Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Surface is lacking heart

Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Surface is lacking heart

Summary: Product development in the post-PC age is not an issue of specification sheets and balancing costs. Products need to involve the owners and make them feel joy...

TOPICS: Tablets
One of these products is a great product, the other is a good product. (That mouse, on the other hand, is fantastic.)

I currently drive a Ford. I used to drive a BMW 3-series with a suitably large engine but -- and some of you may relate to this -- I traded in the BMW for the Ford about the same time that our first child arrived.

Truth be told, I really like the Ford. It's the most practical car I've ever owned. It has fantastic fuel economy, it's large enough to swallow most pieces of furniture and it's nice to drive. As is the main test with every product review.

But I actually loved the BMW. Driving that thing was relentlessly good. It was way more expensive than the Ford, and nowhere near as practical, but -- as BMW's current suggests says -- there was a constant undercurrent of joy whenever you sat behind the wheel of the thing.

There's no way that I could tell you why though. I couldn't write down on a piece of paper all the things that made essentially the same components create on the one hand a "great car" and on the other hand a "good car".

And why am I talking about cars? It's because the rules about writing on technology topics dictate that if I were to create the same allegory between "iPad" and "Surface" you're duty bound to scroll to the comments and start typing.

But the issue is the same -- the problem with Surface (like the Ford) is that it doesn't have heart.

Power supply

What prompted me to think about this was the arrival of a replacement power supply for my Surface. I'd left mine at a client's site and although helpfully someone at the client's staff shipped it onto me, the much less helpful Post Office lost it. I bought a new one for the staggering price of £35 ($56). In the UK, you can buy an iPad power supply for £25 ($40).

I have deeply ambivalent feelings about both Windows RT and Surface. I took a conscious decision to stop writing about it having got into a place where I felt I wanted to write little else than articles that focussed on the less good aspects of the two products. I've "come out of retirement" to do this piece as my experience of this power supply highlights a key problem with the two products.

Accepting that it was my own idiocy that led to the loss of the original power adapter, I kept putting off buying a new one. But on the other hand I had a Surface without any power in it and no juice meant the thing was little more than a physical manifestation of wasted money sitting on my desk.

(That's another odd thing about the Surface. I find myself desperately wanting to use it, but its rare that I actually do so. At the weekend the kids wanted to use my laptop to watch a film, and I thought I'd use the Surface to write this article whilst they were doing that. I was actually looking forward to using the Surface despite not missing it that much during the two weeks when it was terminally unpowered. That said, the moment passed, the film didn't get watched and I'm writing this on my Mac and not on the Surface. Hence, ambivalence.)

Much has been written about how the physical Surface hardware feels and the emotional responses that it engenders in its owners. Generally, I agree with way the populace of Surface owners feel about this. The power supply unit itself I find to be particularly pleasing in this regard. Ignoring the fact they've put the little indicator light in the wrong place, the materials feel appropriately well matches to the premium market that Surface is trying to hit.

But the box the replacement power supply comes in tells you a lot about the way Microsoft is managing this product and points us at the gaping hole where its heart should be.


The odd thing about Windows RT is that it's exactly what you'd expect to get if you said to a collection of very talented engineers "make Windows run on ARM processors". I can confirm that Windows RT is a version of Windows that runs on ARM processors. *Ticks box*.

But what's happened with Windows RT is exactly the same thing that would happen if an alien race came down to earth, took copies of all the romantic comedy movies they could find and headed back to their mothership (assuming they have mothers) whereupon they attempted to synthesise this "human emotion which the earthlings call love". You'd have alien simulacrums walking the earth acting as much like Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts as they possibly could, but any time they propositioned one of their human would-be victims, said human would-be victim would know that something was a bit off. The alien's love implementation would be missing what Simon Cowell calls the "x factor" -- that indefinable something that makes a thing greater than the some of its parts.

I now realise I haven't said what's wrong with the packaging of the power supply…

The box itself is in two parts. You have an outer sheath, which feels exactly right. It's the same matte, other-worldy feeling of the main Surface box. But the inside is the cheapest mishmash of badly folded cardboard and Scotch tape that you could possibly imagine. The outside says "I know you didn't want to spent £35 on a new power supply, but don't I feel nice!". The inside says "LOL! You spent $56 on a power supply but I'm only worth $20!"

