Microsoft Surface: Seven things Microsoft must do to make it succeed

Microsoft Surface: Seven things Microsoft must do to make it succeed

Summary: Rumours are swirling of new Surface tablet PCs arriving soon — so what does Microsoft have to do to make its hybrid device a success?


For me, Microsoft's Surface tablet is the most interesting product it has delivered in years. But that's nothing to do with the hardware (elegant) or the software (frustrating), but because Surface shines a spotlight on how Microsoft is trying to evolve into something new — and the internal and external barriers that continue to stand in its way.

Building the Surface was a bold move for Redmond, because it meant finally taking on Apple's iPad head to-head after Microsoft's partners had conspicuously failed for so long.

So far the gamble hasn't paid off: sales haven't been stellar, with the Surface racking up somewhere around 1.5 million sales since launch, and nor have reviews — although you could argue it has given Microsoft's hardware partners the necessary kick to come up with some interesting new form factors.

So with new versions of Surface on the horizon, what does Microsoft need to do to make a success of its tablet family? 

1. Extend availability

Considering that the Surface was originally unveiled back in October, it seems that Microsoft could have been quicker to offer it internationally. There are still plenty of countries where you can't buy the Surface with Windows RT (assuming you want to) a good six months after launch. In fact, with rumours swirling of a new Surface being unveiled next month, there could be a new tablet out there before many in the world have had a chance to buy the old one.

For example, although the Surface Pro (with Windows 8 Pro) appeared in February it's still not available in core markets such as the UK and Germany. And the number of retailers where you can actually buy the devices remains limited too. This cautious approach isn't the best way to encourage potential buyers. Microsoft needs to make Surface pervasive — and get it out there in as many markets as possible, and quickly. 

2. Don't (ever) release Office for iPad

The existence and pricing of Office for iPad had been the source of great discussion of the last couple of years, but however you look at it, allowing iPad owners to a use some form of Microsoft Office would destroy one of the big selling points for the Surface (particularly the RT version with its bundled copy of Office Home & Student). Latest indications are that this fabled software unicorn won't actually arrive until late 2014, which should give Surface time to make a breakthrough — if it can.

3. Extend the family and fast

There are plenty of suggestions that Microsoft is working on a seven-inch Surface tablet (both current Surface devices are 10.6-inch creatures) — something that could go up against the Nexus 7, Galaxy Tab or iPad mini. Microsoft has said in the past that it wants to extend the Surface family, so this makes a huge amount of sense. Businesses and consumers like to buy into a family of products, while a standalone device causes uneasiness: investing in further iterations makes buyers more confident that they will continue to be supported. 

4. End the Windows 8 and Windows RT confusion

Surface comes in two flavours: the broadly consumer-focused Surface with Windows RT and the Windows 8 Pro-powered Surface Pro for business users.

But Windows RT has not been a success as a flavour of Windows. It has confused buyers and put them off with a general sense that it's a hobbled version of Windows — it only works with apps from the Windows Store and cannot run legacy desktop applications (other than the bundled copy of Office). It's also worth noting that nobody buying an iPad expects backward compatibility with existing Mac OS applications, and yet somehow Microsoft allowed itself to become painted into a corner on this issue.

Windows RT and the move to an app store model absolutely fits with Microsoft's longer term strategy to become a service company, so ditching it would be a wrench. But it also embodies the somewhat painful transition that Microsoft is making — to a post-PC, cloud and app store world.

But right now Surface with Windows RT is one compromise too far, and looks suspiciously like a tablet designed by committee. For example, it confuses users by including the old-style desktop solely to allow the tablet to run Office — even though it doesn't currently have Outlook, which makes the pitch even more confusing.

And while the presence of Office has tempted some people to try using Surface RT as a business device, the licensing suggests it's aimed very much at consumers.

As such, the marketing around Surface with Windows RT has confused. Perhaps with hindsight it might have been better to abandon the desktop entirely, not deliver Office on the Windows RT model in the short term and present it purely as a consumer tablet for consumption purposes. Fewer features might have perversely made it a cheaper and more attractive package — vital in the cut-throat how-low-can-you-go world of tablet pricing.

5. Decide whether Surface is a PC, or a tablet

Microsoft calls Surface a 'Tablet PC' which is a succinct definition of the problem the company faces in trying to adapt. Consumers don't really want a tablet PC, they want a tablet. And businesses don't really want tablets, they want PCs.

By calling Surface a tablet PC, Microsoft tries to encompass both markets, but actually pleases neither. It also adds to the confusion created by the significant feature differences between Surface RT and Surface Pro. Calling both 'Tablet PC' muddies the water too much and confuses the audience.

Part of this is trivial semantics, but this linguistic contortion also reflects the fact that Microsoft is essentially a PC company and as such it still, despite everything, can't really understand that anyone would want anything other than a PC.

