Surface: Microsoft, What the Hell is Wrong With You?

Summary:Microsoft's new tablet not only fragments the Windows 8 mobile ecosystem, but also creates strife with its OEMs and will re-ignite negative perceptions of the company's former monopolist position.

Maybe I'm just cranky because I had to work a 12-hour day, waiting for an event to finish on West Coast time when I really just wanted to take my wife out to dinner instead. But Microsoft's new Surface tablet still has catastrophe written all over it.

Let's forget the ridiculous build-up to the event that was completely unnecessary and get right to the meat of things, shall we?

The Surface tablets in and of themselves look like nice devices. Beautiful construction, decent specs. But absolutely nothing was said about price or availability. Only that the Windows RT/ARM version will ship around the Windows 8 retail release timeframe (October) and the Pro/Intel version will ship 3 months after that.

To quote Microsoft, "suggested retail pricing will be announced closer to availability and is expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC. OEMs will have cost and feature parity on Windows 8 and Windows RT."

So let me get this straight, Microsoft. You made journalists schlep across the country, no, the planet, for a product that might not ship for months? You're lucky they didn't burn the venue down.

Okay, no ship date, no prices and... no compelling 3rd-party applications or even Office to show on it whatsoever. So we have no idea how well it performs, and how well supported it will be by 3rd-party software developers. No partnerships to speak of. Nada.

No demonstration or even any claims of how good the battery life on each model is.

Nothing to say whatsoever about the nature of what display technology they are using, whether it is OLED or LED/LCD backlight or something else. Great, so one is a 720p and the other is a 1080p. Details, please.

Gee, that doesn't exactly make folks want to stop in their tracks from buying iPad 3s, does it?

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Okay. Back to the the dual-architectures thing. They decided to launch a tablet product with their own brand, but bifurcate the message? Which one are we really supposed to buy, then? ARM for consumers? x86 for prosumers and enterprises?

And oh yeah. That niggling little OEM thing.

Does that mean that a "Surface" branded Microsoft tablet is bloatware free? Why should we as consumers buy an OEM device now, if the Microsoft is going to be the "Pure" Windows 8 experience, a la Google's Nexus, and will be "price competitive" with the OEMs?

And if the Pro version of the Surface is powerful enough, with Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge CPUs, why do we need Ultrabooks if we can just clamp a keyboard cover to a Surface Pro?

Am I the only person who beleives this thing is a total jump the shark cluster-you-know-what for Microsoft?

Right now, Microsoft's OEMs -- with the exception of whatever "lucky" company got the nod to do the contract manufacturing for this product -- must be absolutely livid. To produce their own ARM and x86 Windows 8 systems, they have to pay exorbitant licensing fees.

Windows RT is going to cost an estimated $85 per copy to your average OEM. A Windows 8 Professional license on x86 will be considerably more.

I don't care what the hell Microsoft says about partners having cost and feature parity, that's $85 of pure margin advantage that Microsoft has and the OEM doesn't.

Since Microsoft now produces its own hardware, that $85-$150 per copy the OEM would otherwise have to pay is pure profit which gives them an unfair advantage.

And wait until we start seeing the BOMs for Surface added up by companies like iFixit and IHS iSuppli and see how much cheaper Microsoft can go than the OEMs with their own competing Windows 8 tablets when directly manipulating the supply and ODM chain as well.

What are the OEMs supposed to do? Well I suspect that if you are someone like a Lenovo or a Hewlett-Packard, you probably are seriously going to re-think whether or not you really want to produce tablets with similar specs to the Surface RT and Surface Pro.

You now have to out-value the Surface devices, or you have to play the Enterprise game with beefier, more expensive Windows 8 convertible tablets with higher-res screens and faster CPUs and SSDs that nobody other than select Fortune 500 firms may want to buy, because they'd rather do business with a hardware partner they already buy systems from.

The Ultrabook concept may no longer be sexy to the majority of its target market anymore. Intel can't be particularly crazy about that.

And the Asus and Acers of the world? How are they going to compete on margins with this thing, unless they are being chosen as the actual contract manufacturers? Something tells me that the bulk of the contract biz on the Surface is going to end up with Foxconn, Quanta and Samsung, not these folks.

Personally, if I was Steve Ballmer and the bigwigs at Microsoft, I would have done it a bit differently.

"Surface" as a brand name actually is pretty good. It sounds futuristic and new. So why just not make "Surface Tablet" the brand name for all convertible Windows 8 tablets? Or have Surface replace "Windows" as the name of the OS going forward? Or "Windows Surface" even?

Why not give the OEMs access to the manufacturing technology for the special "VaporMG" casings and the keyboard cover? Why create such a potentially hostile situation by biting the hand of the companies that license your software which is currently your bread and butter income stream?

What, you really want them to start pushing Ubuntu and Android and other Post-PC solutions for real Because now you just asked them to.

All of this reeks of suicidal thinking from a company that wants to deep six its long-established manufacturer ecosystem.

It does not reflect the actions of a company that tried so hard to shed long-held industry perceptions of being a monopolist, and worst case, it could potentially re-ignite federal antitrust activity that Microsoft has spent more than ten years digging itself out of.

Yeah, I'm cranky. But I'm not crazy.

Will Surface result in untenable, stressed relationships with Microsoft's traditional OEM partners and Intel, and a renewal of its status as industry monopolist? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

See also:

Topics: Windows, Hardware, Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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