Microsoft Surface: It's time to speed up or give up

Microsoft Surface: It's time to speed up or give up

Summary: Microsoft has been cautious – perhaps too cautious – with its Surface tablet. It's time to pick up the pace before it loses any more ground.

TOPICS: Tablets, CXO, Hardware

Microsoft's Surface tablet is an important element in its plan to reinvent itself as a devices and services company — but while Microsoft has been steadily rolling out its Surface tablet and related offerings, has the pace been fast enough?

It's been nearly a year since the first Surface tablet went on sale, but rather than a big bang, it seems Microsoft has gently introduced its new hardware to the world by adding new markets on a piecemeal basis, and moving away from its initial direct sales model, where everything was inhouse, to one where the occasional reseller is also given the chance to sell a few units.

Right now, for example, Surface is only available from Microsoft direct, John Lewis, Currys or PC World in the UK. Resellers (through which a most enterprises will buy) are still waiting the go ahead to sell it.

Microsoft told ZDNet that is is taking a "measured and phased approach to the growth of the Surface business in order to meet customer demand and partner expectations".

"Surface is now available in 29 markets and more than 10,000 retail locations. Given growing demand, we've also broadened the availability of Surface to our business and institutional customers through a channel-expansion programme that allows commercial customers to purchase Surface devices from authorised resellers in the US," it said, adding that is will be expanding the programme to additional markets in the months ahead.

A sign of confidence?

Some might read this steady rollout as a sign of confidence — that Microsoft considers its 'laptop in tablet form' as such a winner that a bit of a delay in getting into new markets and the usual reseller channels won't matter, and as a recognition that the enterprise buying cycle for new technologies make glaciers look over-eager, so a rush to market is hardly necessary.

That would, of course, be dangerous misreading of how technology is bought by businesses in the era of consumerisation and bring your own device (BYOD).

More likely the Microsoft's hope was for the Surface RT (released last October) to be such a smash hit that it would ignite consumer interest and that the joyous momentum would carry the Surface Pro (released this February) into business, just as consumers who had fallen in love with the iPad made it a corporate must-have too.

That's because consumer tastes now play a huge part in device buying for businesses: no CIO would want to buy some hardware that's so horrendously unhip that their staff won't want to be seen using it.

To sell to the CIO you need to sell to consumers first, which is why the Surface RT made its debut before the Surface Pro.

Unfortunately, the Surface RT in its first iteration hasn't exactly had the kids queueing out of the door. Hence the price cuts and the $900m writedown that may signal millions of devices sitting unsold. 

And if the Surface RT didn't deliver the barnstorming opening that the device needed, what's worse is it's created confusion among business users because the stripped down Windows RT operating system won't run standard Windows 8 apps.

As analyst Gartner has previously warned: "Consumer problems are likely to flow into the enterprise as users ascribe negative feelings they have about Windows RT to the organisation's Windows 8 projects. These notions could create resistance to Windows 8 deployments or initiatives to simplify the infrastructure by converting iPad users to Windows 8."

So while the idea of building momentum and attracting enterprise customers may have made sense as a strategy, in execution it hasn't been anywhere near as easy. So does that mean it's time for a rethink of the 'steady-as-she-goes' strategy?

Updates to Surface RT and Pro are in the works (probably a move to Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 processor for the former and an upgrade to Haswell for the latter) and it's unlikely that Microsoft will give up on Surface, because it absolutely needs a way to stop customers discarding Windows when they dump their desktops and laptops for tablets — a trend that continues to gather pace.

It's also possible that Microsoft may have hoped that by now Surface would be able to pass the baton to another hero device — that Windows hardware makers would have been stung into action and would have come up with something better.

After all, it's these OEMs that are the apparent experts at hardware, not Microsoft. But this hasn't happened — perhaps a reflection of how deep the Windows malaise goes: with the combined might of their R&D and a few years to think about the world's PC makers still can't outdo Apple's iPad launched back in 2010, or even overtake the flawed Surface. Still, no doubt part of the reason Microsoft has been cautious with Surface is so as not to alienate OEMs delivering other types of Windows 8 devices.

