Microsoft: Here's what you need to do with Surface tablets

Microsoft: Here's what you need to do with Surface tablets

Summary: It's common knowledge that Microsoft hasn't done too well with the Surface tablets. Here's what the folks in Redmond need to do to get Surface in customers' hands.

Envy tablet
HP Envy x2 -- Image credit: James Kendrick/ZDNet

No matter how you look at it Surface tablets aren't setting the tablet world on fire. The massive write-down of Surface RT inventory and the recent price drop of the Surface Pro indicate sales are nowhere near where they need to be. The design and build quality of the Surface is outstanding but that's obviously not enough. Microsoft needs to shake up the Windows tablet space with the Surface, and I have advice on how to do that.

It's a safe bet that Microsoft needs to drop the Surface RT. It's a subset of full Windows 8 that confuses consumers and I'll bet the returns of units after purchase reflects that. I imagine many Surface RT buyers got them home and then discovered they couldn't install the software they want, I'm thinking iTunes in particular, and then they took them back. They then passed on the Surface Pro due to the the higher price and enterprise look and feel of the tablet.

Those ex-customers, if they were even shown any in the store, probably passed on Windows 8 partners' tablets due to the price. They may have dropped buying a tablet altogether or picked up a competitor's model (think iPad). That's the worst-case scenario: folks going from Microsoft customers to competitors' customers.

Microsoft, you haven't asked for my opinion on what to do with Surface but since I've been involved in both mobile tech and tablets as long as anybody I'm going to give it to you anyway. I want both Surface and Windows 8 to take the world by storm so here you go.

Keep Surface Pro for the enterprise/ power user

The Surface Pro is a great bit of kit for both the enterprise and the power user so keep it around for them. You've already got the production down and you're figuring out the proper price point so keep at it. Drop the advertising trying to sell the Pro to regular consumers, they are not ever going to buy it. The hardware is overkill for mainstream consumers and never will sell to them in the numbers you need.

Even though you've designed Windows 8 to handle many different use cases, tablet buyers don't care. They don't want Windows, they just want a simple tablet that works well.

Microsoft's original plan for the Surface tablets missed the mark to hit the consumer space properly. The Surface RT missed the mark due to the lack of full Windows as indicated above. The Surface Pro brought a laptop equivalent to take full advantage of Windows 8 for the enterprise and power users. 

This strategy totally missed the only market segment of any size, the regular consumer. That's the group largely responsible for buying 100 million iPads. This group of casual users are the ones you need to target with the Surface.

Build a new Surface to target the mainstream

With the Surface RT out of the picture (at least it should be) and the Surface Pro kept far away from mainstream consumers, it's time to build a new Surface tablet. The design of the new Surface should be aimed squarely at the typical tablet shopper. Forget the boxy industrial design of current Surfaces, go thin and curvy. The primary design objective should be making the new tablet comfortable to use in the hands. While you can make keyboard accessories for those who want them you need to make the tablet to be used alone.

Think thin and light, with a screen no bigger than 10 inches. If you want a good example of proper tablet design look at HP's Envy x2 tablet. Shrink it down from the 11.6 inches of the Envy x2 to 10 inches while keeping it as thin and light as HP's model. Don't get caught up in expansion ports if they can't fit in this form. While you can't say nobody wants them the fact is most mainstream consumers don't use USB nor memory cards in their tablets. Those simply add bulk, weight, and price with no benefit for the masses.

This new Surface needs only what consumers actually want and nothing else. While the lack of expansion ports will turn off some prospecive buyers, millions will be just fine with that. Even though you've designed Windows 8 to handle many different use cases, tablet buyers don't care. They just want a simple tablet that works well.

Don't think this tablet needs to have a powerful processor as that is overkill for most consumers. Put a nice Atom Bay Trail in there to keep power consumption and heat down. That should provide enough performance to do everything the casual user needs to do. Power users will turn up their noses at this processor choice but they are not the target. You already have the Surface Pro for them. They'll have to live with 5 hours away from the power outlet.

Battery life is critical for the mainstream consumer. They already have options available on the market that give 10+ hours of battery life and that's what this new Surface must deliver. That should be easy with the Atom and lack of power slurping expansion hardware.

To outdo most of the competition include a pen with the Surface that stores in a silo on the tablet. This fits in with the software suggestion I have later in this article. You don't need to make a big deal about having a pen in advertising, just sell the special software described later.

Feel free to make a laptop dock or other type of keyboard accessory as some consumers will find that useful. Just don't make it front and center in advertising as you do not want to give the impression that a keyboard is necessary. You'll want to sell the tablet and that alone. Show prospective buyers that it's a personal tablet, not a personal computer. You may not believe it but tablet shoppers don't want a computer, they just want a nice slate that does what they want.

