Microsoft Creates Tablet Confusion. This Time for a Reason

As I watched Microsoft’s Panos Panay introduce the new Microsoft Surface Pro 3 on May 20th with a very aggressive Glenn Greenwaldesque defensive tone, I messaged an old friend and said “countdown to countless blog posts about defining a tablet begins now.” Truer words were never sent over a data connection. Those posts have started pouring through RSS feeds as gadget pundits try to reconcile what they thought Microsoft was doing with what Microsoft is actually doing. Once again, thanks to Microsoft, the definition of a tablet is up for debate.


And that’s exactly how Microsoft wants it. The confusion Microsoft has unleashed isn’t really about what defines a tablet. It’s a clever subterfuge to buy some time for Windows 9 and/or a touch first version of Office. The previous administration got tossed out on its ear for lots of things, and missing tablets and miscommunicating about tablets was one of them. The current crop is going to be a bit smarter about that. Because guess what, most of the market doesn’t get tablets either.


Microsoft gets tablets just fine, and is purposefully dishing a little disruption and massing up a little market misdirection. Examine the language of the Surface Pro 3 introduction and compare it to things Microsoft has said since they turned off the lights and struck the set in New York.


Panos Panay, holding up the new device, boldly and unapologetically stated that the Surface Pro 3 is “the tablet that will replace your laptop.”


And then he preceded to tell us how the Surface Pro 3 was a great laptop that could also be used with a pen. Watch the video. You’ll notice, with the exception of the new NTrig pen integration with OneNote, tablet functionality takes a back seat to laptop functionality and comparisons.

In a post presentation interview with Mary Jo Foley, Panos is quoted as saying:

We are still calling this a tablet,” Panay said of the Surface Pro 3. “Tablets have not landed.”

Still?” There’s a hint there. He is also quoted as saying “we are making a market” in the same interview, stating that the target Microsoft is aiming for is “consumer first, and premium.” The Surface Pro 3 price points certainly hit the “premium” bullseye.

Next up let’s examine some of the visuals. This “tablet that will replace your laptop” gets boldly put on a scale during the presentation beside a MacBook Air and wins the weight test.


On-demand_Webcast__Microsoft_Surface_Event 2

That led to a furious round of “Microsoft Surface Pro 3 Takes on the MacBook Air” articles. But curiously, if you look at Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 web pages you’ll see the comparison to a MacBook Pro, not the thinner and lighter MacBook Air.

Buy_the_new_12-inch_Surface_Pro_3_-_Microsoft_Store 2Granted the weight comparisons are even more in Microsoft’s favor with a MacBook Pro than a MacBook Air, but while the point gets muddled here, Microsoft is deliberately doing so. Why? The MacBook Pro has a heftier price tag than the entry point of the Surface Pro 3. All of those MacBook Air comparisons in the presentation were for the gadget press in the room, despite the statements that Microsoft thinks of how real consumers use the devices not the people in the room.

Look further at the comparison categories in that picture above under the category “Laptop and Tablet.” The language speaks volumes. “A tablet when you want and laptop when you need it.” No one needs a tablet, (look at the pre-planned establishing shots of the audience with all of those MacBook Airs), but if you want one, well this one will do just fine thank you very much. It is also telling that no where do we yet see an official comparison from Microsoft to the iPad or any other tablet.


Another unnamed Microsoft employee might have gotten closer to the mark with this quote: “It is a superior laptop designed to be elegantly mobile.”

Microsoft is fighting on several fronts here.

  1. Tablets are sexy (the Surface devices can certainly claim to be sexy hardware), laptops are boring and customers are still confused by Windows 8.
  2. Microsoft wants to play in the high end of the market and not see a repeat of the Netbook fad. Microsoft would rather see the cheap tablets fight it out on the Android front and with smaller tablets from Dell, Toshiba, and Lenovo than make the same mistake it made by chasing after the Netbook price points. That’s one of the reasons we didn’t see a Surface Mini announced. Microsoft, unlike Apple, doesn’t want to risk cannibalizing  the higher end hopes of its hardware with a less expensive smaller device that might offer a truer tablet experience.
  3. Microsoft can’t afford to upset its OEM partners any more than it already has.

Early on in the presentation when Panay first used the assembled gadget media as a prop, he scored points by saying that most of those in the room were carrying an iPad in their bag but were using MacBooks to do their reporting work during the presentation. He could have stopped there and announced the “best new laptop that will make you forget your tablet.” And that’s probably what he should have done if clarity was Microsoft’s aim.

I don’t think Microsoft is looking to create a new market. I think Microsoft  is trying to have its cake and eat it too by creating the impression that it is playing in the sexier tablet space, but creating powerful new laptop hardware that it can price around the sweet spot of $1000. Microsoft has to keep its OEM partners from getting too nervous.

The problem Microsoft is creating for itself is that everyone is going to compare, review, and judge the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet. And today that’s an iPad. That’s already starting. Walk with me into fantasy land for a second. If Microsoft had come on stage and announced the Surface Pro 3 with its Type Cover included and said this is the best laptop you can buy for $800 to $1000, and you can also use it as a tablet, what you’re reading in most articles today about the Surface Pro 3 as a device would be quite different.

It’s a subtle game Microsoft is playing here, unfortunately that kind of subtlety doesn’t work well in a market that has already been well defined. Panay thinks tablets haven’t landed yet. Tablets have landed but Panay and Microsoft want to make you think they are still looking for a runway. Check out the final tag line in the commercial.


Further, I think Microsoft is missing the mark and being far too defensive. I haven’t seen a Surface Pro 3 in person yet. Many have dismissed the earlier Surface tablets as failures. They aren’t from a hardware perspective, and the Surface Pro 3 looks like a good step forward. I’m betting it will be even harder to dismiss the Surface Pro 3 hardware. If the new device fails to sell it will be because of the confusion Microsoft is helping to spread with its mixed messaging. But that’s the gamble Microsoft is taking.

And if I’m wrong and the messaging isn’t intentional on Microsoft’s part, well that means Microsoft just doesn’t get tablets. Too many smart moves have been made in the last few months to make me believe that.