Surface 2: How Microsoft can make it work

Summary:The folks in Redmond are refreshing the Surface RT in spite of a nearly $1 billion hole. The upcoming Surface 2 might surprise those who expect it to also fail, and here's how.

Surface RT
Image: Microsoft

It seems I'm regularly giving Microsoft unsolicited advice, and the word that the Surface RT tablet will be refreshed has triggered the advice once again. The Surface RT was a dismal failure no matter how you look at it, with Microsoft taking a $900 million write-down due to unsold units. For many, that would be enough to throw in the towel for the Windows RT line but apparently not for Microsoft. Having given it some thought, Microsoft could make a go of it with the Surface 2 if it's careful.

The Surface RT had the deck stacked against it from the beginning. It only runs Windows RT, a stripped-down version of Windows 8 that can't run legacy apps like full Windows. It was also over-priced, an error Microsoft has since addressed with price drops. On top of those big disadvantages, the confusion about the differences between Windows 8 and RT supposedly led to a high return rate for Surface RT as buyers got them home and discovered the limitations of Windows RT.

Microsoft has obviously decided to give both Windows RT and the Surface RT another chance according to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley . The Surface 2 should launch this month with refreshed (and better) hardware. The company needs to tread water carefully with the Surface 2 to avoid another failure like that of the Surface RT.

Careful branding

It is significant to see Microsoft make a slight change in the product name, going with Surface 2 and dropping reference to RT. Many who follow such things believe RT is too restrictive and that it makes more sense to go full Windows with the Surface Pro.

It will be hard for Microsoft but don't push the Surface 2 as being Windows.The average tablet buyer isn't looking for Windows and it may actually be a negative.

Mainstream consumers, the group Microsft should want to target with the Surface 2, don't care about RT vs. Windows 8. They just want to buy a tablet, so going with Surface 2 is a good move on Microsoft's part. 

Where the company has to be careful is in the advertising. If Windows is promoted at all with the Surface 2, that market confusion is going to rear its ugly head again. Windows RT is not full Windows, and Microsoft must make sure and not even imply that it is in Surface 2 ads.

Instead, push the Surface 2 brand as a tablet, nothing more or less. That's what the majority of tablet buyers are looking for, a simple tablet they can do stuff with. That's the message that needs to come through loud and clear.

To note an advantage for some buyers, Microsoft can push the availability of Office on the Surface 2. Don't make it seem that only those seeking Office on a tablet should buy one because frankly I don't think that many care. Just note it's there.

More importantly, and this is going to be hard for Microsoft, don't push the Surface 2 as being Windows. I believe the average tablet buyer isn't looking for Windows and it may actually be a negative. Many associate Windows with work and not in a good way. Just show it in action and let the Surface 2 sell itself.

Pricing

The current pricing for the Surface RT, $349 better be the maximum price on the Surface 2. Sure it's better than the Surface RT but those didn't sell much at least partially due to price. It's a good idea to get the Surface 2 price even lower than that to have the best chance in the market.

The pricing strategy will have to reflect the business strategy for Microsoft. If the goal is to sell a bunch of them, price it lower than the Surface RT at launch. If the objective is only to sell a smaller quantity, hopefully to reflect a new reduced level of manufacturing compare to Surface RT, then go no higher than $349.

The latter strategy would tell me that Microsoft's only keeping the Surface 2 with Windows RT around to have a cheaper option for those who want it. That's fine although it won't get much sales to speak of and not be a big product for Redmond.

Launch and ship

According to ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley the Surface 2 will be launched on September 23 but probably won't ship until later. It's logical to assume it won't ship until October 18, the date Windows 8.1 (which it will ship with) is to be available.

I'm not a fan of shipping after the launch event for any gadget as that loses the excitement and enthusiasm such events generate. I believe Microsoft would be better served to actually ship the Surface 2 at the launch. Get as many in the hands of enthusiasts as possible by selling them immediately after the launch event.

Not only will that capture the moment, it will surprisingly put the new Surface 2 in buyer's hands along with Windows 8.1. Buyers will feel they've hit the jackpot with a new tablet and the new version of Windows before most everyone else.

It's a gamble

This advice is given from the way I see things. If I had my druthers I'd kill off Windows RT entirely , as I think it only hurts Microsoft. Since the company is determined to keep it going along with the Surface 2, it had better do it right to keep from pubicly flopping again.

If Microsoft has a small tablet hidden up its sleeve as rumored, this advice applies double to it. Push the typical tablet functions along with the form factor and leave Windows out of the advertising completely. As with the Surface 2, the vast majority of small tablet buyers do not head out looking for a tablet with Windows. The Surface RT debacle has proven that.

Related stories:

Topics: Mobility, Microsoft Surface, Tablets, Windows 8

About

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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