Surface: Microsoft's 'yada yada' problem

Surface: Microsoft's 'yada yada' problem

Summary: The Surface tablet looks like the best product Microsoft has shipped in years. Yada, yada, yada -- it's a failure. Why?


One of my favorite episodes of the popular U.S. television sitcom Seinfeld involves a recurring joke in which various characters during the show use the nonsense phrase "yada, yada, yada" to gloss over the most interesting portions of a lengthy story.

"So speaking of exes, my old boyfriend came over late last night...yada, yada, yada, I'm really tired today."

The comedy, of course, is in what's left unsaid. There's enough detail for you to infer what was left out, but the excitement is the small chance that you're wrong. (In the above example, the neurotic character George Costanza -- pictured, above -- is desperately hoping that his new girlfriend Marcy didn't, uh, yada yada with her ex, if you know what I mean, as she recounts to him what happened the night prior.)

So here's a technology story for you to dissect. In June, Microsoft announced the Surface, a tablet device of its own design, that combines the finger-friendly and new Windows 8 operating system with the strength of the revamped Microsoft brand and its marketing resources. In late October, the device is released to the world. Attractive and memorable advertisements cover city surfaces, fill magazine pages and saturate television channels. It's Microsoft's strongest showing in years, an offering with extreme clarity around the who, what and why released during the hardware-happy Q4 holiday rush. 

Yada, yada, yada, it's not even Christmas yet and Surface is a failure.

That's according to Boston-based brokerage firm Detwiler Fenton, which indicated in a research note yesterday that it expects Microsoft to sell just 500,000 to 600,000 Surface RTs, despite reportedly manufacturing millions of them in anticipation of strong demand.

To compare, Apple sold one million iPads in 28 days after it released the first generation of the device in April 2010. (To Microsoft's credit, Apple had little to no serious competition to distract consumers. To Apple's credit, it basically created the majority of the market demand for what was then a largely unproven product.)

"So, speaking of tablets...Microsoft introduced its Surface tablet last month...yada, yada, yada, I bought the kids an iPad."

What, in the above sentence, is left unsaid? What inferred detail would make George Costanza, Microsoft executive, turn on his heels, throw up his arms in desperation and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind him?

What is the yada, yada?

There are clues. Surface received mixed product reviews, citing brilliant design and clunky performance in equal measure. It carries a high price tag, $499 at Microsoft's tiny network of branded Stores and $599 most everywhere else, which is as steep as that of Apple's iPad. For all its merits, that brilliant marketing campaign fails to mention the where and when, confusing terribly interested customers who seek to play with (and hopefully purchase) the device.

And if you are indeed interested enough in Microsoft's new product to connect the dots yourself -- after all, we are not all conditioned to visit Microsoft's stores or website when we want one of its products, as we are with Apple -- you'll find the result extremely disappointing. Testing or obtaining a Surface is shockingly difficult.

(To wit: I live in the city of Philadelphia. If I want to play with an Apple product, I stroll into its retail store on Walnut Street. If I want to play with a Microsoft product, across state lines to Delaware to visit its retail store? Yeah, not gonna happen.)

AllThingsD's John Paczkowski agrees. "Given [Microsoft's] paucity of stores," he writes, "the average consumer's best chance of seeing Surface these days is on a billboard." I enthusiastically confirm this experience, having seen many representations of said device without ever having laid eyes on the real McCoy.

Microsoft's biggest hurdle for Surface? It's the yada yada.

Marcy: "Are you close with your parents?"

George: "Well, they gave birth to me and...yada, yada."

Marcy: "Yada what?"

George: (slowly, staring off into the distance) "Yada...yada, yada."

Topics: Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets, Microsoft Surface

Andrew Nusca

About Andrew Nusca

Andrew Nusca is a former writer-editor for ZDNet and contributor to CNET. During his tenure, he was the editor of SmartPlanet, ZDNet's sister site about innovation.

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  • It's not really windows I guess

    I don't think most quibble over $499 and $699 pricing for the most part.

