Surface: Why Microsoft's big mystery turns out to be a big mistake

Surface: Why Microsoft's big mystery turns out to be a big mistake

Summary: Throw away the kickstand, keyboard and trackpad, and Microsoft's Surface is like every other ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC we've seen. When I do my end-of-year "tech flops" round-up, I fully expect Surface tablets to make the list.

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Following several days of hype after journalists from around the world were invited to a mysterious "major Microsoft announcement" that they were promised, "you will not want to miss," Microsoft unveils a... tablet.

Oh Microsoft, what were you thinking?

See alsoFinal thoughts on Windows 8: A design disaster

Microsoft Surface tablet (Gallery)


Image Gallery: Microsoft Surface tablet Image Gallery: Charge Image Gallery: Charge
Yesterday I posted my thoughts on what needed to be announced at the event if a Microsoft tablet -- at that point we didn't know the specifics -- was going to be a success. What was announced yesterday in Los Angeles doesn't seem to tick any of the boxes.

Let's start with the hardware.

We don't have a lot of information to go on because it seems that Microsoft either wasn't ready to, or wasn't willing to share much about the specs of the hardware it was announcing. That's troubling -- and suggests the hardware may still be in a state of flux.

This would make sense given that Windows 8 and Windows RT -- yes, that's what's going to be powering these tablets -- is still months away.

Here's what we know.

The Microsoft tablet -- called "Surface" -- comes in two flavors. There's an x86-powered version that runs Windows 8 Pro based around an unidentified Intel "Ivy Bridge" Core processor, and an ARM version running Windows RT based on an unidentified ARM processor.

Both have a 10.6-inch screen, with the x86 version running at full-HD (1080p) and the ARM version running at HD (720p). Both are thin, both are light. Both have an integrated kickstand, both have a complement of ports, including a full-sized USB 2.0 port.  (The Pro model has USB 3.0.) Both support storage expansion through the use of micro-SD cards.

In a homage to Apple, both will support a magnetically attachable cover. Unlike the Apple cover, it's a cover with a difference. This cover comes complete with an integrated keyboard and trackpad, which is certainly innovative, but it remains to be seen if this keyboard is any good.

They're just tablets. They're shaped like tablets and have stuff inside them that we've come to expect tablets to have.

There's no word on price beyond a statement from Microsoft saying that they are "expected to be competitive with a comparable ARM tablet or Intel ultrabook-class PC". This puts the ARM version in the $600 price bracket and the x86 in at around $1,000 -- give or take.

Throw away the kickstand, the keyboard and the trackpad and they're like every other ARM tablet or Intel Ultrabook-class PC we've seen so far.

If the mistakes ended there then things might not be so bad. But why stop making mistakes when there's scope to make many more?

Let's start with the mistake of annoying every hardware OEM that Microsoft is relying on to do a good job of pushing Windows 8 out to consumers and enterprise.

While PC OEMs don't really have the option of kicking Windows to the curb and going with another platform -- what, Linux? -- it's a really odd time for Microsoft to start selling branded hardware. The only OEM that's going to be happy here is whoever Microsoft has contracted to build Surface tablets, and if these don't sell well, that happiness could be short-lived.

Then there's the mistake of releasing two near-identical tablets powered by two different operating systems and with two very different set of capabilities. Which one should buyers -- consumers and enterprise alike -- go for?

For the uninformed, price might be the deciding factor, and that could lead them to buy something completely inappropriate for their needs. But if you're trying to make an informed decision then it's tough to know which to go for. And at this stage, that decision is made even harder by the information vacuum surrounding these two devices, especially regarding battery life, and more crucially: price.

Then there's the mistake of announcing this tablet far too soon. With Windows 8 only a matter of months away, I'm stumped as to why Microsoft chose to unveil this now. People have short attention spans. Unless Microsoft can keep up the pressure, Surface will be long forgotten by the time Windows 8 and Windows RT ships.

And what's the deal with the part-cover, part-keyboard? I can understand that Microsoft was looking for something -- no matter how novel or gimmicky -- to differentiate the Surface from other Windows tablets, but that keyboard is an admission of failure.

It tells the world that no matter how much effort Microsoft has put into making Windows 8 ready for tablets, people still need a keyboard and a trackpad. On the flip side, most iPad owners never think about hooking a keyboard up to their tablet; Microsoft feels the need to bundle one with every tablet.

Microsoft's big mystery event turned out to be an announcement for a tablet that won't ship for months, and about which Microsoft doesn't yet seem willing to talk in any detail.

But who invited whom to this event? When I do my usual end of year "tech flops" roundup, I fully expect Microsoft Surface tablets to make their way onto the list.

Image source: CNET, Microsoft.

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Topics: Hardware, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, Processors, Tablets

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276 comments
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  • As figures, ZDNet's pundits turn sour apples...

