When I began this three part review of the Microsoft Surface 2 I said that Microsoft had taken some important and positive steps with this second generation of its Surface RT Initiative. I still feel that way. I also still feel that Microsoft has a lot of work to do if its vision is going to yield the positive results that it implies. In the first part of this review triptych I highlighted what I thought Microsoft had improved upon with the Surface 2 hardware and also with the all important hardware/software integration. I also pointed out where I thought they missed the boat. In part 2 I highlighted some of the improvements with Apps, and why I think the disastrous first launch of the first Surface RT and its platform has built considerable obstacles that Microsoft needs to overcome.
In this, the third and final installment of this three part review, I’m going to talk about what I believe to be a conflicted vision that Microsoft, in its own words, is trying to achieve and the challenges it has set for itself in doing so. Why? When you’re trying to come from behind in any game, you can’t keep making mistakes that hurt your chances of scoring.
So, let’s talk about the vision thing.
The history of Tablets will say that Microsoft got an early start and then gave up the ghost, ceding the ground to Apple and those that followed. History should also say that Microsoft plowed and seeded the ground for those who came behind. It probably won’t. The first act of the script written by that well known script writer Conventional Wisdom is that Microsoft’s early Tablets were a failure and that’s how that act ends. The next act is all about Microsoft’s reentry into the game with the Surface RT. There too is a story of failure with the unsuccessful launch of the original Surface RT. But the final act is yet to be written and Microsoft still has a chance to reverse its own shortcomings, and if not create a happy ending, at least continue forward with some respectability.
When Apple changed the mobile computing world with the iPhone and the iPad, Microsoft, like everyone else, found itself immediately behind the curve. Others jumped and changed more quickly to try and catch up, but Microsoft lagged. Microsoft recognized that, beginning with Netbooks, and with the success of Apple’s iPad, that the myth of everyone needing a full computer had been exposed. Many consumers just wanted to do some email, view video content, look at their pictures, and surf the web. Those consumer needs matched up with a down economy that made price sensitivity an even bigger part of the purchase equation. So, Microsoft began looking at delivering lower cost Tablets, and a new operating system that could power them.
But there was a catch. Actually there were two catches. Part of Microsoft’s revenue depends on Microsoft Office sales. The second catch is that the blood that flows through Microsoft’s veins is Windows and everything has to be Windows.
This developed into what became known as the “no compromises” approach that led to the original Surface RT. It had to be Windows and it had to include Office. And it had to fit on a Tablet that cost under $500. It was not a bad strategy. If Tablets were going to be a successful creation tool, there needed to be software to do that creation and Microsoft had legions of Office users scattered around the globe. Keep in mind, that Office-like software had not really become a big driver on other Tablets when this strategy was being put together.
So the strategy in a nutshell was to deliver a “no compromises” Tablet, at a competitive price that would allow users to consume content to their heart’s delight and also provide a vehicle for those who needed to do work. There are some, I’m one of them, who thought further that this was Microsoft’s vision for the future in a post-PC world that was shifting more towards mobile.
Where this all went wrong was in delivering that strategy. In part 2 of this three part review of The Surface 2, I mentioned a quote from Microsoft’s outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer. Here’s that quote:
“iPad will be picked up when there is a touch-first user interface.”
Plain and simply, there was no successful Office touch-first user interface for Microsoft’s RT initiative, much less for the iPad, and the folks in Redmond knew it. Ballmer’s statement was a shot, not across the bow at competitors, but at his own troops. Microsoft had squandered its opportunity to compete and let its competitors define the future while it played catch up. It is my belief that this led to the dual faces of Surface: The leaner Metro side, and the Desktop. Without a Metro version of Office there needed to be some way to deliver Office on a Tablet and the Desktop was it.
Now, as I think the improved Surface 2 has shown, this did not need to be a liability. But the messaging surrounding the first Surface RT focused attention on the inclusion of the Desktop environment as a feature. One one hand that needed to be said because the Desktop on Surface RT would not allow legacy Windows Apps to be installed. Think of it as a hedge. On the other hand, it highlighted the difficulties Microsoft was having moving its multiple parts into concert with each other. Microsoft certainly hedged its bets by releasing a Surface device that would run Intel based Windows Apps alongside, but released later, than the original Surface RT. To say it politely, the signals were not just crossed they were cancelling each other out.