6. Build the ecosystem

Everybody knows that the ecosystem of available apps will make or break a device. The ecosystem for the Surface Pro is fine, of course, because it runs Windows 8 Pro. The Surface RT, however, only has the Windows Store at its disposal, where there's not exactly a treasure trove of exciting apps. That's something Microsoft is working on, of course, but it needs to pay even more attention — especially if there is a seven-inch (and therefore even more consumer-focused) device on the way.

7. Polish the rough edges

The ZDNet review of the Surface Pro noted: "We look forward to the next iterations of Surface with interest." That's because, although there was a lot of nice hardware design on show, there were also some disappointments with this first outing.

To win more Surface fans, Microsoft needs to address some of these areas, such as improving battery life, adding GPS and NFC, and including an adjustable kickstand and a desktop dock.

What do you think will help Microsoft turn Surface into a success? Let me know in the reader comments below.

Topics: Enterprise Software, Hardware

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        • Or if you look at it another way...

          Perhaps the bias is from the people who *don't* own a Surface and hence have no idea what using the device is really like. And I can only imagine the anti-Surface bias that would be held by somebody who owned a competitor's tablet.
          • Why?

            I took a longg look at the Surface. RT gains me nothing over Android; actually it brings less to the table. Pro is good but I had a heck of a time finding a 128gb model till well after launch (I'm in SoCal). That "waiting" time gave me time to really think and I decided to wait and see what the competition comes up with.
            Don't get me wrong, I like the Pro. It just has too little bang for the buck at the moment. Mix the Pro and ASUS Transformer setup and I'll reconsider. For now, a good notebook and Android tablet+keyboard gives me what I need.
            • GPS and NFC

              surface does not have GPS and NFC
              Henrique Dourado
              • really?

                I think is daft to have them. You're most likely to have them on your smartphone which raise the question why another one. Your location can be determined by internet. You don't laugh at people taking picture with iPad in a party?
  • I had the same thought...

    As I read the article, I couldn't help but thinking that a lot of the "confusion" stems from the insistence of tech writers that people are "confused." Frankly, I haven't seen anyone who cared enough to ask about the difference between the Surface RT and the Surface Pro who didn't understand the answer after two sentences. It's really not that difficult.

    What's most odd to me is that if iOS or Android started offering tablet with many of the same features that are supposedly confusing on the Surface (e.g. true windowing desktop, USB, live tiles, detachable full QWERTY keyboard cover, etc) the tech press would be crowing about it to no end. But somehow when Microsoft does it, it's confusing.

    The only legitimate knock against the Surface at this point is the lack of apps. Even that is less than frustrating because of the desktop-quality web browser, but for now it is a shortcoming.
    • You seems ignorant to certain features on other platforms.

      "What's most odd to me is that if iOS or Android started offering tablet with many of the same features that are supposedly confusing on the Surface (e.g. true windowing desktop, USB, live tiles, detachable full QWERTY keyboard cover, etc) the tech press would be crowing about it to no end. But somehow when Microsoft does it, it's confusing."

      Android devices already support USB (many in micro USB form with an OTG cable, but some like the Transformer with keyboard attachment offer full USB). Live tiles are literally a lesser version of widgets that have been available in Android for several years now. Detachable full qwerty keyboard has also been around since before the Surface (again look at the Asus Transformer). Basically windowing is the only thing that you mentioned that Android doesn't have although some of the OEMs have been adding that feature and improving on it continually. Just wanted to put some actual facts out there.
      Trent Richards
      • The Real Reason Surface RT is failing...

        Is the fact that consumers are confused about the differences between Windows RT and Windows 8. Mostly because Microsoft never bothered to really make it clear what the differences are. People have taken the Surface RT home, tried to install their favorite Windows game on it, and discovered that they can't. So, many return the device and then post online about their terrible experience with the tablet. This is Microsoft's biggest problem.

        Microsoft's other major problem is most developers don't believe consumers are going to take to the new UI, and so far they've been right. Ever since the Developer Preview, many developers have been voicing their concerns over the new UI. The new UI, its APIs, and the policies of Microsoft's app store have put off most of the game development industry, which is critical to Surface's success in the consumer market. Its the reason why the iPhone and iPad are so strong, more than half of the apps in the iOS App Store are games. A platform aimed at the Consumer Market that doesn't have games is doomed to failed.

        On top of that, Valve, a company that pulls a lot of weight in the gaming industry has been evangelizing the virtues of Linux as a premier gaming platform. They will not give small form factor gaming PCs the coveted title of SteamBox to systems running Windows. Look at the Ubuntu version of Alienware's X51, which Valve calls a real SteamBox. This should be very worrying to Microsoft. There's also the rise in popularity of Chromebooks, another warning that Microsoft should be paying attention to.
      • No Confusion - It is the Opposite

        The market made his decision: Windows tablets are NOT wanted - at least not in the form of Windows 8. Consumers are not confused - they are simply not won over to Windows anymore. Times have changed. Tablets are commodity devices. Noboday wants to see there the burden of a desktop OS like Windows 8. In the past there was little competition for Windows. That has changed and consumers are voting with their feets:
    • People are not confused

      They simply do not want to hear about Windows any more.