But right now for businesses, perhaps unexpectedly, Surface is the most likely Windows tablet option. But how long will those businesses wait for Microsoft to get the ecosystem built? Microsoft wouldn't go into detail about enterprise deployments (although its website lists a few) but said instead: "Our goal is to help as many customers as possible experience all the benefits Surface has to offer."

But TechRepublic has asked its CIO Jury for its thoughts about Surface. While some have deployed it — and love it — others fail to see a role for it. It seems that the confusion around the difference between Surface RT and Surface Pro (pretty much identical to look at, but very different guts) has put some off, while others have found the price too high.

Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure?

Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure?

Windows RT: Can Microsoft snatch victory from the jaws of total failure?


While some CIOs see the potential — "I don't see the iPad as a business tool in most cases. It's a blown-up phone. The Surface is a computer. There is a real difference," said one — others are less impressed.

"The reason is that the Surface is already so far behind in the battle for the hearts and minds that the technical merits are virtually irrelevant at this point. The iPad and, to a secondary degree, Android devices already occupy the branding position and are in the mental forefront of nearly every enterprise employee," said another.

Microsoft ought to be able to find ready customers for Surface in the form of the average CIO – they don't want the fuss and hassle of supporting anything other than Windows, and don't really trust bring your own device because of the hidden costs and security risks.

CIOs want to be able to offer an easy alternative to the iPad and Android tablets, but their early enthusiasm could be wane if they don't continue to see Surface moving forward. Microsoft needs to move as fast as it can to make Surface as ubiquitous as possible.

Further reading

Topics: Tablets, CXO, Hardware

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  • A slightly contrary view.

    "fter all, it's these OEMs that are the apparent experts at hardware, not Microsoft. But this hasn't happened — perhaps a reflection of how deep the Windows malaise goes: with the combined might of their R&D and a few years to think about the world's PC makers still can't outdo Apple's iPad launched back in 2010, or even overtake the flawed Surface."

    Of course they can. And have - that is where Android enters the picture. It is why Android phones and tablets outsell Apple. It is cheaper to manufacture - they can use cheaper components, AND still make a profit by undercutting Apple.

    The cost of the OS has to be reasonable. Windows license expenses make the resulting platform too expensive - and won't sell - hence the vendors dropping any plans to make one. Now had the demand for the most expensive phone/tablet existed, then they would have tried. As far as the hardware platform itself goes, they could make one cheaper than MS. But it wouldn't be cheaper than the ipad/iphone after adding the MS license expense.
  • MS's biggest problem with the Surface . . .

    is price. Seriously, the Surface is too expensive for what it is, and the Surface Pro is laughably so. I can get a middle-of-the-road ultrabook with better battery life and specs for the same cash as the Pro.

    As for the Surface RT, I can buy a mediocre, but full-featured laptop for the same money. I'm sorry, it's not worth it. If the Surface Pro were $500 (or $450), and the RT was $299, then they might have something.
    • If you consider the Ultrabook a competitor

      ...the Surface Pro is probably not for you. It's not trying to beat the ultrabooks. If all you want is a small laptop with a keyboard that allows you to remote into your desktop at the office, you probably should get an ultrabook, because the Surface offers value you don't need, but pay for.
      • Then what is the Surface Pro for?

        Because with that battery life, the aim is clearly not at the pure tablet market.
        • Flexibilty for All Computing Needs

