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.

TOPICS: Microsoft, Windows

Big Baffle #3: Why isn't it priced really competitively?

The Microsoft Surface RT is a 10-inch device, so it's directly competitive with the iPad and large Kindle HD. Since there's really only one 10-inch tablet that matters, let's see what we're looking at compared to the iPad.

The Surface RT is $499 with 32GB. The iPad 3 is $499 with 16GB and $599 with 64GB. If you want to add the fancy flat keyboard cover to the Surface RT, add another $129.

With far fewer apps than an iPad, why wouldn't the typical consumer just buy an iPad?

On the surface, the Surface RT is moderately competitive with the iPad. Many think the iPad has a better display, but Microsoft claims the Surface RT has a competitive display. ZDNet's intrepid team says Microsoft's claims are not necessarily untrue, but more needs to be revealed.

If you add in the free copy of Office that comes with the Surface RT for that $499 price, the Surface RT might be compelling. Oh, wait, you can't use the Surface RT's Office in an office. Oops.

This brings us back to the target customer question. If the Surface RT is aimed at consumers, and it's essentially just as pricey as an iPad, and it has far fewer apps than an iPad, why wouldn't the typical consumer just buy an iPad?

Why, indeed.

The same applies to students. We don't yet know if the Surface RT runs Flash. If it does, it could be a bit more compelling for education, because there are just so many educational tools written in Flash. But students and educational institutions are incredibly sensitive to price, and if they need a super-cheap solution, they'll go with something like the $249 Samsung Chromebook or the $199 Nexus 7.

What about business people? It's not that they would buy this instead of a small ultrabook. Again, I must point to the $249 Chromebook or HP Sleekbook, which starts at $499 (and includes a keyboard in that price).

So the Surface RT is either too expensive for students and consumers or too not-an-iPad for them. It's also not really real-enough Windows to attract Windows consumers. Will it run Quicken? Small business people don't have time to be confused, so they might ignore the license restrictions on Office, but more likely will just go buy a Chromebook (and run Google's office suite) or an ultrabook.

Large corporate customers are again a possibility. Is all this simply aimed at big corporate customers, where purchasing agreements and negotiations can wipe away the commercial Office restriction like just so much excess baggage?

With so many people price- and brand-sensitive, it seems that -- if Microsoft really wanted to make an impact with the Surface RT -- they would have priced it quite differently. It's quite curious.

Big Baffle #4: If this is a straight-up play to win back consumers defecting to tablets, why isn't it more suited to consumers?

We've talked about the fact that the Surface RT won't run traditional Windows applications. Can you imagine just how many tech support calls Microsoft is going to get on that one?

We've talked about the price being too high to make it stand out against the iPad from a price/performance point of view (that's Amazon's strategy with the Kindle).

But if this thing is aimed at consumers, why doesn't it have a consumer-oriented name? After all, Microsoft has a winning consumer brand in Xbox. People know the Xbox doesn't run Windows software. Why not just call it the Xpad?

I find it impossible to believe that Microsoft considers this a consumer play.

But, even more to the point, if the Surface RT can't run mainstream Windows applications, it certainly can't run mainstream PC games. As we've come to know, consumers love them their games.

One reason consumers might flock to the Surface RT is if it ran something like Steam -- the gaming system so popular on PCs. But it doesn't. In fact, Steam's creator, Valve managing director Gabe Newell, called Windows 8 (and by extension, the Surface RT) a "catastrophe".

The PC's biggest game distributor thinks Windows 8 is a catastrophe, consumers won't know RT from a retrovirus, they won't understand the device won't run their old Windows applications, the Surface RT has far fewer apps than the iPad, and it's not priced aggressively competitively.

I find it impossible to believe that Microsoft considers this a consumer play. Is it a place-holder for a future set of offerings? Or is it intended for a different audience? It's all quite strange.

Big Baffle #5: If it's not suited to consumers, then why isn't it perfectly tuned for business?

This one is a baffle-inside-a-baffle. All of this work on the part of Microsoft has been, presumably, designed to regain a defecting consumer audience.

Microsoft's not really losing the "real-work" people like me, who need real computers to do complex work. Microsoft's losing the consumers who want to read email, play games, and socialize with Facebook. Clearly, the Surface RT -- despite what's been implied -- is not for this audience.

But let's say, then, that Microsoft is really going after the business audience with the Surface RT. Why this device? One thing makes sense: the Arm processors are more power-management friendly than x86 processors, and that makes tablets more practical.

But if that's the case, if Microsoft's really just trying to build a power-optimized tablet for business, why go through all the weird machinations with Office? Why not just plant the Surface RT out there as a business device, price it either so it includes Office or just make it an extra cost add-on, and stop confusing customers?

What do you think?

Where is Microsoft going with this device? Is there any customer class for which this is a perfect fit? If so, why not clean up the marketing to make the message more clear?

It's all quite baffling.

Topics: Microsoft, Windows


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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  • Open

    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.
    • 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.
      • cooling vents

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

    Thing's gonna crush down with a boom
  • 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.
      • 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.
        • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.

  • 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.)
    • 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.
      • Nice analysis.

        I think you summed it up pretty well.
  • 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.
    • What? No Web-surfing?

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

      + you can add storage through Sd slot
  • 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.