Surface, Microsoft’s family of tablets, finds itself heading into tomorrow’s press event in a very awkward position. All at once the Surface devices are a triumph, a failure and a large question mark.
When the Surface an Surface Pro devices were initially unveiled Microsoft was at the beginning of a major transition. Having thrown away its old rulebook of providing software for other’s devices strictly, Microsoft said that the Surface line was a chance at a new beginning, an opportunity for the company to define the entire end-to-end Windows experience for its users.
In that respect, Microsoft’s plan worked. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 are the best machines that users looking for a convertible can buy. Both of the tablets are well-engineered and both of them successfully solve the problems that plagued Microsoft’s first generation of Surface’s and other Windows devices. These tablets have no fluff, no added utilities that bloat Windows, annoy users and take up space. They’re as close to a core Windows experience as users can get anywhere. They are also well-built, and their optional keyboard and Microsoft-made accessories make them more useful and instantly recognizable in a crowd.
On the other hand, the Surface line suffers from three strategic failures on Microsoft’s part. First, nearly two years after Microsoft first showed off the Surface and Surface Pro 2, neither of the convertibles include a Windows Store version of Microsoft Office. Users are still stuck going back to the desktop if they’d like to create documents in Microsoft Word or Excel. Ironically, there are now touch-centric apps for Apple’s iPad and there still aren’t any for Microsoft’s devices outside of OneNote. Then there’s the hardware itself. Two years ago, launching just the Surface and a Surface Pro with their 10-inch displays was perfectly acceptable. Since then users tastes have become much more refined. Some users may want a 10-inch display but millions more might want a device that’s just 7-inches and thin. If all that wasn’t enough, buying a new Surface tablet is still expensive.
Here are three things Microsoft has to do to keep the Surface line competing with the iPad and other tablets and convertibles.
Deliver a Smaller, Cheaper Surface
Last year, then Microsoft CEO made it clear that Microsoft didn’t create the Surface line to compete against its own hardware partners. Instead, Surface was all about competing with Apple in the high-end and delivering premium Windows experience. That’s mostly the exact opposite of what PC makers set out to create.
The theory was that Microsoft moving into the high-end area would allow Windows to capture more of the money being spent on rivals like Apple’s Macbook and Macbook Pro. Models like these aren’t traditionally best sellers in the Windows world because they’re prices are two to three times more than older devices. On the other hand, it’s on these devices that business people and professionals spend most of their time. The problem is that more and more, users are able to get by with something as small as an iPad Mini and the Nexus 7 and that spells big trouble for Windows. Microsoft needs to deliver that much-talked about Surface mini and it needs to do so at a price below the iPad mini but slightly above the Nexus 7 if it hopes to take tablet sales from the iPad mini but not kill off devices made by its partners.
Deliver a Windows Store Version of Microsoft Office
It’s impossible to under estimate just how much the Windows Store is taken seriously by Windows 8 users these days. This isn’t a reflection on the thousands of independent app developers or platform as a whole. Really, the problem is that the Windows Store contains very few big name apps. In fact, the Windows Store is in worse shape than the Windows Phone Store, the world’s third-largest smartphone platform. Microsoft needs to pull out all the stops in attracting big name developers and it has to start with making its own apps available in the store as an example. Today, nearly two years after Microsoft revealed the Surface line, there still isn’t a native Windows Store version of the world’s most popular productivity suite. To make matters worse, the apps it does offer in the Windows Store aren’t as feature rich as their counterparts.
This needs to end as quickly as possible. Microsoft either needs to deliver this version of Office or show it publicly at tomorrow’s event. It also needs to continue building out its own portfolio of Windows Store apps.
More Surface Accessories
If the iPad has taught us anything, it’s that accessories sell devices. Today, Windows is one of the most widely used operating systems in existence. The Surface tablets are the premier way to experience this hardware, yet Microsoft hasn’t announced any sort of a Made for Surface accessory program. It’s a strange decision not to do so. Again, most statistics point to Microsoft being the world’s largest Windows tablet maker at this point and yet it still hasn’t really committed to building an ecosystem around the Surface line. Where are the speaker docks and colorful cases? Where are the apps that integrate with credit card readers? Where are the accessories that use the keyboard dock on the bottom of the Surface for something cool like MIDI controls?
Microsoft needs to unlock the potential of the Surface line and it should do it as quickly as possible. The Surface event starts tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time and users will be able to watch live. Rumors include the reveal of a Surface 3, Surface Mini and accessories to match.