          To me, Surface Pro is a machine that offers the flexibility to meet all my computing needs. I've got a day job in IT, where I use it to take meeting notes (largely with digital ink), demonstrate what a solution could look like (quick drawing with digital ink), teach (be able to draw in your PowerPoint to elaborate on a point), but also remote into my desktop where needed. On the road, I'll use it for anything from catching up with news ("tablet territory") to typing up a quick document for the non-profit I volunteer for or using Office 365, e.g., to update records in SharePoint. At home, I may watch a video on it or respond to e-mails, search for something on the Internet, etc. I use the pen for small screen elements (e.g., in PhotoShop) and drawing/note taking, touch for quick navigation and scrolling (it's almost like a fine motor vs. gross motor skills matter) and the keyboard for somewhat more elaborate authoring jobs - though if I'd write a substantial amount, such as when I was working on my master's degree, I'd hook up a natural keyboard, and potentially (an) external monitor(s). The digitizer screen, the full HD video experience, the keyboard that can fold away anytime but be available the next moment, all that doesn't come for free. To me, the genius of the Surface Pro is the refinement of the little details, such as that they solved the fan problem elegantly, and making the keyboard available/hidable in an instant, as well as the kickstand. Having access to all of my stuff all the time matters to me. I feel that the overall experience is simply superior to much (maybe all) of the other hardware out there, and they are charging you a premium over those machines - though not unfair for what you get, in my opinion. If all you want is a small laptop to type a few things and remote into your desktop, those features may be luxury that doesn't pay off investing in.
          • Yeah, but it doesn't

            I wrote a substantial amount of my Master's degree (in writing) work on my Android tablet (ASUS Transformer)--that's something ANY tablet can manage for less money.

            The Surface Pro is supposed to offer me more (and does). My argument isn't that it's a useless piece of tech, or even that it's poorly designed (the design is actually REALLY good).

            I'm simply arguing that the price is ridiculous. It's like they didn't WANT to sell the thing (which might be true, as it's much less locked down than the RT variant).

            You can get a Win8 tablet/hybrid from other companies for less money. No, they aren't built as well, but they're every bit as capable (and in some cases, more so).

            Microsoft tried to pull an Apple with Win RT, controlling and locking down the OS as much as possible in an attempt to marry hardware and software with limited customization/tinkering capability. In my view, that was a mistake. The fact that RT was hacked to run legacy Windows apps months ago proves that there is no good reason for RT to even exist.

            If MS really wanted to compete, they should charge $300 - $400 for a Win8 tablet and do away with RT completely. Don't even get me started on the brand confusion they've created with the two versions either.
          • Writing a Master's degree? That sound like "serious work" to me.

            And an ordinary tablet has done it. So when people claim that tablets *aren't* suitable for "serious work", I am forced to wonder what on Earth they might mean.
          • Toys

            SSSHHH! Don't confuse the MS Stooges with logic! If they say you can't do serious work on a tablet and they are only toys, then it MUST be true!

          • Depends on who has to work seriously

            Typing a paper from a computing perspective requires keyboard input to a document, control over margins and spacing, maybe the Sources and Bibliography feature of Word. It's not demanding on the processor, the memory, or the necessary features of the computer. The serious work happens in the person. So, if the argument is over whether the computer has the power to do what would be considered "serious work" for the *device,* then a Master's degree paper will in most cases not be a significant measure.
          • Serious Work

            Perhaps but if you listen to MS Stooge #1, Android and iOS are only good for fart apps and games.

            Composing a lengthy document may not tax a processor but it can be considered serious work.
          • Then by all means, tell us what you think "serious work" is!

            Would you care to give examples of *tasks* that you would call "serious work" that you have not been able to accomplish with a tablet?
          • Shouting Match

            I really don't care to have a shouting match - sorry if anything I said led to that. I merely meant to indicate that writing papers is not likely to be what people who complain about "serious work" are thinking of (note that I was the first one who talked about working on master's degrees, so I'm not trying to put anyone down, and I didn't originate the argument about "serious work," either).
            I'd consider "serious work" in this context as those things that require substantial hardware resources or a significant amount of screen real estate. As I said earlier, that isn't intended to devalue work that is light on computing resources, it's simply acknowledging that the UI and physical capabilities of iPad and the like have their limits. There’s a reason you don’t get true PhotoShop, or Premiere Pro, or CADD software on the iPad. Most business software does not have a feature-equivalent “app” that allows you to do the same and as efficiently as on the Surface Pro, or another Windows-legacy computer. Even many simple actions, like transcribing something or validating information - now we’re back out of physical capabilities, but into screen real estate territory - can often not be done near as efficiently, because you can’t even put two apps side by side (on the iPad).
            To me, the Surface Pro adds enough physical capability, and OS support - including for legacy applications, which are hugely significant for countless businesses - that it offers a complete solution the iPad and Android devices cannot. Your mileage may vary, depending on your situation.
          • Eh? What shouting match?

