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.

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


In addition to hosting the ZDNet Government and ZDNet DIY-IT blogs, CBS Interactive's Distinguished Lecturer David Gewirtz is an author, U.S. policy advisor and computer scientist. He is featured in The History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets, is one of America's foremost cyber-security experts, and is a top expert on savi... Full Bio

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