I find myself morbidly fascinated by Microsoft's upcoming Surface RT tablet. When Microsoft initially showed the tablets -- particularly the one that runs Intel x86 Windows 8 -- I thought the company had a winner.
But then it bacame apparent that there were two Surface tablets, one that runs full Windows and one that runs a weirdly shrunken-head version of Windows. This second version, called RT, is intended for the Arm processor and won't run all the Windows applications we've come to rely on all these years.
From a business strategy point of view, it's fine -- and sometimes even critical -- to break from the past. Apple certainly did it with the iPhone and iOS applications, and so did Palm. Sadly, with Palm, the change proved ultimately deadly.
New rule: If you're going to name something Office, you have to let it be used in an office.
In Microsoft's case, there's no doubt consumers are moving away from complex computers and finally, after all these years, have the appliance devices they've craved. For a company the size of Microsoft, it makes a lot of sense to develop offerings that appeal to their various markets -- even if those markets are no longer a few large segments, but are instead quite fragmented.
But even in this context of essential change, of necessary rebirth and reinterpretation, the Surface RT tablet is baffling. As a former director of product marketing for a major software company, I understand marketing decisions and where they come from. To be honest, I haven't been as baffled by a company's marketing choices since the last few years of ill-fated Palm (who, you'll recall, was once the market leader in handheld devices).
Big Baffle #1: Who is the target customer?
This question is going to permeate the rest of this article, because all the questions I ask keep coming back to this. Is the target customer the consumer? Is it small business? Is it students? Is it educational institutions? Is it large-scale enterprises?
The thing is, as you'll see over the next few paragraphs, there are elements of the Surface RT product offering that -- essentially -- disqualifies this device for each of these markets. Like I said: baffling.
Big Baffle #2: Why would you ship a device not licensed for business use?
If you haven't been following the ball game, one of the weirdnesses that's become apparent about the Surface RT is that it ships with a full version of Microsoft Office that has a license that explicitly limits use to non-business and non-commercial activities.
This is where the target customer thing gets confusing. Students can use Office. Educational institutions can use Office, but only for students. Managing the office operations of a school would be business use. Retirees could use Office, but not if they're checking their stock portfolio.
Small business people could use Office -- oh, wait, they can't. People who want to carry Office when traveling and occassionally check their work email can use it -- no, sorry, they can't. A company that wants to equip an army of sales people with portable PowerPoint machines can use Office -- well, actually they can't.
My theory is that a marketing guy was caught between a lawyer and a customer agreement somewhere.
See what I mean? It's odd. Now, as far as I understand it, further digging by our intrepid team of ZDNet investigators has found out that you will be able to use Office for office work on the Surface RT if you pay some sort of upgrade fee or subscribe to Microsoft's on-demand Office 365 program, or have a corporate license to Office.
In other words, you get Office with the Surface RT, but think of it as a demo or shareware.
I have a theory about this. My theory is that a marketing guy was caught between a lawyer and a customer agreement somewhere. Someplace, there's a most-favored nation clause that triggers if Microsoft gives away a cheaper or bundled copy of Office and to keep that clause from triggering, Microsoft is strapping a boat anchor to Office on the Surface RT with this odd license restriction.
If that's the case, all the Staples and Office Depot and Best Buy sales people are bound to tell legions of small business customers that "Sure, you can use it" (wink-wink), and in all probability Microsoft will look the other way if some Surface RT buyer checks his work mail from home.
But then -- if this is all some sort of strange charade to keep a legal clause from exploding, isn't that odd? Sacrificing purity of marketing message to wiggle around a legal encumbrance is one of the clues that a company has mission conflict within the organization.
Next up: questions about competitive pricing and consumer appeal...