    OEMs can cry all they want, but they've been bumbling around for years. The only OEM left that's worth a damn is probably ASUS, the rest have been recycling designs for a while now, seeing what will stick. It's no secret they have no real plans.

    Having a Microsoft tablet will help Microsoft usher in Windows 8. Obviously, they have a plan for it, and what would be better than, they themselves, taking the charge? If Microsoft can iron out Windows 8's kinks, and finalize their plans for Surface, this will be the device to beat.

    This has been the device I have been waiting for, it has the hardware features I need, while remaining light and easy to carry. The demand for these are there. I have been waiting for hardware features like this for years, that Apple has ignored. This tablet will be perfect for lugging around campus.
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • Has to be a concern...

      The effect of being in direct competition with your partners... I thought it might be a mistake when Google acquired Motorola and I think it might be a mistake here as well...

      Kind of vindicates the Apple model of tightly controlling every aspect of the experience from design to software to marketing. As well as collecting all the profits if it succeeds and taking all the blame if it doesn't...
      widow maker
      • Maybe...

        .... But it's nice to see Microsoft grow, and try and enforce their own quality control, which OEMs have been dropping for years. You can bet that when this thing ships, it will be flawless. Microsoft knows all too well what it feels like to wear egg on their face, they'll need to execute this with absolute perfection.
        The one and only, Cylon Centurion
      • Concern? yes...

        -> "The effect of being in direct competition with your partners..."

        But when your "partners" keep fumbling the ball, what recourse do you have but to SHOW them what you wanted in the first place?
        PollyProteus
      • Whats AAPL stock done lately

        It's a lot easier to make a lot of money and sell a lot of units when your company is the only one on the playing field. Everybody likes a winner and certainly Apple deserves all the benefits of their success. However they now have competition and it remains to be seen how well these competitors do. I would rather take a chance that MSFT who has survived missteps over the years but has always come back stronger figure out what tablets and pc's might become in the future. RT seems to have lots of advantages over Ipad, especially better productivity.
        azbull
    • Adrian has become a tool of Apple

      Apple is quiet on specs of future products, and Adrian tells us because Apple is smart by not giving out confidential info like that.

      MS is quite on specs and it's [i]That???s troubling ??? and suggests the hardware may still be in a state of flux[/i] And the silly reasons's go on.

      Of course he'll add surface to that list of flops because I am [b]actually[/b] starting to believe that is [i]what he is paid to do[/i].

      But as others have noted, the moment something comes out of a factory that doesn't have the Apple logo on it, there's a good chance that AKH will dismiss it.
      William Farrel
      • Um... Are you braindead???

        Apple doesn't comment on future products.. They announce what they have already made (The reason they take the Apple store offline during the presentations)... Duhhhhhhhhhh!!!
        i8thecat4
      • I was waiting for this "journalist's" response

        seeing as he is on the Apple crack. And his response was just as I expected. How much do you want to bet that if it was Apple yesterday who had release the exact same keyboard for the iPad, we would hearing him praising its ingenuity and saying that's why Apple is the best and Microsoft will never catch up. I told myself I wouldn't read his articles anymore, but now I just open them up to have a laughter.
        gersont
      • Angry sounding Apple tool.

        What happened did he not get invited to the launch? Or does he just hate seeing MS make a slicker looking tablet than Apple? And what did they need to do so that it wasn't like other tablets, maybe it shouldn't have been made with a rectangular shape. Maybe it should have been shaped like a triangle so it wouldn't be like all the other tablets. This keyboard cover is really nice and it does differentiate it from other tablets. Also I see a bunch of people with iPads use the nifty little Logitech cases that have a keyboard on them. I put one on my wife's iPad 2 so she can type with it and it needed a case anyway so why not have a keyboard. And he wonders who would want a tablet that has the option for a real keyboard. Well pretty much anyone who needs to type more than a dozen words at a time. My wife and I would never type out emails without using the add on keyboard, unless we had no choice. I know one thing this is the most angry sounding article I have ever seen from him. Even though he would never admit it. I am either going to get the second generation Surface, or get a first gen on the cheap after the second gen comes out. I'm never an early adopter I'm too careful with my money for that. And I already have a nice Core i5 ThinkPad that I can get 6+ hours out of so I don't really need it anytime soon anyway. But I'm pretty sure the early adopters will be buying these up. And more importantly than huge sales, the partners will see what kind of tablets they need to be putting out.
        j-mccurdy@...
      • No, you're the tool

        Adrian just comments as he sees it.

        You just don't like what he says because it isn't a brain-dead endorsement of Microsoft.
        anti-trolls
      • Two thumbs up for the x86 version!

