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.