Next: Simply Surface; The app to outstrip the competition; Conclusion

Topics: Mobility, Tablets, Windows 8

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  • Windows Store just needs more apps

    I've been using Windows Phone and Surface RT. Love the products, but it's almost impossible to convert my friends because of the apps issue in the store. I figured out that I'm not a typical "consumer" since I really utilize productivity tools and don't care much for media streaming other than the occasional Xbox music pass that I got from the initial purchase of the Surface RT.
    • Before they go for more apps

      they should go for BETTER apps. Supposedly 8.1 is trying to tackle that issue, but that is the biggest complaint I've seen myself.
      Michael Kelly
  • Improvement

    Tablet need:
    1. Thin
    2. Light.
    3. Have enough free space
    4. Easy to use.
    Above point are not available on Surface.

    Regarding the USB and Memory card, I think needed for many people. especially for corporate use.
    Utomo Prawiro
  • Mac_PC_FenceSitter is right

    The WinRT API is incapable of handling the "Courier" functionality Kendrick describes. It doesn't support drag-and-drop between Metro apps. MSFT should have added a simple scalable UI API to the existing Win32 API. Instead, they created an entirely new framework (which simply sits on top of the existing Win32 APIs). My guess is that it was an attempt to monetize the existing Windows user base -- i.e. get a cut of each app sold in the Walled Garden. I think the odds are 50/50 that this decision will end up killing Windows and taking down the rest of MSFT with it. A horrible mistake.
    • taking down the rest of MSFT with it.

      No doubt! Mafiasoft is going down the tubes. Most people are brain washed and that includes the criminals on Wall Street, into drinking the Redmond cool aid.

      What do I mean?

      For starters is anyone aware of the fact that MicroKlunk only has two cash producers?

      What are they you say?

      1. Windows licenses
      2. Office licenses

      Now take a look at the drop in windows license sales and guess what you have?

      A dying company left with just one product: Office which no one uses in the mobile market.

      The devil is getting what is coming to him in Redmond Washington.

      It's about time!
  • Microsoft: Here's what you need to do with Surface tablets

    Great points.

    I agree that a new table must be created around simplicity. Main use case is hold it with one hand and navigate with fingers. Additional use case will be use the table in a desktop, with the attached keyboard to please 20% of the users that consider that important in the consumer market.
    • 20% is way too much

      I doubt more than 5% of the tablet users care to attach a keyboard or put the tablet in "productivity" position on a table. For these tasks they already have desktop computers, notebooks etc.

      I would even go that far to suggest that even 5% is way too much.
      • I agree

        I actually have had keyboards for both of my tablets, which I've been using for over three years instead of a laptop. But I also use desktops, at home and at work. Most of the time, I'm using the tablet in "tablet mode" and have absolutely no use for a keyboard. It's much better as a device for reading datasheets in a lab, for taking notes in a meeting (better still with a pen/stylus), etc.

        I think Microsoft simply distrusted "tablet mode". The core of their advertising has been around their snap-on keyboards. As silly and confusing (at least to those not following tech news) as those ads have been, they also speak to Microsoft's inner thought process, as many ads do. You tend to find those folks happy with the Surface are those still basically using it -- particularly the Pro -- in "laptop mode".

        And that's fine... but really, what's then the point of the Surface? You can buy a far more powerful laptop with a better, larger screen and enough RAM and storage to actually be a decent Windows computer for less than a Surface Pro, and it does the laptop thing just dandy. The Surface Pro, I believe, is split between some buyers using it basically as an "Ultrabook", and perhaps a few buying it as a real Windows tablet, much as a very few buyers have bought Windows tablets for the last decade.

        I'm not sure about the conclusions, but the article is spot-on about the fact that Microsoft hasn't given anyone a reason to buy a Surface, particularly consumers.
        • which laptop


          Here is the problem. I don't want or need more power or a larger higher res screen than a Surface Pro. I agree with your comments but have not found another usable touch screen laptop the size and weight of the Surface. By usable I mean that the screen is supported rigidly so that touches and taps work right. I've returned two touch screen laptops so far because of this problem. I think this rigidity provides a more consistent user experience and is the real reason people are liking smaller tablets.

          The closest I've seen are the sony x11 and the Lenovo x1. Here is my current travel PC wish list. A BayTrail or Haswell unit with 4GB Ram, 256GB SSD, USB 3.0, SD slot, at least 8 hours of life. The screen size is 11 inch 1366x768 OLED screen with 5 point touch, fingerprint reader. Closed size 6 by 11.5 inches and under 1.5 pounds. A laptop should be smaller in two dimensions and thicker than a tablet of the same screen size because the bezel is so wide on tablets.