        Windows O/S on a tablet. Finally, I can take a tablet with me and be as productive as sitting at my desk. I can use the same programs (MS Office Suite, AutoCAD, EMME Modeller) and even program in Java and Python which I have to do on a regular basis.

        Shockingly, I can also plug in a USB to transfer files! Yes yes, iCloud, etc. How many conferences have you presented at where you were asked, "do you have your presentation available on iCloud? Too bad as we moved away from USB sticks years ago..."

        Oh wait, I can just transfer model runs from work to my computer using iCloud for those 4 GB runs! Oh wait, my work uses Windows. Darn.

        Apple lost me the day I plugged my iPod Touch into my PC and couldn't access the hard drive directly. I thought, would I ever buy a car with the hood welded shut so I couldn't get at the engine? Mmm, no.
        SC_Boots
      • It's a dud

        Apple is quiet on the specs but when they anounce something, they are ready to ship. This MS hybrid is still in a prototype stage so why announce it when both the os and hardware are not ready.

        It comes down to this. Are most users consumers of content or creators/workaholics. My take is that most users are consumers and for serious work they use a desktop. MS will not sell more than 3 million units in the first quarter which is a flop...
        prof123
      • Give one example

        Go ahead, provide us with an example of Apple announcing a product but withholding the specs.
        non-biased
      • What is Adrian Talking About?

        1) Microsoft is the #1 OS in the world and the adoption of the tablet as enterprise makes them a differentiator to every other branded tablet. This is might be the first take at actually making a tablet to end the laptop era. Something I believe Apple's iPad missed.

        2) Presenting and offering of two products is minimal as business usually offer 3 or 4 different models. How many version of the Kindle and iPad3 can you buy?

        3) I am not sure why he is trashing the keyboard. The #1 complaint about the iPad is the data entry and ability to transfer documents back and forth to the PC. This keyboard is essential and definitely lacking on EVERY other tablet? I think someone should get some more coffee and put their iDevice down.
        scaliouette
    • No Adrian's just earning a bit of cash

      I expect another article trashing Apple soon to garner more posts ;-)

      Most of us can see the obvious advantages in Surface with the most obvious being Win 8. A lot of us have also held off buying tablets because essentially up til now have been just expensive toys. If you spend enough money and time you might be able to use one of them productively for some of the time, but it's a bit like using a Speak n Spell for programming.

      Who hasn't winced when using an on-screen keyboard, not just the bad ergonomic posture (hence the kickstand), the dead glass, the missing characters, the thick fingered typos, the necessity for the device to guess what you are trying to type, but the worst part is having half the screen or more disappear. Those poor souls trying to make an iPad useful, buy a keyboard as their first purchase.

      So a keyboard with trackpad, a kickstand, a USB port, a wide screen aspect ratio, Office and a real OS make this the first of the current batches of tablets to be useful out of the box.

      Like CC I'll be purchasing one, in fact a few.

      I think Adrian should also apologise and then thank us for feeding his bank balance.
      tonymcs@...
      • Adrian Kingsly Hughes VS Ed Bott

        Adrian is obviously an Apple guy which is fine, and Ed is the Microsoft-Windows guy. But there is a big difference between how the two talk about the other company. Ed Bott is a much classier act than Adrian Kingsly Hughes. Ed Bott at least acts fairly respectful towards Apple, while also trying to be fairly realistic about Apples strong points and Adrian Kingsly Hughes on the other hand is pretty vicious and in this particular article seems downright angry. He is so emotionally involved in his Microsoft attacks that he can't even maintain some degree of professionalism in his writing, at least not in this article. In fact this article looked about maybe 1/2 a notch less crazy than Charley Demerjian when he writes about Nvidia. And that's saying something.
        j-mccurdy@...
      • Laugh of the day

        @j-mccurdy
        "Ed Bott is a much classier act"

        Hilarious. Ed Bott has all the integrity and credibility of FOX news. Kingsly Hughes is actually worth reading. Your comments are exactly the opposite of the truth.
        dfolk2
      • RE: No Adrian's just earning a bit of cash

        @tonymcs : that's because Adrian is a classless vulgarian
        markbn
      • Spoken like the true MS Fanboy

        we all know you to be.

        Not knocking the Surface but also not going to blindly believe it's the greatest thing to come to tablets simply based on what MS presented like you do.
        non-biased
  • LMAO...

    "Throw away all the stuff that the Surface tablet has that all the other tablets on the market don't and you're left with just a run of the mill tablet..."

    LMAO... it doesn't even make any sense, it's a pointless statement... Funny when Apple announced the latest Ipad Adrian didn't write, "throw away the so-called "retina" display and the Ipad is just another tablet."

    "Throw away the hi-powered engine, the fancy European styling, and the hand-tooled fine leather interior and the latest Porche is just like every other car we've seen so far.. BWAHahahaha...
    widow maker