When I tweeted about this last week, we got a bit of a debate going on the topic. Personally, philosophically even, I would go so far as to say that I hate packaging. I hate walking into a food shop and seeing this total waste of the planet's resources going into flashy packaging for little other reason than for marketing. If I could have ticked a box that said "just send this to me in the minimum packaging" I would have done so. I even would have paid more to have no packaging at all.

The problem here is the mismatch, or rather the poor execution. Like the aliens trying to learn love by watching Richard Curtis movies, Microsoft's designers know them that they need to deliver a premium product but their lack of heart prevents them from delivering one that hits the mark. If Microsoft's engineers had heart, the packaging wouldn't have been like that. An obvious move would have been to make the inner carton and outer sheath have the same experience. A bolder company, using its heart for bravery, might have decided to take a stand that flashy packaging like Apple's was bad for the environment (perhaps even decadent) and framed that message. What you have instead is basic poor execution where they look like they've tried to go in one direction and simply stuffed up the end result.


Whilst watching the progression of Microsoft's tablet strategy over the whole of this year, I've wanted them to do just one thing: shamelessly copy Apple in every regard. The iPad is a product that I personally think is very good, but much more relevantly the market has uncontrovertibly validated the iPad. A "first principles" approach tells you that plagiarism is probably a good plan, especially when what makes your competitor's product work and sell well is hard to define.

But like a lot of things that sound good the first time you think of it, reality usually imposes itself and what needs to happen for success to follow is more nuanced and subtle. You don't just "have heart" because you want it. Particularly, Microsoft isn't known for its heart. It makes good products that are market-appropriate. The issue now is that in the technology world that we now live in is "relationship-centric". Apple has up until now been on the fringes in the technology market because the relationship between the product and its owner wasn't important to the whole market -- it only applied to the small subset of users that discovered its products. Now that mobile is eating the world and as a result the technology market is tending to being relationic-centric generally, Apple finds itself in the ascendency. Apple's ability to build products with heart is resonating with a much, much larger market than they had before. Luckily for them, the potential market for smartphones and tablets is way, way bigger than the PC market. The timing has finally come right.

It's no longer enough at "market scale" to be smitten by technology just for the technology's sake. There are many appallingly bad products that technologist would buy but a normal human being never should. This is part of what makes thinking about this new world so difficult. Everything that's new today is about how normal people feel, and that transcends things like specifications, design by committee, and most importantly logic.

Microsoft then has two options. Either imbue its consumer products with heart (which it's actually managed to do with Xbox, importantly), or transform the market so that heart isn't important. Both of those sound tricky, and the clock is ticking.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topic: Tablets

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  • Other Power Supply Woes

    Down here in Oz, the power supply itself shows some of the lack of design perfection that makes the Surface 'just not quite right'. I'm not sure what your power supply is like, but ours is perfectly rectangle, with just the prongs protruding from the quite shapely looking body. However by removing the normal protrusion present on almost every other power pack in Australia, it also fails to fit a large percentage of power sockets. Like all the modern "safe" ones that are popping up. It also won't fit into any new power extension lead you can buy.

    Yep, there's noting more annoying than going to plug in your surface in the hotel room half way through the latest Netflix video, to discover it won't physically fit. Nice work Microsoft.
    • Piccies to make it clear

      Just in case my description wasn't clear, try pluggin the following adaptor..

      into the following lead
    • Life's Hard.

      The prongs don't protrude far enough out? You poor thing.............
      • Genetics are a tough business

        Sometimes you have to deal with the cards you were dealt. Sad but true.
    • Actually "grif", I think the point is that, by any measure, Apple ...

      ... packages everything well. Not only the packaging OUTISDE the box but the packaging INSIDE the box. Apple packaging is always minimalist and it is always designed as carefully as the device itself. Apple spares no expense. This will be hard for Microsoft because they are used to selling in vary large volumes to customers who care little about packaging beyond how quickly can I get it out of the box.
      M Wagner
      • Ooo,

        Pretty box! crazy talk that and a bit sad.
    • From whom did you buy the Surface?

