5 big things that baffle me about Microsoft Surface RT

5 big things that baffle me about Microsoft Surface RT

Summary: The Microsoft Surface RT doesn't seem to fit any one target customer profile particularly well. In this in-depth analysis, former product marketing director David Gewirtz subjects the Surface RT to a series of product marketing questions and comes away concerned.

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TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows
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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...

Topics: Microsoft, Windows

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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65 comments
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  • Open

    Indeed.
    What microsoft probably also doesn't realize is that windows/pc is actually a kind of linux in the eyes of people, open and extremely affordable. That's where microsoft strength is in my opinion. But as the ultimate openness was more forced through governments, it's not a core competence of microsoft, but people still expect it.
    joozzt
    • RT is a waste of time, but

      true Windows 8 hardware is also not ready for primetime because x86 compatible chips are not as efficient as ARM based chips which results in Windows 8 tablets to have cooling air vents.

      Cooling air vents in tablets is also a deal breaker.
      laequis
      • cooling vents

        No problem with cooling vents. It's when there has to be a fan that I get uncomfortable.
        kunys@...
  • The surface of Ballmer's head is slippery

    Thing's gonna crush down with a boom
    nitekatt
  • There's two ways to look at it...

    "In Microsoft's case, there's no doubt consumers are moving away from complex computers..."

    That's the common view - but I think it's misreading the trend... try this version:

    "In Microsoft's case, there's no doubt that a whole new class of consumers who do not need or want complex computers have swelled the ranks of computer users..."

    Many people who bought iPhones and iPad (and then Android phones in even larger numbers and in growing numbers Android tablets) weren't sophisticated computer users who suddenly decided they'd had enough (which is kind of how it's portrayed) - they were people who couldn't find a good use for a full function computer in the first place - or were put off by the complexity of computers.

    The 'consumer' tablet changed that by simplifying the computer into a pushbutton, single function per app (eschewing even the use of the full word 'application') systems that favour pretty pictures, amusing sounds and simple games (I mean come on, every hit game on the iPad seems to be a variant of catapult - the only thing that changes is what you're throwing and what it's thrown at).

    Microsoft is trying to have their cake and eat it too - they're trying to do what Apple is slowly doing with MacOS X - but get there before Apple: having a 'tabletified desktop system' and a 'tablet system'. Unfortunately, they're running into much the same problems Apple is: the typical desktop user isn't the same as the typical tablet user and there's a line which when crossed renders a full desktop application useless.

    Microsoft seems to have jumped directly to that point - and hedged their bet by leaving the old system in place, but messed up everyone's workflow in the process, not understanding how important workflow is, apparently.

    Apple can get away with it because, well, they really don't have that many MacOS X customers, and those customers are kind of masocistic - they're used to Apple doing this to them on a semiregular basis.

    Microsoft, on the other hand, survives by virtue of being indispensivle. Like it or not, Windows still runs on 9 out of every 10 desktop systems out there. Office is the definition of 'productivity software'. But if Microsoft changes it so much that it becomes as painful to switch to Window 8 as it is to say, switch to MacOS X or heck, even Linux, then people are going to start thnking about it.

    Those who just cannot switch?

    Well, how long is WinXP holding on? Expect Win7 to be another very long lived system.

    As for WinRT - well, it's going to be about the apps. Not just how many, which is where most pundits get caught up - but about the quality and usefulness of them. It's nice to have 500K or 750K apps in your app store - but the vast majority of people wil never see even a fraction of them... but if WinRT can get the same apps that MOST iOS and Android users use - with the same functionality and same quality - that's really all it needs.

    Except for one thing. Marketing. Apple's tablets really aren't better. Their phones aren't either. But their marketing is. It's nothing short of phenominal. Not just the ads and the product placements - but how much free advertising it gets from the mainstream press and especially from tech blog sites. Look at Ars Technica - they rolled Microsoft into their IT section while giving Apple its own section that's regularly featured prominently. No one paid for that...

    I don't know how Microsoft can get that kind of media buy in. But I do know it will take a lot of money and a lot of commitment and a lot of effort in many directions...

    And none of those are things Microsoft's reknowned for...

    Surprisingly to myself, I find myself oddly indifferent. The tablets are nice - but I got burned with Windows Phone 7... so I'm not likely to take that risk again. Windows 8 just doesn't offer me anything I need or want.

    I'll wait for Windows 9.
    The Werewolf!
    • The following point you make is just flat out wrong or is irrelevant, IMO.

      Your comment - Many people who bought iPhones and iPad (and then Android phones in even larger numbers and in growing numbers Android tablets) weren't sophisticated computer users who suddenly decided they'd had enough (which is kind of how it's portrayed) - they were people who couldn't find a good use for a full function computer in the first place - or were put off by the complexity of computers. - cannot be proved one way or the other and is used only as a "straw man" argument to support your comment thesis.

      Why don't you just state the obvious about tablets and avoid personal biases. Don't you agree that current iPad styled tablets are optimized for informational retrieval and designed to support simplified actions based upon that information. Nothing more but nothing less.
      kenosha77a
      • I found his opinion insightful

        The unsophisticated user comment certainly applies to many buyers I know ( right; not a formal study ).
        Richard Flude
    • Dead On!