            There's been a *lot* of talk in these forums, about how tablets are unfit for "serious work". But there's been precious little discussion of what people actually *mean* by it.

            All I'm trying to do is gather some data points. Someone successfully writing a Master's on a tablet is such a data point.

            "I merely meant to indicate that writing papers is not likely to be what people who complain about "serious work" are thinking of".

            Well, thanks for that. But you're trying to speak for other people here, and so I'll have to mark this as "speculation".

            "I'd consider "serious work" in this context as those things that require substantial hardware resources or a significant amount of screen real estate."

            Better (as a definition), but it still contains those subjective words "substantial" and "significant". And doesn't a Surface have less screen real estate (1920x1080) than an iPad (2048x1536) anyway?

            Don't you have any real life examples of your own to share? Have you tried using CADD software on a tablet personally? Or maybe PhotoShop?

            "To me, the Surface Pro adds ..."

            That's a marketing speech.
          • Re: Have you tried using CADD software on a tablet personally

            I routinely use AutoCAD on my iPad (3rd generation). I find it better suited to field work, especially valuable for marking the precise locations on the map on site (the iPad has GPS -- the Surface by the way does not). I also find it extremely useful for presenting and discussing drawings at meeting, where it replaces huge printouts and even let's real-time transformations and modeling. There are also plenty of modeling tools by AutoDesk available for the iPad, some of which I find very useful too (other simply don't use).

            I have also worked on retouching photos in the iPad. Great idea and interface! For any not-pixel precision modifications to images, using an touch tablet beats mouse and keyboard any day. I personally prefer using a pen, but using your fingers is just as good.
            At the end however, my beliefs in photography are different and I believe good photography requires as less computer processing as ever possible (or lots of it, but not of the Photoshop kind).
          • Re: Depends on who has to work seriously

            Good. So you begin to understand that computers exist to complement what the human can do and thus "serious work" is always defined by the particular individual, not... Microsoft.
          • SurfacePro vs MacBook Air (current)

            That is where SurfacePro is aimed and it is a compelling choice. It offered all the same power and battery with better weight, resolution, digitized pen and touch screen, while adding in a tablet functionality.

            I do agree with you that the hybrid form factors like the Transformer are more compelling, but MS needed something to challenge the MBA and OEMs were not really doing it.

            SurfaceRT is aimed at iPads/Androids and is a failure in that regard. Priced to high and not offering enough for users to choose it over iOS/Android devices.

            I think you are right about $300-400 for Win8 tablets should be the goal.
          • Bless you . . .

            Bless you, sir, for your use of logic. :-)

            Like I said, love the design, not a fan of the price. I also completely agree with you that OEMs (with the exception of a select few that lack marketing muscle to make a real difference) weren't doing their jobs.
          • With a lot of Android devices near $200

   you really think Microsoft will be able to make a winning argument for $300-400 Windows RT devices - or were you thinking of Windows 8 for that paragraph?
          • Windows8, not windowsRT

            I just don't see any scenario where WindowsRT devices will have a significant cost savings over a comparable full windows8 device.

            Competing against $200 android devices is going to be difficult as can be seen by what is happening to iPods right now.
          • Good Points

            I can see your point on most of your argument, even if I'm OK with the price of the experience I get over the competition.

            Now, for Windows RT, isn't the point of RT less to somehow avoid having a desktop, as much more making it run on ARM? Aren't the restrictions on desktop availability in order to avoid having desktop programs fail on ARM? I think RT's reason for existence is to support the low-power options ARM provided for them. At the same time, "Metro" style and so forth is an attempt at an evolution of the OS experience (which I like, for the most part). As for the locked down, I think one reason is that Microsoft was hoping to provide an experience that would slowly erase the memory of virus-prone, un-updated (is there such a word?) devices that give people the idea that Microsoft's devices are inferior on that count. Note how Windows 8.1 is essentially a forced update to Windows 8.