Microsoft Surface: why now?

Microsoft Surface: why now?

Summary: Microsoft received a huge amount of publicity last week for unveiling two models of its new Surface tablets, though the event may have raised more questions than it answered. Why was it held in Los Angeles, for example, instead of home-town Seattle?

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TOPICS: Tech Industry
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Microsoft received a huge amount of publicity last week for unveiling two models of its new Surface tablets, though the event may have raised more questions than it answered. Why was it held in Los Angeles, for example, instead of home-town Seattle? Why wasn't Surface unveiled at a Microsoft developer conference, before an enthusiastic audience? One of the hardest to answer concerns the timing: Why Now?

The Surface "unveiling" was clearly not a launch: journalists didn’t get a full specification, prices, or launch dates. Nor did they get the chance to test drive devices properly. Based on videos of the event (I wasn't there), the whole thing looks last-minute and somewhat premature.

Of course, it's absolutely Microsoft's standard approach to work in this way. As a platform company, it usually tries to involve as many people as possible for as long as possible, because it might take years for hardware and software partners to develop or adapt their products. Ideally, Microsoft wants all its software launches to be accompanied by new PCs and new applications that are ready to go on sale.

The Surface, however, could and perhaps should have been different. In this case, Microsoft has designed the hardware to go with the software, and the software -- Windows 8 -- has long been publicly available in preview versions. Why show the hardware before the launch? It could have saved Surface for a bit of Apple-style "event marketing".

We have no information to go on, so here's some speculation….

First, it looks to me like a pre-emptive strike. Microsoft is aware that many companies are thinking about buying Apple iPads, if they have not already done so. By showing the Surface as early as possible, Microsoft is encouraging them to think again, and ideally to wait a few months until they can try real Surfaces.

The vast majority of companies use Windows, and will see the advantage of having tablets that they can program and support with the tools they already use. At least some of them will wait for something that looks like a viable alternative, so this is all Microsoft needed to show.

Microsoft certainly didn't need to give any details that might discourage companies from adopting a "wait and see" strategy, and that includes the specs and prices.

Second, Microsoft wanted to stake its claim before Google shows off its own-branded tablet, or so some have suggested. I doubt this is significant. Google has produced two spectacular flops in hardware, Chromebooks and Google TV, both of which make the Zune look extremely good by comparison. Microsoft doesn't need to make Google's efforts look bad: Google has shown it can do that all by itself.

Third, Microsoft might have wanted to energise its partners before the Windows 8 launch. Surface could certainly be a way of stimulating Metro development by persuading software houses that there will be a viable app market, but it's a bit too late in the development cycle for the hardware manufactures to "up their game" (as some have suggested) before Windows 8's launch. Most Taiwanese PC companies have already shown or hinted at their products at the recent Computex trade show.

Of course, with many PC manufacturers already supplying Android tablets, and HP embarking on a disastrous experiment with its Palm-based tablets, Microsoft might well have been reminding them which side their bread is buttered.

And while some PC manufacturers might be miffed about Microsoft intruding on their turf by branding its own tablets, they'd have been even more miffed if Microsoft had unveiled Surface at the Windows 8 launch. That really would have looked like a stab in the back.

Fourth, Microsoft might have suspected that Surface was about to leak. The company took extremely uncharacteristic precautions to keep Surface development a secret, starting in "an underground bunker with no windows". But the PC supply chain, based mainly in China and Taiwan, is notoriously leaky (albeit the leaks are notoriously unreliable), and the chance of keeping details away from suppliers is very small. Microsoft might have decided that it was better to hear about the Surface from Microsoft rather than China Daily or Digitimes.

Fifth, by going early, Microsoft gets two bites of cherry. If it had saved the Surface launch, it would have had to provide full details of the specification and price, and perhaps allowed reporters to get a proper hands-on look at its machines. Against that, it has harvested a massive amount of publicity but still kept enough back for a proper launch.

What are the final specs? How well do the keyboards work? How does the RT version compare with Pro for speed and battery life? What's Microsoft Office like on the RT version? Will there be cellular as well as Wi-Fi versions? Are there any more novelties still to be revealed? What about availability and price?

Reports from journalists who were actually at the event have generally been very positive, so Microsoft might indeed have got it right in leaving people wanting to know more.

@jackschofield

Topic: Tech Industry

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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6 comments
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  • Or could just be that being a monopoly MS haven't a clue about marketing a new product.
    AndyPagin-3879e
  • Jack, lets not get too over excited - preemptive strike indeed.

    Business peer pressure is working in Apple's favour. Its seems to be having a massive impact on iPhone sales to businessmen, as a method of 'confidence trickster'; I'm established, I'm doing all right, you can do business with me sort of a thing - look - carrying an iPhone - surreptitiously.