      My point being, if it was through MS Australia, shame on MS. However, if it was from the MS Store USA, shame on you.
      I wouldn't expect an electrical device purchased in France to fit the North American outlet standards. At least without an adapter or appropriate power supply.
    • So you inadvertently where shipped an adapter for the USA

      or didn't specify Australia?
      William Farrel
      • You misunderstand

        It's not about a US plug into an Aus socket. It's about an Aus powerpack not fitting a large number of Aus sockets.
        • Got it. My next question is, then

          did they change the sockets down there? I'm not sure how it fits some and not others, Here in the US I foundift it fits one, it fits them all.

          With the older 2 prong plugs a 2 to 3 prong adapter works just fine.

          I ask because the picture of the adapter itself looks exactlly like what we use here in the US. So you're saying it wont even fit into this -

          I'm following you now. Yes, I could see that as an annoyance, to be sure.
          William Farrel
  • Starts typing immediately

    " ... the rules about writing about technology dictate that if I were to create the same allegory between "iPad" and "Surface" you're duty bound to scroll to the comments and start typing."
    Two answers to your invitation. I've given them before but few at ZDNET appear to understand:

    1. The allegory is perfect and the difference between the two is ENGINEERING.
    The Ford and the Surface have been engineered with compromises to meet the mass market and practicability.
    The iPad and the BMW have been engineered to meet the more specific demands of a particular customer.

    2. The problem with ZDNET is that many bloggers cannot, or are unwilling, to explain the engineering differences in an objective fashion ... and they too engage in futile partisan descriptions dividing readers ... instead of universally attacking the global corporates and explaining how their profit-driven technology decisions are costing buyers money.
    • It is about the user experience, not just engineering

      I've not used a Surface and so I make no comment about it; however, people care about the user experience of any device, not necessarily the engineering. To try to use your allegory, I don't care much about the engineering of a car, but I do care about the driving experience. ZDNeet bloggers are quite right to discuss the user experience as well as aspects of the enginerring. For most people, those who are not techies, the user experience is far more important than the engineering.
      • How exactly do you think ...

        ... the user experience "gets into" the device?

        It is purposefully built by engineers.
    • The heart of the device

      Answer #1 hits close. Actually, with the "i" devices, it seems that Apple looked at the mass market (rather than the geeks who previously defined anything digital) and perceived what they desired in an "appliance" whose interface was simple and intuitive in non-geek terms. Their work in human-machine interfaces and especially the area of touch and gesture has been leveraged well and redefined expectations. When the iPad first came out, ZDNet and other digital rags were filled with predictions by the geeks that Apple would soon fade away due to the astronomical failure of the pads. I commented then that based on my non-geek wife's experience with early adoption of first gen iPad pointed to a "total winner". Now my wife wants one of the iPad minis because the smaller size will make that great user experience even easier to carry around. Apple found the heart of the masses and stuffed it into a great appliance and has resisted geekification. I'm a geek and I love it too. The UNIX command line has it's place (in the terminal window on my iMac); it truly IS the user experience that keeps bringing them back.
    • I'd like to quibble about your final point ...

      Those customers who are buying the iPad ultimately understand that they are paying premium prices for products just because they like what they see - not because they actually perceive that the iPad is somehow "better" than the Kindle Fire.

      For instance, I recently purchased a 15" Windows notebook with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and $350and I paid $15 to upgrade it to Windows 8. I know for a fact that it is a "better buy" the $499 iPad - and a "better buy" than my $699 Surface RT (2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage) but the notebook is NOT a tablet. I simply understood my choice. Not everything is about price.

      For all of its shortcomings a profit-driven economy leads to innovation and creates jobs - but that is a discussion for another forum.
      M Wagner
      • Then expect to be quibbled back...

        "Those customers who are buying the iPad ultimately understand that they are paying premium prices for products just because they like what they see - not because they actually perceive that the iPad is somehow "better" than the Kindle Fire."

        Well, you're half-right. The iPad is widely considered a premium product BECAUSE it is perceived as a better product. It may not be a better product by standards that you or I consider important, but the "like what they see" is really part-and-parcel of "better for what they consider important."

        Case in point - the #1 and #2 things that I've seen people tout about Android being better than iOS has been multitasking and cut-and-paste (though Apple has remedied some of these differences, at least a little). For most people I know of using one or the other system, however, if asked why they like what they like (or dislike), neither of these features is ever mentioned. For many consumers, these aren't really important features, so stating that any device is better or worse because of how these features are implemented is meaningless. As mentioned by others, the limited multitasking available in iOS is actually one of the reasons why many of the OTHER features (such as responsiveness) seems to be better on the device.

