Microsoft's Surface Tablets won't join the Zune in the Redmond Hardware Deadpool anytime soon for the simple reason that they won't be released until the kids are already back in school.
Is this just delaying the inevitable? Or will the Surface absorb all of the summer heat and propel itself to Xbox-like heights?
I thought I'd consider that simile with another, by comparing the Surface with the most notable tablet failure to date, the Cisco Cius.
Sure, Cisco offered some IT-friendly features such as a proprietary enterprise app store and high-end video and networking features (though they came at an additional price).
The problem was that the market for tablets then, and even today, primarily remains driven by consumers and enterprise workers buying to BYOD.
Microsoft is doing some things better with the Surface:
- Unlike the bland Cius, the Surface is a striking piece of hardware. It won't be to every consumer's taste, but the Surface should genuinely appeal to a good chunk of consumers. That's key in the BYOD era.
- Microsoft won't use the words, but the Surface is essentially a tablet/PC hybrid, or what others called a convertible laptop (albeit a very skinny one). Convertibles and hybrids have never done particularly well, only appealing to a few niches. So it's wise that Microsoft is avoiding tho terms 'hybrid' and 'convertible'.
Still, I don't think it matters much. Pundit types like myself may have long memories, but consumers won't remember or care. The Surface is thin and attractive enough that people will automatically compare it other tablets (which is a good thing), while adding in its Windows application selection.
"Without question I'll trade my iPad in a heartbeat for a full PC in the same form factor," tweeted one enterprise software architect, Nathan Oyler.
Call it a Tablet Plus?
- At least one of the Surface tablets, the ARM version running Windows RT, will likely be competitive price-wise with other ARM tablets. By that, I expect Surface RT to start at $500, not the $200 of Amazon's Kindle Fire.
- The Windows 8 Professional version of the Surface will run a fairly-fast Intel Core i5 quad-core CPU, not the under-powered Atom chip that helped doom the Cius as well as netbooks.
But in other ways, the Surface uncomfortably repeats the problems that the Cius as well as other tablets like the Motorola Xoom, BlackBerry PlayBook and Samsung Galaxy Tab have had:
- The Windows 8 Pro Surface will cost about the price of an Ultrabook, or close to $1,000. Even with the Windows app ecosystem, including the one killer app, Microsoft Office, many consumers will balk at the price of a Windows 8 Pro tablet/laptop.
If that's the case, Microsoft then has to count on IT departments stepping up to deploy Windows 8 Pro Surfaces. That's what RIM and Cisco counted on, much to their regret. Microsoft may hope that IT departments view the Windows 8 Pro Surface as a laptop replacement. In that case, the Windows 8 Pro looks cheaper than most business-class laptops, including the MacBook Air, by several hundred bucks. There's no guarantee, however, that IT departments will see it that way.
- The less-expensive Windows RT tablet will have a very sparse selection of apps upon release, due to its lack of backward compatibility with current Windows apps. A dearth of apps is the problem that faced the BlackBerry PlayBook when it launched. That did not go well.
- The Surface's multi-touch, pressure-sensitive keyboard looks very cool. Its low profile is key to keeping the Surface sleek. But looks aren't everything. First of all, they remind me of the Atari 400's membrane keyboard. That was also a pressure-sensitive keyboard that happened to have been ranked one of the ten worst PC keyboards of all time.
Granted, this was 30+ years ago. But Moore's Law doesn't apply to keyboards. Change is slow. There have only been two innovations in the last two decades worth speaking of: backlit, island-style keyboards, and wireless connectivity.
The Surface keyboard doesn't incorporate either of those. The best case scenario is if the Surface's keyboard works as well as the best spill-proof, silicone keyboard. But few touch typists will consider that much of an upgrade over touchscreen keyboards.
And the Ugly
- The Surface shows that Microsoft, when it adopts Apple's vertically-integrated manufacturing model, can make snazzy, high-quality hardware, too. The problem is that it runs the risk of angering Microsoft's hardware OEM partners, such as HTC, HP, Lenovo, Dell, Asus, and many many others.
Tweeted Current Analysis analyst Avi Greengart: "It’s not like Windows OEMs thought that there’d be no Win 8 competition, it’s just who’s competing that galls."
This uncomfortable state of co-optition didn't exist when Microsoft launched the XBox. The only partner whose turf it invaded was Sony.
But doesn't Google face the same problem? Yes and no. While Google's Nexus tablet will annoy its partners, Google doesn't make any money directly from Android. So there aren't billions in licensing revenue at stake.
In the end, I remain unsure whether the Surface will end up more like the XBox or the Zune. What say you?