      "Many people who bought iPhones and iPad (and then Android phones in even larger numbers and in growing numbers Android tablets) weren't sophisticated computer users who suddenly decided they'd had enough (which is kind of how it's portrayed) - they were people who couldn't find a good use for a full function computer in the first place - or were put off by the complexity of computers"

      What you say makes sense when you look at it - I can boast some imediate family members (aunts and uncles) who while never owning a computer, now have tablets and, for the first time emails (through a domain I've hosted for 12 years now). Analyst predicted a drop in PC sales even before the first tablet came out, with pundits agreeing that "current economic climates and the power of current PC's" as the reason. With the release of tablets, they suddenly attributed it all to the release of tablets. Go figure.

      So I have to agree that many people aren't shifting per se, instead many are tablet and phone buyers who never owned a computer (we even had one or two bloggers on this site write stories saying as much).
      William Farrel
      • Of course there are many.

        But that many in the big picture is a miniscule percentage of the tablet consumer base. You might know a few but I don't know a single person who owns a tablet of any kind that didn't own and use a computer before that. Most tablet owners I know were at least sufficient computer users if not above average that now utilize tablets as an additional device to be more productive, not as a replacement device due to not being able to understand/use a full computer.
        non-biased
        • there are millions of people who have tablets, and never used a pc

          those are kids.
          all of you keep forgetting about those little critters. Tables are new passifiers.
          More expensive, but oh so more efficient. As soon as a little person stops chewing on everything he holds, he is given a tablet to stop bothering the adults.
          ForeverSPb
    • Mac customers aren't masochistic

      And I don't think the changes in OS X have been terribly painful (other than the loss of Rosetta for old timers.)

      Yes, OS X has some IOS added to it - but most of that is reversible if you don't want it. You don't need to use Launcher, you can change the touch gestures on the trackpad back to what they were.

      There's nothing equivalent to the mandatory user interaction with the Metro elements in Windows 8.
      Mac_PC_FenceSitter
    • Excellent post @Werewolf

      This is the sort of discussion I love to see on these boards! Well-considered opinions and follow-on comments with alternate or additionally nuanced perspectives.

      I don't agree with all of @Werewolf's post, but there's a lot worth thinking about.
      David Gewirtz
    • RE: There's two ways to look at it...

      > Apple's tablets really aren't better. Their phones aren't either. But their marketing is.

      It's all about UI. A lot of people obviously get this, but I don't think you do.

      gary
      gdstark13
  • MS's first Surface RT ad - The Surface Movement - reveals it's demographic

    targets, which are, for the most part, young children, students (particularly enrolled in Universities) and the occasional "Yuppie". I'm really revealing my age with that phrase. Grin.

    Note that this ad does include one scene of a senior citizen couple engaged in a sweet, tender activity. However, that activity has nothing to do with a Surface RT tablet or it's use - a point very revealing in a psychological way. (Hey, if Dr. Phil can analyze anyone and anything - so can I. Of course, I don't vouch for being correct.)

    BTW, that ad, with all it's joyous dance routines, can't help but kindle (no pun intended - well, maybe just a tad) an association with several classic Apple iPod commercials.

    And if it does remind you of an Apple ad, than the original description of an iPad can be modified to describe the Surface RT as well - it's a Zune with a bigger screen. That last comment was intended as a light hearted zinger to all those MS Fanboys that used that iPad-iPod association in a derogatory manner. Everyone else - please don't take it seriously. Grin.

    Here's what I will seriously say about the Surface RT tablets - their pros and cons, IMO.

    Everything about the hardware designs and constructions that have already been reported on. Those are important "Pro" points.

    David lists just about all the "cons" in his blog.

    If I wasn't so invested in and immensely satisfied with the Apple ecosystem of hardware and software products, I would purchase a Surface RT tablet and, if I needed to pay an extra fee for an Office License, I would do so. No big financial deal. (However, the limitations of the Excel section of the Office programs designed for ARM based computers MIGHT be a big deal, however.)

    Upon reflection, however, I might pass on the Surface Pro model because of it's weight and larger physical dimensions. And because of it's reduced battery life between charges.

    Because of those Surface Pro "negatives", I must be forced to admit that the Surface RT platform is better suited to fulfill the needs of it's target demographic audience rather than the Surface Pro does. (The newer hybrid designs might better suite the needs of professionals better than the Surface Pro does, IMO.)
    kenosha77a
    • Upon further reflection

      The scene with the senior citizen couple engaged in a warm embrace is probably meant to imply that the owners of a Surface RT tablet are embarking on a life long love affair with Microsoft's new Tablet and Win 8.

      If that is the case, than that symbology is rather elegant and totally unexpected for that type of ad.
      kenosha77a
      • Nice analysis.

        I think you summed it up pretty well.
        dcolbert@...
  • Win RT

    The target demographic is "Anyone who's in the market for a tablet". It's basically the iPad, except with a more powerful UI and extra ports.

    Sharing/search 'contracts', side by side multitasking, live tiles, printer/camera support via USB, micro SD, Office and a built-in keyboard. All within a UI designed 100% around tablet usage.

    Sounds pretty compelling to me.
    HunterGuy2
    • What? No Web-surfing?

      Strange that you forgot to mention using the Web, which is what I see a lot of tablet users doing.
      Zogg
    • + storage

      + you can add storage through Sd slot
      badescuga
  • Don't understand...

    Why is everybody so concern with this tablet not being able to run your older windows programs? After all neither the iPad nor any Android tablet can do that either. People will buy and do with this tablets the same thing they have been doing so far with any other tablet that has been sold, what ever brand.
    BR999