For Microsoft Surface, will third time be a charm?

For Microsoft Surface, will third time be a charm?

Summary: In New York City this week, Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella will host a press event for the company's Surface line. There's plenty of speculation about products, but the real challenge lies on the business side. Can new management turn Surface into a smooth-running machine?

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When Microsoft unveiled its Surface PCs in Los Angeles nearly two years ago, some observers were skeptical of the company’s long-term commitment. The announcement itself was so unexpected that it confounded all the usual observers.

A week after that surprise announcement (the most surprising part was how well Microsoft kept it a secret), I rounded up the reactions of a dozen media observers. Reading that story now (How the tech press reacted to Microsoft Surface) is fascinating. Some of the most ardent Microsoft watchers were nonplussed, while Daring Fireball’s John Gruber nailed the analysis, even predicting based on that announcement that it was inevitable Microsoft would buy Nokia.

It’s worth going back and re-reading those reactions today, as Microsoft gathers the press for another Surface event whose details it has once again managed to keep under wraps.

Microsoft Surface event: Join CNET Tuesday, May 20 at 8 a.m. PT (live blog)

The story of Surface in the past two years has been consistent: brilliant ideas, accompanied by erratic execution and some outright stumbles.

In many ways, the Surface story mirrors that of Windows 8. That’s not surprising, given that Microsoft’s then-new hardware was intended to be “a stage” for Microsoft’s soon-to-be-released OS.

Much has changed since 2012. Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, who co-headlined that event, are both gone. New CEO Satya Nadella will take the stage in New York City to unveil … something. Almost certainly there will be a small tablet and who knows what else.

But the real challenge for the new CEO is turning Surface into a well-run business unit.

In the past 18 months, I’ve used every Surface-branded device: the Surface RT and Surface Pro, the second-generation Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, and a host of peripherals including input devices and docking stations.

The devices themselves are, without exception, beautiful. As I noted in my hands-on report of Microsoft's Surface RT, the hardware itself is drop-dead gorgeous, and the build quality is exceptional. The same is true of the Surface Pro, whose killer feature is its nearly silent operation, thanks to a clever design that vents heat around the edges rather than relying on a fan and a vent as so many competing devices do.

It’s almost a cliché to point to the company’s history of getting things right on the third try.

And, as I predicted when the first Surface device reached the market in October 2012, this is a family of devices that have gotten better with age. That’s especially true of the Surface RT and its successor, the Surface 2.

On the software front, the biggest improvement for those Windows RT-powered devices was the addition of Outlook, followed closely by built-in support for synchronizing files with the cloud via SkyDrive (now OneDrive). And every member of the Surface family has benefited from the improvements in Windows 8.1 and Internet Explorer 11. Improvements in both the number and quality of Windows Store apps make the Surface story more interesting as well.

The second generation of both hardware devices also included welcome improvements. Adding a Haswell processor to the Surface Pro 2 moved battery life from disappointing to acceptable, and redesigning the kickstand with two positions rather than one improved the user experience tremendously.

I’ve been very impressed with the Surface accessories, including the redesigned Type Cover 2, with backlit keys and a much better feel than the original. The Surface docking station, which turns a Pro or Pro 2 into a no-holds-barred desktop computer that can go mobile in a (literal) snap, is the best implementation of a docking station I’ve ever seen.

But good luck finding those peripherals, or for that matter some of the more popular configurations of the newer Surface devices. After building far too many of the original Surface RT devices and having to take a $900 million writedown, Microsoft has swung in the other direction, leading to perennial shortages at its online store. When I checked just now, the only Surface Pro 2 model available online was the $1800 edition with 512 GB of storage. The 64, 128, and 256 GB models are out of stock.

When I reviewed the Surface Pro, I called it brilliant, quirky, and flawed. The improvements in the Surface Pro 2 are welcome, but it’s still too heavy and battery life is still not good enough.

And on the Surface Pro 2 (a review unit provided by Microsoft) I’ve experienced an ongoing problem: After awakening from sleep, the Surface Pro 2 occasionally crashes and restarts. Microsoft confirmed that they are “aware of a limited number of reports where Surface Pro 2 will experience spontaneous reboot when waking from sleep.” The company says it’s “investigating the reports and working to deploy an update for customers in the near future.”

For Microsoft watchers, it’s almost a cliché to point to the company’s history of getting things right on the third try. After a rocky start, it will be interesting to see whether new management can put all the pieces together and finally turn Surface into a critical and financial success.

See also:

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Hardware, Microsoft, PCs

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171 comments
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  • The Third Time Is Called "Strike Three"...

    Who in the world needs an 8-inch tablet running Windows NT 8.x?

    It's a bloated, antiquated OS that is fastly being displaced by faster, more secure, more reliable, truly mobile systems.

    True enough, the business world is slow to move and still utilizes Windows, but even they know the futility of running MS's bloated garbage on an 8-inch slate!

    The Surface Pro and Surface RT are both failures. MS has made an art out of burning money.
    orandy
    • Welcome back zerorandy.

      Still angry as always, I see...
      ForeverCookie
      • Hey, flaggers.

