What integrating does mean is that instead of begging their partners to please make a cool device around their new operating system, they can take control of the buzz and the marketing and actually get the thing into people’s hands without depending on partners. In today’s post-PC market (there will still be PCs, but clearly, there is more going on than just desktop computers when iOS holds a 62% of search) making your own mobile device, software and hardware, is proving to be a powerful solution.

Microsoft made at least one clear misstep, as far as I can see. You can’t actually buy one. The website has too little information for folks to decide they want one. Some are suggesting Microsoft will sell this only through their own stores (of which there aren’t very many) and we don’t really know what the price will be. Even though it actually looks like a bolted together laptop with ridges and screws and panels, and not what people have come to expect from mobile phones, it does weigh about the same as an iPad; it’s about as thin as one, and it has a heck of a lot of ports! Except, without an availability date or a price, it isn’t really a product.

Will the Surface be a hit? We can’t even know if it isn’t vapor-ware at this point and I can see little value in Microsoft pre-announcing it. Frankly, though, aside from the launch, this may be the best product and strategy out of Redmond in years. When people say they’ve finally stopped copying Apple, they’re wrong; this time they’ve finally started copying just the strategy that may pay off.

Addendum: 21 June, 2012, I just want to add a few more points.
Apple reinvented the tablet market by suggesting that trying to be all things to all people isn’t the right way to go about it. When the iPad first came out, many thought it targeted netbooks but only had a terrible on screen keyboard. Well, why has it dominated netbooks so successfully? Perhaps because netbooks were just too underpowered to manage full PC software, and too flimsy and poorly put together for people to really feel they could take them everywhere and anywhere.

In fact, Microsoft’s surface might well be the perfect netbook. It’s good looking and rugged and easy to take with you everywhere, but still runs PC software Netbook’s attraction was also in their price. Apple was arguably able to charge much more for less, but the attraction PC users have to bring their applications with them may outweigh their cost expectations.

Finally, IT/IS departments everywhere can return to their (evil) original ways back before the “bring your own device (BYOD)” days and tell their executives: ‘you want a tablet? Fine! Here’s a surface! Now stop asking me to somehow manage your iPad in our company security.

Yup, I still don’t want a Surface tablet, but I think, contrary to just about everyone else on the net, it seems, Microsoft may have a hit on its hands.

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