      Microsoft should have done only one thing to be successful: disconnect the new software platform and their hardware experiments from the "Windows" name. That would have worked.

      But, I believe Bill Gates would never let it happen.
      • Fur sure not

        @danbi - You are right, with Bill Gates that never would have happened.
    • You're dead on

      I thinks the Apps thing is silly. How many apps do we use daily? I think is comes down to my thing is bigger than yours scenario. When I got windows phone, there were few apps & I didn't missed anything. I got the basic apps that I need
  • Offer Windows RT devices with inking capabilities...

    This is the only reason I did not go for the Surface RT, lack of pen/inking. It would have been great to have it.
    • Great for school and work

      If they had the pen for the RT, it would have been a great sell. In fact I would not have bought the PRO.
  • Money and patience

    Microsoft better be prepared to spend a LOT of money and have a LOT of patience if they want to continue in the tablet market. They might get there eventually, though I don't think it looks likely from today's vantage point.
    • I think this hits on what most others seem to miss

      Surface and windows tablets were never going to take the market by storm in the first quarter or even the first year. Everything is working against that.

      Android and Idevices are very well established in the mobile market. People are not just going to throw those devices away and embrace a new product line.

      The hardware powering windows isn't up the speed yet. Intel atom is a good chip, but the next generation looks to be the game changer that Windows really needs. Higher resolution, more ram, higher speed ports, better 3D desktop graphics power, battery life, etc.

      Lastly Windows8 is still in need of the 1st "service pack" to make the changes needed to make Windows8 more marketable.

      Marketing, but I don't expect Microsoft to do anything meaningful here. They are terrible at marketing and branding. They are more likely to rebrand Surface and Windows8 than they are to put out a compelling ad campaign.
      • Don't bet against Microsoft

        Longtime Microsoft watchers know that Microsoft seldom gets anything clicking before about version 3.0 -- the XBOX being one notable exception. Unlike most other companies, Microsoft has the money to stick around beyond their failures until they finally do get it right. And given the importance that mobile will play for all tech companies of the future, I suspect they're highly motivated to stick with it.

        Having said that, if there were one type of Windows 8 tablets that I wouldn't mind seeing disappear, it would be the Atom-powered ones. Sure, they're cheap and compatible with everything (i.e. legacy Windows software) but they don't typically run it well. That can leave a bad taste in consumer's mouths in the same way that netbooks did years ago. That shortcoming paved the way for tablets and ultrabooks to take over that market.
        • and what if

          Microsoft spends all their money and still nothing sticks on the wall?

          It's much easier to swallow your pride and do what consumers want. It's business, after all, not religion. Or is it?
        • Have you looked at their track record?

 failure. After is was out 9 months you could say "Don't bet against Microsoft" but as it turned out. It was a very good time to bet against Microsoft.

          WinCE...covering everything pre Widows Mobile 8. Pretty much wiped away at a loss.

          Windows Mobile 8 ... Face it, 2 years ago MS held 4% of the smartphone market. Even as the Market has grown, the are now heading towards 2% of the market with no real sign that things will improve.

          xbox ... when you factor in the actual costs of the unit and all of the money Microsoft has written off on it, they are still a decade out from breaking even.

          Skype ... a company that has never turned a profit and has cost MS 8 billion plus the improvements in hardware and infrastructure MS has put in place in the hopes that Skype will pay off.

          Bing ... MS loses money every quarter on search. After 15 years it is clear that they are not making any headway here.

          Now seems to be a very good time to bet against Microsoft on the SurfaceRT, the only thing they could to to make it feel more like Zune is release a model in Soviet Gulag Brown.
          • So full of shite it's scary!

            You head out saying 'have you looked at their track record' and then ignore it.. or make it up as you go.. The Xbox franchise massively successful and a new one is coming soon. It is the most profitable gaming franchise at present and considering the new Playstations 'preview' was ALL vapourware if MS actually have a box to show people they win! And if they have managed to add features to the Kinect it will be a killer.

            You obviously have an axe to grind against MS.. I never understand people who 'just hate' a particular company.. MS do good stuff, so does apple.. so does google.. Does dissing MS make you feel better about yourself?

            I can't wait for the new Xbox.. this is going to be a game changer, I'm sure of it..
          • Maybe you should research your own words

            The XBox is a "success" but just in a barely and really not. It took MS 12 years to recover the investment .... and that was blown away when you factor the investment on Kinect.

            On the number side, Wii actually outsold more than XBox and PS3 combined (although Nintendo actually lost money ... because most buyers were adults and never play anything but the stock games).