        If you're going to spam flags at people you disagree, then you should at least do something productive with your clicks.

        Go ahead and get rid of the ad-bots.

        Hasts1980 is starting to double-post everywhere.
        ForeverCookie
        • Wow

          And ForeverCookie gets flagged for instructing people what the flag button is for. Didn't realize this ZDNet was so popular with juveniles.
          Koopa Troopa
          • Not really that popular.

            A large number of these flags most likely come from a single person with a vote-spammer.

            They seem to stalk Windows articles for that reason alone, just so they can flag people they disagree with.

            Really though, it only makes it harder for the admin to do his job.

            With all these flags flying around, I can see why the spam-bots are so prevalent.

            After all, who would look at AD-BOT NO. 3 with 4 flags when someone like ForeverCookie has 41 flags?
            ForeverCookie
        • Yup

          I don't think flagging was to disagree about someone's comments but to flag posts that are abusive, spam, etc.
          Gisabun
    • I could see this being more viable

      The problem is that the screen size doesn't work since a LOT of the apps one might load on it are considered "legacy" apps and that just does not work well with such a tiny screen. Even on a larger screen its questionable. I have a Toga 2 Pro and trying to use a touch interface on my slightly older apps is a nightmare. So I use the mouse pad. I think I've touched the screen about a dozen times since I got it and most of those times were because the touchpad freaked out and stopped working (weeee Synaptics).

      Anyhow, this could still find a place, but Microsoft needs to put the pressure on companies to upgrade to a touch interface, otherwise it will just be strike 3.
      ExploreMN
      • ExploreMN....how does iOS and Android handle those legacy apps?

        They are not going away this year, not next year and probably not for a decade. By the time it matters MSFT will have it's stable of software apps touch ready.
        xuniL_z
        • It mattered 4 years ago.

          When the iPad first appeared, Microsoft should have been releasing their own hardware with tons of applications. Microsoft came to the game very late and is still far behind on application availability. Everybody here keeps focusing on the OS when nobody cares about the OS. The fact that so many Windows users immediately jumped into iOS without a second thought shows they don't care about the OS. Real world users only care what they can do with their tablet, which means apps. The moment Microsoft thought of possibly making a tablet OS, they should have been hiring developers to build applications for the OS. No matter how many iterations of the hardware they create, it won't change a thing. Only a ton more applications will save the platform. Improving the hardware is only 10% of the equation.

          I agree with ExploreMN. Running old Windows apps just doesn't work well on a tablet. The apps were designed for larger screens and don't use touch at all. That removes the biggest reason to get Windows on a tablet. That's why pad-roids and iPads are still outselling Windows tablets by a vast margin. Until there are tons of compelling applications, Windows tablet sales will flounder.
          BillDem
          • Would not have mattered...

            The problem with Surface is that it is running Windows 8.

            Windows 8 is a DESKTOP OS, and even on a tablet it REQUIRES a mouse and keyboard...

            Don't believe me? Just try using one as a tablet with only your fingers.

            Meanwhile, I have been using my puny Nexus 7 for more than two years, it runs every thing that I use it for flawlessly for hours at a time, before that I had a 1st gen Kindle Fire that did the job.

            I tried various Windows 8 tablets and they all have the the same problem: Windows 8

            Let's move on already, this is a dead horse....Android has won!
            SirHuxley
          • I use my Win8.1 Sony Vaio with my fingers all the time

            Not if I'm running Excel or Visual Studio.

            But the Metro apps (including Metro IE), Word and PowerPoint all work well with fingers. I use my fingers and a stylus when I run OneNote.

            Desktop IE doesn't work as well in figure mode as Metro IE, but it's passable.

            I find it interesting that lots of folks say "Windows RT must die; it can't run legacy apps" on even numbered days and "Why would I want to run full Windows on a tablet" on odd numbered days (Sir Huxley, I'm not accusing you of this).
            Flydog57
          • Completely disagree

            I have a few windows8 tablets and they work just fine. No problems at all. No mouse or keyboard required.

            In fact I never need to put my windows tablet down. It does everything I need from a tablet or a laptop.

            on the contrary, I was constantly putting down my android tablets, because of their limitations. Even my android based Asus transformer which has the form factor of a notebook. it didn't eliminate the shortcomings of android.

            The only reason tablets are treated as companion secondary devices is directly related to the mobile operating systems they run and for no real benefit. iOS and Android don't do anything meaningful that windows can't also do just as easily.


            There just isn't any real advantage to running crippled mobile operating systems anymore.
            Emacho
          • BillDem, I don't disagree but you missed my meaning.....