    Some consumers are sitting on their hands waiting for a real windows tablet better than the $1000 - 10" Asus and Samsungs out there (hoping for smaller and more iPad'ish maybe). These people have some software or purpose (enterprise) that requires an x86 CPU that runs legacy software compatible Windows. Windows RT is for ARM and that RISC SOC just doesn't have the horsepower for full windows applications (and an alien op-code architecture). And there are not enough Win8RT apps to satisfy/justify the purchase (although the built in Word suite was a good try). And why acted surprised when the announcement of a Win8Pro tablet is a large 10" (just like the others) at near $1000 (just like the others)? There has been no revolution in tech that lets you cram an i5 laptop into anything smaller....

    So if you just want to web browse and read PDFs or other "consumption" with maybe a few games, they just buy an iPad which has an OS and apps designed from the ground for the limits of ARM SOC devices. Or Android.
    • A valid point, but remember...

      ...the average consumer has no idea what "x86" means, and probably has no idea that there are different models of Surface, or for that matter, Windows.

      You can't get to millions sold without catering to people who don't know, and care not to know, what's inside the hardware. I strongly doubt the average consumer is holding out for spec sheet discrepancies. (The resulting jittery performance? Yeah, maybe.)
      • Not so

        My wife wants a Mac because of the mouse it comes with. She wants an iPhone because its popular. She wants an iPad because it has the perception of prestige.

        She has never owned any of these, but if we had the funds now, she'd get all three with her decision completely void of any logic.
        • $100 Dollar Bill Logic...

          get a tattoo of a 'hundred dollar bill' on your 'boy part' - the next time she wants to blow a hundred... well, you get the rest.
          • Just Wrong :-)

            But can't stop laughing! I'm so fortunate my wife isn't like that. I had to sell her on the Mini Ipad just as a Granny Brag Book! (actually, I want to encourage her to start writing again and this device seemed best, she has a talent she doesn't realize she has!)
            Paw Angel
        • Dude, that's what andrew.nusca said!

          @Raid60: Why the Subject Line "Not so"? As if you are disagreeing with Andrew. He is saying exactly what you are... that people are buying devices based on what is in "vogue" and not on specs. The don't know nor care about the differences between and ARM chip and an Intel chip, dual core, quad core, etc. etc. etc.

          Make no mistake, they will care if the device is sluggish or crashes. They won't know exactly why its happening but they will know not to buy one ever again.
          • Please explain

            So, why, after suffering with Windows 3, did these folks line up around the block to buy more junk (Win95) from the same vendor?
            It's been the same since the beginning, Apple creates the market and Microsoft tries to crash the party (pun intended.)
          • explained

            Win 95 was a great operating system.... well, maybe not the OS, but the user interface was and still is superior to Apple's. I can't stand the Apple GUI ... if I could get an apple product that had the Win GUI, I would move to apple.... maybe.
          • What alternate reality do you live in?

            The whole reason any of have computers right now is because of Microsoft and Bill Gates. History shows that Apple has always been and always will be the most pompous company on the planet. It also shows that every time Apple has ever had an advantage it's complete vanity has ended up it's downfall. As soon as lower priced more capable devices become available Apple loses market share and ultimately it's market. That's not Microsoft's fault, it's apple's. Every product Apple has ever made was taking a product someone else created, dumbing it down, and making it pretty. They have done that better than any company ever. But to think that they were the true innovators is simply ignoring the facts. Windows was handheld long before the iPhone came along. Windows was tablet long before the ipad came along. Microsoft didn't steal the ideas. Microsoft just didn't have the ability to create the mass appeal. Microsoft was always at the mercy of device manufacturers since all Microsoft did was create software. That's why they made Surface. To set the pace not try to convince oem's to create appealing products.
      • No the average person is smarter than you think

        and if they aren't, they know someone who is. MS did a horrible job in marketing and have bait and switched hoping people will buy an RT tablet and never realize there's no software for it. That confusion may be enough to bring down the x86 version too as collateral damage. People will wait out the confusion and in the mean time buy something they know will run their Angry Birds or whatever.
        • As an example

          I put forth: Webos, Kin, Next of Kin (Windows Phone) and Chromebook. All these are failures because there was insufficient add-ons.
          • Not so on the Chromebook

            If Chromebook is such a failure, why can't anyone find one? Oh yeah, because they are sold out.
          • By that logic

            other windows 8 tablets are doing great. I took me weeks for newegg to finally have the Samsung ativ smart pc in stock and they still don't have the pro version in stock.
            Sam Wagner
          • I love my Chromebook

            I bought a the Samsung ARM version with 3G and I use it more than my Macbook Air. When will Apple start including a 3G model built in. The problem with the Surface Pro is the battery, under 4 hours for a tablet is just bad, simply horrible.
            Charles Alden
  • Very true...

