Will the Microsoft Surface Tablet Fly like XBox, or Flop like Zune?

Will the Microsoft Surface Tablet Fly like XBox, or Flop like Zune?

Summary: Cisco's Cius tablet is probably the worst flameout against the iPad, though other Android tablets haven't done so hot yet, either. Will Microsoft's Surface tablets do any better?


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.

As much as Cisco tried to avoid a specs war with other vendors, the perception was that the Cisco Cius was an underpowered, over-priced Android tablet.

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.

The Good

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.

The Bad

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.

Credit: Wikimedia

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?

Topics: ÜberTech, Tablets, Samsung, Processors, Mobility, Microsoft, Laptops, Hardware, Google, Cisco, CXO, Android

Eric Lai

About Eric Lai

I have tracked technology for more than 15 years, as an award-winning journalist and now as in-house thought leader on the mobile enterprise for SAP. Follow me here at ÜberMobile as well as my even less-filtered musings on Twitter @ericylai

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  • Zune was great, just needed to be pushed by Microsoft

    I completely blame Microsoft on Zune's failure for not marketing the darn thing.

    As far as pissing off the other OEM's, yea maybe to a certain extent, but what choice do they really have? Android, despite it being free just isn't getting the job done, largely due to fragmentation and their lack of rigorous testing when it comes to apps; which has created a grave yard of malware.

    OEM's such as Dell better pray like hell Windows 8 is successful no matter the form factor because they need the revenue.

    In my humble opinion I believe Surface will be a large success. Microsoft better roll out some ad's though, otherwise it may be the next Zune. A beautiful piece of equipment with no backbone!
    • Microsoft will be more committed to Surface than it was to Zune

      Both Ballmer and Sinofsky publicly blessed Surface by presenting at its launch. Don't underestimate the importance of that in a large, political company. I don't recall Zune getting the same support.

      At the same time, will Microsoft hold its nerve if OEMs show their displeasure by switching more and more of their business to Android? That's billions of dollars of licensing at stake.

      I see Windows 8 Professional having stronger prospects than Windows RT, which will launch later this year with basically an empty cupboard of apps.
  • Possible Ipad Challenger's Review! The Surface Review.

    This tablet marks the first time in quite awhile that Microsoft will be competing with it's own Windows OEM's. Indeed, Microsoft is very much the challenger as it steps into the ring for multi-touch slate-style computers. Here???s the first look of the tablet along with its review and description.
    Take a look!
  • Stop pandering to OEM executives

    The OEMs had the run of the place and failed to innovate time and again. About the only serious innovations I can think of in the past 5-6 years was the HP TC1100 or OQO 1/2.

    It's obvious to anyone that walks into a Best Buy that OEM PC makers don't have a clue about anything, and fail to take chances or make bold design decisions.

    Anyone walk through the desktop PC isle lately? It's the same brick boxes they've been making forever. laptops? They all look like they were cloned from the same reference design and manufactured with the same crappy black plastic. And people seriously wonder why the Mac air is so appealing?

    Even though I think Windows 8 will be Vista 2.0, as hardware and design, the Surface tablets needed to shake up the marketplace.
    • Don't agree

      HP, Sony and Asus have all done some nice work in terms of design and fashion to upscale and differentiate their PCs.

      But they were constrained by Microsoft and Intel, who never gave up control (and most of the profits) in the Wintel ecosystem.

      Android is the new Windows, for all its good and bad. Microsoft looks increasingly like the new Apple.
  • MS-Office is the killer app.

    If it comes with MS-Office capability and all the other features we take for granted on a PC/laptop like mail client, connectivity to the office, remote printing and sharing, it should provide a good start.

    • So you're suggesting Microsoft bundle Office with the Surface for FREE?

      I think Microsoft's considered it. And that would be a winning strategy, providing a ton of value. I just don't think they'll be winning to cannibalize themselves that much.
      • office is free on winrt

        Or some variation of it, but its there.
  • One of the 3%

    I am one of those crazies in the WPhone fan minoritiy- I actually like Windows Phone. And am having to use an old HTC whatever on Verizon. I like the OS look and functionality. I like the live tiles. And I am looking forward to having a tablet with Metro on it. But if every Windows Phone user went out and bought one, still not that many. But I am more looking forward to getting the intel version of surface later on with the best of both worlds. The desktop in Win 8 is absolutely fine and just as productive as Win 7. What I would really like also is a 7" reader running winRT. Hopefully B&N will come out with one. As long as can tap easily into the Kindle/ Audible ecosystem as well as the B&N ecosystem, I will be happy. So whether it becomes a hit or not, I am going to get a Windows 8 phone, a surface, and hopefully a 7" winrt tablet. I might even stand in line for one.
    • So you're one of the mythical 1.7%

      Of users that actually like WM 7?
      Jumpin Jack Flash
  • WOW !!

    Finally someone with a real opinion... My brother owns an HTC HD7, i really like the simplicity and responsiveness of WP7, the only reason I didn't pick one up at launch was because it didn't support copy/paste and VPN as I spend a lot of time in China these 2 options are essential for me. Since then the WP7 has gotten better and better.. I would even say it is the best smart phone OS on the market. People talk a lot of "smack" about the tiles, but I think they work fine. I am even thinking about purchasing WP& devices for my parents who are totally clueless about smart phones. I can put 4 square on the main screen and they will have everything they need. I personally am invested n Android, but I am very interested in Windows 8 ... I have used OSx for many years, but as WIndows is becoming more streamlined and easy to use, I want to jump not WIN8pro and dump Mac because i am tired of Adobe CS and Office crashing when you stress it out. It seems Mac is less of a working machine(they use to be awesome for work) and more of a media consumption device now. ...... I have faith that windows 8 will work.
    • Curious about the average investment in Android

      I am under the impression that most Android users avoid paying much for apps, so switching from Android to another platform should be an easier proposition than switching from iOS. What is your experience?
  • One obvious error

    "Surface is essentially a tablet/PC hybrid, or what others called a convertible laptop" The correct statement would be "Surface is essentially a tablet/PC hybrid, or what others called a convertible Netbook" being he screen is so tiny, and the on-board storage is myopic, for an over $1,000 device.
    Jumpin Jack Flash
  • Neither. Zune was too little, too late

    Xbox offered a particular group of consumers (gamers) a superior experience from day one - without expecting them to cobble together a highly customized PC to accomplish the task.

    The Surface RT is aimed directly at Windows consumers who are interested in the iPad for all its strengths but want the flexibility and compatibility of Windows.

    On the other hand, the Surface 8 Pro is directed to the professional who wants an iPad-like device when he doesn't need a full Windows experience but still needs to bring along all of the capabilities of a Windows notebook. The Surface 8 Pro fills both needs in one compact device.
    M Wagner
  • Wish the Surface pro was available today!

    I'm also one of the small number who use WP7 and since Mango wouldn't trade it for an Android, an I-Fruit, or any other smart phone. I've tried the Win8 system on my desktop PC and don't like it there since I feel it's best suited for a touch screen and having a 24" touch screen laying on my desk top taking up most of the room needed for non-PC tasks is out of the question.

    But on a tablet like the Surface Pro...Sign me up. I won't wait in line the night before release but will get one as soon as they are available online. So tired of hauling around the laptop and needing another case to deal with traveling that having a real computer in a tablet form that has a screen just a couple of inches smaller than my laptop will be great.

    For the record I do have an Acer Iconia A500 with ICS and it's fine for reading books and short trips around town with Web browsing and email but not enough power for real business use. I got it as "reconditioned" at a very cheap price while I waited for a "real" windows tablet.