That confusing messaging, along with poor performing hardware, led to the disastrous roll out of the original Surface RT. The press and the bloggers couldn’t figure it out, and consumers stayed away in droves. Surface RT was toast. As I mentioned in part 2 of this review, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Microsoft had just canned the entire initiative.
Going forward, let me admit here that I bought the Microsoft Surface 2 on launch night with the full intention of reviewing the device and then returning it. But in working with the device I’ve seen, and hopefully communicated in this three part review, that I think Microsoft still has a fighting chance to bring this vision to reality. For some folks, the Surface 2 could be a viable Tablet purchase today. For me there are better alternatives out there. As I said in part one, the Surface 2 made significant, demonstrable improvements on the original. Hiding the Desktop changes things quite a bit. The hardware has improved and the integration of hardware and software is getting closer. But Surface RT, while it might be right for some today, isn’t quite there yet. The improvements show that Microsoft still has a fighting chance.
What are the things that Surface 2 has in its favor?
- Great and unique hardware
- Excellent keyboard accessories with the Touch and Type Covers
- Smooth integration with the Cloud service Skydrive
- Free Microsoft Office 2013
- Xbox Integration
I’m going to keep the Surface 2 in my arsenal and see how things change (or not) within this next year. I’m curious to see how it evolves alongside its competitors. There’s talk that Microsoft is going to try and meld the Windows Phone OS with the RT OS at some point in the future. With new leadership coming in at some point after Ballmer leaves his office anything is possible. That will most likely require new hardware. Let’s also not forget that Nokia has rolled out its Tablet on the RT platform and once the sale to Microsoft is complete that could lead to some interesting possibilities as well.
But assuming for the moment that Microsoft continues the Surface RT initiative these are the things that I think need immediate attention to give the vision a fighting chance.
- Change the branding. That might sound radical, but moving Surface RT to Surface 2 alongside the Surface Pro 2 continues the confusion of the original messaging. Microsoft wants us to forget the Surface RT, but how does one talk about the Surface 2 without talking about Surface RT? The device can be called Surface X, but what do you call the operating system?
- Fix the details. There are still many things that miss with the Surface RT experience. Take upgrading to Windows 8.1 as an example. Depending on various variables there were stumbling blocks galore that made upgrading a Surface RT to Windows 8.1 more of a chore than it needed to be. Find a one button, one click way to update things. Especially for the users who are passionate about the device and the platform. This is but one detail. I’ve highlighted others in part 1 and part 2 of this review.
- Bear down on developers and clean out the Windows Store. Those developers who lost faith Surface RT should be forced to clean up their act or remove Apps from the Windows Store. The numbers game for App parity is over, so get rid of the many crap Apps that litter the store. Crap Apps and languishing Apps are doing you no favors, Microsoft.
- Get the folks responsible for designing the Bing Apps and the Xbox Apps together with the folks who design the core Apps (Mail, Calendar, etc…) and create something that works and is unique.
- Develop, and develop quickly, that touch-friendly Metro version of Office. And, don’t make it available on the iPad. Sure, you could probably make some money by selling $10 iOS versions of Word and Excel, but Apple has preempted that move by giving away its Office-like Apps for free. I’m one that doesn’t think the Apps are comparable, especially in the stripped down new Apple versions. There are also plenty of third party iOS and Android tools that users can take advantage of to work with Office documents should they need to.
- Find a better marketing and messaging staff. Messaging still continues to cripple many a Microsoft initiative. Microsoft has even admitted it got things wrong with RT. It is long past the time that a change occurred in this area.
Microsoft should be proud of the Surface 2. They made considerable improvements on a first generation device that sadly became a joke, but not enough to erase the short legacy of Surface RT. The Surface 2 proves that there could be life in this platform if the next steps are taken with care. There is a market for a Surface device on the RT platform and that market is those users who want and use Office and also want a Tablet as a fun device. Tablets are supposed to be fun. Complexity needs to be hidden from view. If these devices are for work and play, we shouldn’t have to work so hard to work and play.
Other Posts about the Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface RT
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review: Less Confusing and More Viable
- Microsoft Surface 2 Review Part 2: Apps and the Problems They Cause
- Chicago Microsoft Surface 2 Launch: Bread, Hockey Sticks, and Tablets
- Checking out the Microsoft Surface 2 with a First Timer
- Microsoft Surface RT Review: This Thing Confuses Me
- Upon Further Review: Microsoft Surface RT Still Confuses Me