    Its much like calling someone an idiot because although they did a decent job of explaining a complex issue they did so with poor spelling and grammer.

    Then turn around and call someone bright because although they made a remark that could only be attributed to an idiot, they did so with perfect spelling and grammer.

    Thinking in this way only happens with people who are biased and need as many reasons as they can find to be critical of an opposing opinion.

    Bad spelling is not a good thing, but one shouldnt revert to that as a reason to discard a decent opinion.
    • Umm...

      It's spelled grammar. Just sayin'
  • Not so simple...

    "last time i check they buy every small company on the planet they buy and put their label on it !!! thats innovative ???"

    Seriously, are you implying that this is all MS has ever done...purchase other companies?

    If it seems that way to you, you shouldnt post here. It makes you sound uninformed and foolish, or perhaps just simply biased.

    It would be like saying "You think the U.S. is a good country??? Last time I checked they had been involved in a lot of wars over the decades..." Its such a lame, limited and out of context remark it has practically no bearing on the issue in question.

    Dont bother trying again until and unless you want to make a post from an informed and honest standpoint.
  • Runied...

    Sony was ruined by their media company acquisitions. Once you had Sony Records and Sony Films to answer for, the obvious directions of things too a sharp left. So Sony put out this thing called the MiniDisc.. didn't catch on here too well, though they were popular in Europe for awhile.

    For a musician, this was a very nice replacement for cassette in a field recorder, in the day. And yet, Sony was so crazed about piracy, they didn't let you do digital transfers. Even on later models, which could take digital downloads (but only via their horrible software), I couldn't digitally upload the music I'd recorded myself. And it just got worse -- their locking everyone into proprietary things like ATRAC compression, etc.
  • You live in a strange dreamland.

    First off, Im going to start by saying I could not care less if you do or do not beleive the following tale, let it suffice to say I am not invested into anything so much as to waste my time and and everyone elses time by pushing trash on the ZDNet posting boards.

    You say people are not stupid, and as an example you point out "Nobody will buy a Mac computer thinking that it will run windows programs". Maybe.

    I work with a guy who uses aMacBook, he has for years. He went and bought an iPad several weeks ago, had it for two days and decided to return it when he found out it didnt run regular Mac programs. I spoke of this on ZDNet when it first happened and I was called a likely liar then, I may again, whatever. It happened.

    The vast majority of average people who use computers dont have a clue. They really dont. Some have some knowlege, some are well informed and a few are downright savvy and of course a small percentage of the human race actually work in IT and are relativly expert. Those who work in IT directly often know far more people who have at least some knowlege and often, or so it seems, have little clue as to how little the vast majority of the public understand much about computers at all.

    I have seen with my own eyes numerous people who have asked questions or said things that seem so profoundly "computer retarded" that its made me wince. And they sit infront of a computer all day long. It seems rediculous to those who just know so few of those kind it seems hard to beleive they exist in such prolific numbers, but they do. They are everywhere.

    Most people know what x86 is? No they do not. At all. Such an assumption is so far out of whack with reality its ludicrous. Most people dont even know what a processor is. Ask and the average person and at best they will say "it makes the computer go".

    Ask most people if they know the difference between an x86, x64 or ARM CPU and if they know what a CPU even is they still likely say, with a question..."Some are faster?" They dont know, they could only guess.

    And yes, people will do a little research quite often. The problem is that some of it they will never really understand and will find themselves asking sales people to explain what they did find out and if its a biased or cockeyed sales person, its going to lead to possible error in purchasing.

    So dont assume that most people have some decent knowlege of computers. Most people know more about their cars. There have been jokes forever, rather biased jokes I might add, about women not understanding enough basics about what makes a car operate. Its even worsefor the average person with computers and IT.
    • totally agree

      I totally agree with your comments. When i'm in a store i like to listen in, when a salesman is answering computer / IT types of questions for a customer. It is very funny at times how little the salesman knows and how much the customer believes.