        "For instance, I recently purchased a 15" Windows notebook with a Core i3 processor, 4GB of RAM, and $350and I paid $15 to upgrade it to Windows 8. I know for a fact that it is a "better buy" the $499 iPad - and a "better buy" than my $699 Surface RT (2GB of RAM and 64GB of storage) but the notebook is NOT a tablet. I simply understood my choice. Not everything is about price. "

        Well, comparing on-paper specs of a laptop and a tablet to decide whether one is a "better buy" than the other is akin to deciding whether a hammer or can opener would be a better use for your money. Technically, you can perform a much wider set of tasks with a hammer, however if what you really want to do is open a can of beans, the hammer is a pretty horrible choice. Likewise, your consideration of a $350 laptop being a better buy than a $499 tablet only makes sense when you ignore the basic fact that you are looking for a tablet.
    • The FORD/BMW issue.

      The whole FORD/BMW analogy is actually quite interesting and has some related accuracy to the article.

      As in the FORD you speak of and BMW’s in general are not supposed to be very much similar products. One may marvel at certain ways the BMW can accomplish travel by way of automobile. And that’s nice. I must say I have always been rather partial to BMW’s for what they can do and how they go about doing it.

      The FORD on the other hand…well, sometimes in life, there are simply things that a BMW is not going to get done right no matter how hard you try, and just even trying will take all and every tiny bit of fun out of the BMW in a great big hurry, but that’s where the FORD comes in. Sometimes in life, when you cannot afford the FORD and the BMW both, you settle on the FORD alone because the bottom line is while the BMW has that fun aspect to it, its just not up to some of the tasks that need to be done, and what ever the BMW can do, the FORD can usually do also, even if some of them it does with less heart.

      In the end, most people agree that when it comes right down to getting things done in life, its almost always better to get the things done that need to be done, even if some of them are done with less heart, as opposed to some things either not getting done at all or only getting done after a very prolonged and painful exercise of trying to use a tool that was never meant for the job.

      That’s the true story of the FORD and the BMW. Nothing is so wrong with the BMW that does not make it a great car for what it is. But don’t make it sound like “heart” or lack thereof is going to put FORD out of business.

      Once again we see a story about Windows 8 products that really dosnt tell us anything substantial why we may or may not find these products a good or bad addition to our life. I cant afford a BMW right now simply for it heart. And I cannot afford an iPad right now for its heart. A FORD or a Surface might get my dollars though if your article is accurate.
  • No need to compare to Apple, RT tab is a mud brick

    The mud being Win8. Seems like Microsoft was designing with trying to get the monstrous MSOffice to work (on Pro at least) and forgot what makes a tablet useful. Just as you're not going to use your Ford as a 2-ton pickup truck, users aren't going to use tablets in the same way they use PCs. We have PCs for that!
    • Ha! Havnt you heard??

      Some claim the PC era is finito.

      Then there are some who say "users aren't going to use tablets in the same way they use PCs. We have PCs for that!"

      Ha! Its endless. Who to beleive eh?

      The Surface is simply where it starts. If you have no need for one dont buy it. Wait for the Surface 3 or 6 or 12. Who knows. If you bought an iPad and didnt need one you either had more money than yopu properly know what to do with or your a kook. Likewise with the Surface. If you need a Surface, dont buy an iPad, and visa vera of course.

      In all honesty, Im still trying to figure out who really NEEDS an iPad. There are a few, I can see that, but multiple nillions have sold. Why do people need these things? It may well be the same for the Surface RT.
  • I have to wonder

    Why is it that every person who seems to have a massive issue with Surface/Windows 8 dutifully writing their opinion on a Mac?
    Perhaps if you are so content, if not outright infatuated with Apple, OSx and iOS you should spend your time expressing that rather than try to pass off your bias as substantive evaluations of another product.
    Oh, and for what it's worth I approve of the use of Ford and BMW as your stand-in for Microsoft and Apple: Ford has been and continues to develop new and interesting products that address the needs/wants of the masses while BMW has been slowly deteriorating and losing focus (the new 3 series stands perfectly here). Good job, although I'd wager you wouldn't have used it had you given it a bit more thought.