          I still use a nearly 5 year old Atom netbook upgraded to a 128B SSD and Win 8 for my travel unit. My wife and I have been doing two week trips with a 20 to 25 pound carry on pack each. 3.5 pounds of that is the netbook and charger. I want to cut that machine weight at least in half and get the loaded pack under 15 pounds. I'm the support of last resort on a vertical program so I have to be able to do remote support and run the end users data locally if needed in order to be gone. My wife has a Surface Pro and is using it for phone development and likes it. She used it like a tablet for a while but now does a lot of that quick lookup stuff using the voice search on her 920. I've used the Surface and my HP Touchpad plus the two other touch enabled laptops so I'm sure that my ideal fit would be worth the price. If it does not exist by November it will be a BayTrail tablet plus add-ons for me.
  • Half right

    Agree, the RT version mostly only added more total confusion to the ongoing story of microsofts techtonical shifts & inability to stick with things that just work, such as the old oh so sadly dumped zune music portal supposedly to follow the big Apple path & try to bring everything under the xbox portal , an extremely annoying haphazard attempt to follow Apples lead in walled garden thinking without taking into consideration that ITunes may well fell the big hungry 30% markup Apple insist on making on anyone that use their systems, so we all suffer thanks to sheer corporate monopolistic greed, very bad move there Microsoft.
    Back to the point, me thinks the only main drawback of the surface pro is the form factor, which hopefully has to considerably improve with the advent of haswell chips, half the depth & weight would make it hard to beat in total full useability stakes, the pro is too weighty awkward to hold & runs far too hot, not that that doesn't make it a winner in cooler climates, but as far as one would like it to be, -- just more comfortable to hold & use as an all-round portable fully functional productive handheld computer device.. a clear winner perhaps..
    • Re: half the depth & weight

      This is unlikely to happen, because the Haswell chip is actually bigger than the Ivy Bridge. The Surface Pro also severely suffers from short battery life, which is only fixable by installing larger battery inside (Haswell alone, won't do it).

      Many laughed at the iPad for making the integrated ports external (via an universal port and adapter), but this removes bulk from the device and also leaves more space for larger battery. If Microsoft are serious about mobile, they should go that direction. For an Intel CPU based system the obvious path is Thunderbolt. In fact, for the price tag it has and for the target audience the Surface Pro expects --- if the next version lacks Thunderbolt it will not sell much.

      At the end, the main drawback for the Surface Pro is not the hardware, but the software and most definitely Windows.
      • Thunderbolt will never catch on

        for the simple reason it requires licensing by Apple and is too expensive. USB 3.0 already covers anything the average user would need. Thunderbolt is having the same problem that Firewire had, it came too late.
        Jason Joyner
        • Thunderbolt belongs to both Apple AND Intel

          There's no reason to worry about the licensing, and if I remember correctly, Apple adamantly stated that they would not ask licensing fees for the technology.

          USB is obsolete and too unstable by comparison.
          • Correct

            However, Apple transferred the Thunderbolt trademark to Intel, so legally it belongs to Intel. It was co-develped by Intel and Apple. It might suffer the same fate as FireWire, but it runs double the speed of USB 3.0 and has two channels that run at twice the speed. Perhaps Apple should have kept the trademark and let Apple marketing push it through.
        • Thunderbolt or USB

          USB and Thunderbolt are very, very different technologies. Thunderbolt is more or less a signaling technology, that lets the PCI-Express lanes and the Display Port interfaces of the CPU to be exported outside the computer box. Any "adapter" to thunderbolt is actually an PCI-Express device sitting off the bus lanes. You can connect anything that you can connect to a PCI-Express bus to Thunderbolt. As a bonus, it multiplexes the DisplayPort signals, which is ideal for portable devices.

          USB in comparison is just a serial bus, with a very complex and troublesome protocol stack.
    • You're a babe in the woods...

      If you think the 30% that Apple charges is greedy or exorbitant. If you look at the world of content creation and companies like Getty or Corbis the ratio is more likely to be the other way around.
  • good advice

    I will also add, that the thing must be *cheap*. Cheaper than the iPad, or it will not sell.
    c'est la vie.

    Anyway, I think it's an pipe dream... Microsoft can't write any software like the Courier you describe, not in less than five years. Similar software already exists: for example Evernote (and plenty of other apps). This software is pretty much multi-platform already and has millions and millions of users. Hard for Microsoft to replicate that...
    Also.. full Windows? With antivirus running in the background and all the bloat? On a light and thin tablet that runs over 10 hours on battery. Why does nobody ask why Microsoft was not able to do anything meaningful with tablets for over a decade?

    But.. Hope leaves last.
    • Courier already "exists"

      It was a working tablet, albeit a prototype - a two screened tablet, both in 4:3 format. Unfortunately, it was canned a few years ago and later Surface emerged.
      • Did it exist?

        I remember reading somewhere that the entire demo was just computer generated imagery and there was no substantial software written.
        • Did it exist?

          Yes it does exist Darn it!

          It exists in the Hairless Monkey Man Balmer's imagination which the cool aid drinkers on Wall Street are actually so stupid they believe it!

          What exists? Show me?

          VAPORWARE! with a gallon of FUD mixed in it.

          So it exists because the Chair Throwing monkey man says so!

          WISE UP PEOPLE!