            Sure MSFT is way behind the phone and tablet game, which is ironic considering they dominated each of these areas (even if not well) in the past, but under Ballmer it seemed the vision to make products increasingly better was not in his game plan. He thought he could keep things as they were and milk those products w/o any further investment as long as possible. He said as much in a speech to a university graduating class several years ago (or so). I can't recall where but if you are interested in what he said I'm sure you can find it with Goo...I mean Bing. ;)

            But what I meant with "by the time it matters" is that by the time there is a viable and true threat to their apps I believe MSFT will have their apps touch ready and be able to save their presence in the enterprise at the least. Sure Google and others have put a little dent in things, but it's still pretty much intact. They only need to move on that in the next few years to gain back or keep their users in my opinion. But then, as always, this is one not overly invested opinion. My posts usually do not deal in what I believe to be hard and proven fact even if they come across that way at times. Only opinion.
            I felt I should say that since there are many who post here as though they were the world's absolute leading authority on every subject and I'm certainly not in those ranks. With that said, I do stand behind my beliefts however and after having hindsight on many of the more significant matters, I have found my gut had been right many times over the years, with whether it was what I considered a good or bad outcome varying.
            xuniL_z
    • I need an 8" tablet running 8.1

      The pedals on my iPad broke.
      ribzilla
    • Odd sense of history.

      So Windows NT (introduced in 1993) is antiquated. Perhaps. We've not seen a new commercial OS architecture from anyone in 21 years now.

      But, to put it in perspective, all the alternatives (iOS, OS X, Linux, Android, ChromeOS, et al) are architecturally based on Unix which was introduced twenty years earlier than that - way back in the world of teletype terminals and punch cards in 1973.

      By your standards, their architecture was "antiquated" when Windows NT was being written and I have no idea what your standard says about something that old.
      Mike Galos
      • Same timeframe as NT...

        Which was based on VMS, which was based on RSX which goes back to 1972.

        Now, iOS and OSX are BSD/UNIX which goes back that far. But Linux... not exactly. Linux was a "clean room" redesign. It was only after the 0 release that it was pointed out how little would need to be added to make it unix like.

        Different errors, different improvements. The clean separation of the various sections of the OS made security for Linux much easier to do. NT, like VMS, is a bit of mashup between libraries and kernel - and though it started out with a cleaner microkernel, the performance penalties were so great that the partitioning was thrown out, and with it, the security compartmentalization that the microkernel design had.

        Even RSX-11 was a microkernel in the raw before the term "microkernel" even existed (with a 64kb address range it had to be). Each driver was a separate task, with its own context, using message passing (and a shared memory segment) to transfer data... an abort of a driver did not crash the system (usually - it would if it was the boot disk driver).
        jessepollard
        • +1

          Always amusing to see some armchair pundit whos Googled a little info and then contrived an ill-informed statement around it in an attempt to appear knowledgeable corrected by someone who actually has a clue of what they are talking about..
          The Central Scrutinizer
        • Not even close

          Actually, Jesse, that history, while popular in the OS X and iOS crowd, is revisionist at best.

          iOS and OS X are Unix.
          The other unixoid Operating Systems are based on Linux which was designed as a clone of Unix and inherits its basic design philsophy and its interface level implementation. They maintained backward compatibility and with that backward limitations.

          Windows NT, on the other hand was NOT based on VMS. Yes, there are some similarities (at least at the level of "it's not Unix or MVS so it must be VMS") but less so than it has with Posix or OS|2 or Windows, all of which it offered up as "personalities". You'll note that there's never been a VMS personality on Windows NT. An odd omission for an OS that you claim is really just an updated VMS.

          Yes, the same architect, David Cutler, designed both VMS and Windows NT (and RSX-11M and VAXELN and the unreleased Prism/Mica) but he did so after learning what he liked and didn't like about ALL the operating systems of the time (including Unix and MVS and his own experiences with VAX/VMS) and knew about newer design ideas such as Rick Rashid's work on microkernels at Carnegie Mellon and emerging technologies such as Unicode.

          Windows NT, when it came out, was an absolutely state of the art OS and while it built on all predecessors (as does ALL software) to say it's an updated VMS is, frankly, ludicrous.
          Mike Galos
          • Not really...

            It lacked a "VMS" personality because Microsoft got sued.

            NT never had a "Posix" base. It had another library layered on top. It ran like a dog, and was only there to satisfy a check mark on government purchases.

            It worked like VMS, it had the same shortcomings as VMS, and Microsoft got sued for it.

            I guess you had to be there...
            jessepollard
          • Actually, I WAS there.

            Windows NT had 3 personality modules. Windows32, OS|2 and Posix. All were implemented as personalities modules (a fairly complex subsystem) just like the other two and not as "a library layered on top". The Posix personality ran fine and was designed to support Posix.1 but had only limited support for the other sections of the Posix spec.

            As for a VMS personality blocked by a mysterious lawsuit, feel free to point us to the lawsuit. I was there and while I remember the Apple lawsuit and the FTC lawsuit at the time, I don't recall a DEC lawsuit. Odd how it never shows up in any histories of the time or made the industry press either.

            Also odd that before you said Windows NT was architected the same as VMS and now you say the VMS part wasn't the design of the OS but was a VMS personality that was easily removable as a single "library layered on top".

            I guess YOU had to be there. I was. (I started at Microsoft during the push to get OS|2 1.1 out the door in 1988 and was there until long after Windows NT became the most popular server OS in the world)
            Mike Galos