Microsoft: Here's what you need to do with Surface tablets

Summary:It's common knowledge that Microsoft hasn't done too well with the Surface tablets. Here's what the folks in Redmond need to do to get Surface in customers' hands.

Envy tablet
HP Envy x2 -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

No matter how you look at it Surface tablets aren't setting the tablet world on fire. The massive write-down of Surface RT inventory and the recent price drop of the Surface Pro indicate sales are nowhere near where they need to be. The design and build quality of the Surface is outstanding but that's obviously not enough. Microsoft needs to shake up the Windows tablet space with the Surface, and I have advice on how to do that.

It's a safe bet that Microsoft needs to drop the Surface RT. It's a subset of full Windows 8 that confuses consumers and I'll bet the returns of units after purchase reflects that. I imagine many Surface RT buyers got them home and then discovered they couldn't install the software they want, I'm thinking iTunes in particular, and then they took them back. They then passed on the Surface Pro due to the the higher price and enterprise look and feel of the tablet.

Those ex-customers, if they were even shown any in the store, probably passed on Windows 8 partners' tablets due to the price. They may have dropped buying a tablet altogether or picked up a competitor's model (think iPad). That's the worst-case scenario: folks going from Microsoft customers to competitors' customers.

Microsoft, you haven't asked for my opinion on what to do with Surface but since I've been involved in both mobile tech and tablets as long as anybody I'm going to give it to you anyway. I want both Surface and Windows 8 to take the world by storm so here you go.

Keep Surface Pro for the enterprise/ power user

The Surface Pro is a great bit of kit for both the enterprise and the power user so keep it around for them. You've already got the production down and you're figuring out the proper price point so keep at it. Drop the advertising trying to sell the Pro to regular consumers, they are not ever going to buy it. The hardware is overkill for mainstream consumers and never will sell to them in the numbers you need.

Even though you've designed Windows 8 to handle many different use cases, tablet buyers don't care. They don't want Windows, they just want a simple tablet that works well.

Microsoft's original plan for the Surface tablets missed the mark to hit the consumer space properly. The Surface RT missed the mark due to the lack of full Windows as indicated above. The Surface Pro brought a laptop equivalent to take full advantage of Windows 8 for the enterprise and power users. 

This strategy totally missed the only market segment of any size, the regular consumer. That's the group largely responsible for buying 100 million iPads. This group of casual users are the ones you need to target with the Surface.

Build a new Surface to target the mainstream

With the Surface RT out of the picture (at least it should be) and the Surface Pro kept far away from mainstream consumers, it's time to build a new Surface tablet. The design of the new Surface should be aimed squarely at the typical tablet shopper. Forget the boxy industrial design of current Surfaces, go thin and curvy. The primary design objective should be making the new tablet comfortable to use in the hands. While you can make keyboard accessories for those who want them you need to make the tablet to be used alone.

Think thin and light, with a screen no bigger than 10 inches. If you want a good example of proper tablet design look at HP's Envy x2 tablet . Shrink it down from the 11.6 inches of the Envy x2 to 10 inches while keeping it as thin and light as HP's model. Don't get caught up in expansion ports if they can't fit in this form. While you can't say nobody wants them the fact is most mainstream consumers don't use USB nor memory cards in their tablets. Those simply add bulk, weight, and price with no benefit for the masses.

This new Surface needs only what consumers actually want and nothing else. While the lack of expansion ports will turn off some prospecive buyers, millions will be just fine with that. Even though you've designed Windows 8 to handle many different use cases, tablet buyers don't care. They just want a simple tablet that works well.

Don't think this tablet needs to have a powerful processor as that is overkill for most consumers. Put a nice Atom Bay Trail in there to keep power consumption and heat down. That should provide enough performance to do everything the casual user needs to do. Power users will turn up their noses at this processor choice but they are not the target. You already have the Surface Pro for them. They'll have to live with 5 hours away from the power outlet.

Battery life is critical for the mainstream consumer. They already have options available on the market that give 10+ hours of battery life and that's what this new Surface must deliver. That should be easy with the Atom and lack of power slurping expansion hardware.

To outdo most of the competition include a pen with the Surface that stores in a silo on the tablet. This fits in with the software suggestion I have later in this article. You don't need to make a big deal about having a pen in advertising, just sell the special software described later.

Feel free to make a laptop dock or other type of keyboard accessory as some consumers will find that useful. Just don't make it front and center in advertising as you do not want to give the impression that a keyboard is necessary. You'll want to sell the tablet and that alone. Show prospective buyers that it's a personal tablet, not a personal computer. You may not believe it but tablet shoppers don't want a computer, they just want a nice slate that does what they want.

Next: Simply Surface; The app to outstrip the competition; Conclusion

Topics: Mobility, Tablets, Windows


James Kendrick has been using mobile devices since they weighed 30 pounds, and has been sharing his insights on mobile technology for almost that long. Prior to joining ZDNet, James was the Founding Editor of jkOnTheRun, a CNET Top 100 Tech Blog that was acquired by GigaOM in 2008 and is now part of that prestigious tech network. James' w... Full Bio

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