    Even if you think with regard to MS. If there had been a parallel launch of Windows 7 SP2 in a building next door and it was enterprise customers MS were presenting to - they would have all left the room, and gone next door to look at something that actually might effect them. All carrying their iPads/iPhones in hand - thats the reality, lets not forget, and its not diminishing.

    ...And the odd one that carried a Nokia Lumia WP7 Phone (who's just been teased regarding his 'excellent choice' in handset, by his iPhone carrying peers, given the announcements) would have thrown it in the bin on the way out, for dramatic effect (to regain some credibility from the group)

    You do wonder, given the announcements this week if MS - has this potentially made people sheepish about showing their Nokia Lumia phones in public - as it may be some sort of reflection on them.

    Are Nokia Lumias, now somehow now irreversibly connected to bad decision making - thats my point.
    SoapyTablet
  • The Microsoft Surface announcement is another example of how popular tablets are, and how their popularity will continue to grow. Tablets might be thought of by some as consumer devices, but the explosive growth of BYOD means that tablets will play a larger role in the workplace.

    With so many types of tablets out there, IT staff will be hard pressed to support them. While Microsoft Surface will include a version of Microsoft Office, that is not the case with tablets running other OS. And besides, using a tablet at work would probably require access to Windows applications beyond Office.

    What's needed is a way to deliver applications to all types of devices while minimizing hassles for IT. For example, Ericom's AccessNow HTML5 RDP client enables remote users to securely connect from a wide variety of devices, including iPads, iPhones, Android devices and Chromebooks, to any RDP host, including Terminal Server and VDI virtual desktops, and run their applications and desktops in a browser. AccessNow doesn't require any software installation on the end user device. An employee that brings in their own device merely opens their HTML5-compatible browser (which the Surface tablet has as well) and connects to the URL given them by the IT admin.

    Check out this link for more info:
    http://www.ericom.com/Ericom_AccessNow_Products.asp?URL_ID=708

    I work for Ericom
    AG4IT
  • Who cares why now. I just care that the surface looks awesome and I wouldn't buy an android tablet or an iPad because neither of them have any scope. The surface is king.
    Drobilliard
  • Soapy Tablet! (A possible Apple Plant? who takes their ipad in the bath apparently) Yet another, (i) anything zealot, Steve Jobs was always right! “May the peace be with him”. 500,000 lemmings can’t be wrong, can they!
    The Surface and W8 may well give Apple food for thought.
    “You do wonder, given the announcements this week if MS - has this potentially made people sheepish about showing their Nokia Lumia phones in public - as it may be some sort of reflection on them.” how deluded is that.
    Incidentally I’ve had a Nokia Lumia 800 for about six months. Many people to whom I have shown it, are full of compliments and prefer it to their (i) phones. (Shock Horror)
    Oldmanpmc-d0f8a
  • @oldmanpmc ->"Incidently, I’ve had a Nokia Lumia 800 for about six months."
    Well enjoy your Nokia Lumia 800 while you can (same goes for the old man bit) - you've got 6-12 months left Apps wise, before it becomes a 'feature phone' reliant on Nokia for all new Apps, if you get anything much more than the 7.8 Release it will be a bonus. WP7.5 has an obsolete ecosystem.

    You did make one good decision, you didn't purchase a Nokia Lumia 900, which was out of date 'obsolete' on UK release - pretty much a first for a piece of tech.

    Obviously, you'll be using the bonus app Nokia Camera App 'Smart Group Shot' to cheer up those sad faces, when the reality sinks in - when the first of many, high profile 'Windows Phone' Apps is released, that supports WP8 only.

    Microsoft don't seem to care about WP7 and WP7 Users, why should anyone else? i.e. Developers. They'll have a much wider development platform waiting in the wings, developing for the NT Kernel, as it includes WP8, Windows RT, for phones and tablets. I doubt they care either.

    As, said - enjoy it while you can.

    Microsoft's 'Cloud Compiler for Win 7.5 Apps' which will 'magically' (in the Apple sense of the word) in-turn, automatically convert 100,000 Win 7.5 Apps into efficient, multi-threaded Win RT Code/machine code, with battery/energy efficient background processing is more 'magical' than any iPad announcement.

    Lets get real here - the Win 8.0 App Ecosytems are also starting effectively from zero. Its a complete reboot but with a much larger, stronger potential market. Its all yet to be properly roadmapped, but its going to heading off track for while until the motorway begins - and there is no looking back.

    Win8 is going to be far more successful, if everyone just forgets WP7.5, Microsoft have. In the meantime forget Vapourware - the iPad is real and here today, its polished, and a good bit of tech. Its a very hard act to follow. No Microsoft announcement can take that away from it.
    SoapyTablet