Surface Pro and Surface RT should have been different colors

Surface Pro and Surface RT should have been different colors

Summary: What products you see people using when you're out and about in public helps you understand the market and make better decisions. Why then are the two Surface variants the same color?

TOPICS: Tablets, Laptops

Back in the day I used to own a Dell Inspiron laptop. When I took it out of the bag and put it on the desk, the logo was the right way for me to read it but when I flipped up the lid it was upside down to everyone else.

At some point this changed. Cue the story of how in Sex in the City the Apple logo is the wrong way up. Like carrier bags from shops that also advertise the story as well as being useful for transporting goods, a right-way-up logo on your laptop builds the brand. That logo on the lid isn't for your personal delight -- it's to tell your peers that you approve of the deivce you're using.

So why are the Surface RT and Surface Pro the same colour?


I'm always interested in what devices people use, and I usually "device watch" whenever I'm out in public. As I walked through and variously sat in Amsterdam Schiphol airport last week, I saw a whole load of iPhones, a good number of old school BlackBerry devices, Dell laptops, ThinkPads, handful of iPads, one iPad mini, and a few other generic devices.

It's the "generic devices" that worries me though. As someone who watches the industry quite keenly, you'd think I'd be able to make a definitive list of whatever I've seen. I can spot the difference between a Dell and a ThinkPad over a decent distance whilst sitting at the gate, but if someone holds up a black rectangle that's not an iPhone and starts prodding at it, I usually don't know what it is.

You'll notice that I didn't spot any Surfaces, RT or "early release for Microsoft super-friends" Pro. That's not surprising, but imagine I had seen someone using a Surface across the departure lounge. How would I have known whether it was an RT or Pro? They're both black, and the difference in thickness you can't tell without close inspection.

The answer, different colours. Glance across -- "I spy a lovely red Surface, must be an RT", or "Mmm, a beautiful green Surface, add one to Pro!"

I am not a graphic designer, but for your delectation I made these mockups of a red and green Surface. I'll let you into a secret -- I'm quite proud of how this came out. You should have seen the first attempt. Also, the ports on the red one are not on the wrong side and, no, I didn't just flip the image horizontally. Well, OK, they are and I did. However, the point is, if you knew colourisation told you that one was RT and the other Pro, looking at that picture you know you have one instance of each type.

Red and Green Surfaces
I formally apologise to all graphic designers.


This approach would help to two things. Firstly, I'm no expert in industrial design but most new-wave Windows kit is coming out in black or silver boxes. Only Lenovo has been brave enough to come up with a gorgeous burnt orange colour on the Yoga 11. Microsoft added zing with the Touch Cover covers -- additional colour on the chassis would have been good too.

Secondly, one of the problems in the consumer space is that people tend to be influenced by what their peers buy. And those peers can either be people know, or people not known to them. There are modes of direct influence, which I'm not talking about here. A good example is a group of young friends who all encourage each other to buy BlackBerrys so that they all have access to BBM. Another is simply asking a friend for recommendations.

Some marketing strategies are designed to interrupt what you're doing in order to get your attention and lodge a message. Spam, direct postal mail, telemarketing, TV ads all do this. The other form is non-interruptive such as billboards. (On the web we're now seeing more interruptive marketing through interstitial ads, as opposed to non-interruptive ads like Google AdWords.) Non-interruptive marketing is designed to accumulate over time such that when you hit the right point in the buying cycle, your unconscious mind has already formed most of the judgement.

However, actually seeing products in use by peers has the same effect as non-interruptive marketing, but none of the cost. One of the things that we tend to do as humans is converge on commonality. Part of the psychology to do that involves tracking what our peers do and keeping mental tallies of various facets. Back on the plains this was probably all about what our peers were doing to get the best breeding partners. Today, that psychology remains active, but is brought to bear on a larger set of problems. Anyway, the point is this -- if you're in the market for a tablet, chances are that unconsciously you're already keeping track of how many iPads, Kindle Fires, Nexus 7s that you see when you're out and about as well as making more conscious enquiries from friends and family.

Seeing people using Surfaces in public would no doubt help sales pick up because of this basic "tallying" that we do, but I'm wondering about using colour to address one of the biggest problems with Microsoft's tablet strategy, namely that it's created two very different products with the same basic name.


I remain keen on this idea that Windows RT has the potential to be a good post-PC operating system in a way that Windows 8 cannot. But there's now a problem. If people do start buying Surfaces in any number, and it doesn't matter which variant, that will start to get noticed. Let's imagine it's a year out and both RT and Pro products have had a chance to get embedded into the market. Someone thinking about buying an iPad might reflect on the fact that for the past few months they've seen more Surfaces being used. Perhaps they might have asked the owners about them.

But what they don't have is any clear idea which, because all that individual is seeing are discrete black boxes. It could be 50:50 RT to Pro, it could be 20:80 RT to Pro, there's no way of knowing. So when that person goes into the store, they don't know what to buy. If they have a sense that they've seen far more red ones than green ones, and they then have the opportunity to apply a conscious and considered understanding of the pros and cons of each, that are more likely to make a good choice. It could be that the market is wholeheartedly rejecting Surface RT over Surface Pro, and then he or she walks right into a store and buys the one the market has rejected. That story doesn't end well. Another possibility is that the customer's confusion is enough to cause them to abort the Surface plan any buy a competing tablet.

There's another argument that influencers would be helped with this as well. If an IT manager is being sold heavily on buying green Surfaces, but is aware that every time he or she is out and about she only ever sees red Surfaces, that's either intrinsicly useful information or it signals that more information is needed. Similarly it would help people who write or comment on the state of the industry. If I start seeing more Surfaces out in the wild, if they're all black, I don't actually know whether people are buying Surface RT or Surface Pro.

This entire process, by the way, also happens with phones. The old style squarish BlackBerry handsets with the buttons was a fantastic industrial design because it looked nothing like a phone and it was easy for people to build up this mental picture that everyone had BlackBerrys. This accelerated them to a tipping point. I'm grateful to my ZDNet colleague Mary Branscombe for pointing out that on the new BlackBerry Z10 smartphones the logo of covered by your hand when you're holding it. Put it closer to the top, and people would know you were rocking a Z10.

Similarly, Samsung has a very distinctive white shell, nicely curved, and with a clear "Galaxy" logo at the top where your hand won't cover it. The iPhone has always been instantly recognisable. It's no accident that the most successful phones have an identity that can be tallied without conscious thought. You might also want to consider HTC who started out building handsets for other people, now build their own, but don't have such a clear identity in terms of their industrial design. Now look at their market performance -- it's not good.

But I digress -- this is about the Surface.

The Surface looks good -- RT or Pro, it's the one thing that everything agrees on -- but having two products that look identical but are in reality couldn't be more different in terms of their capabilities does nothing but add to market confusion. A clearer signal of which one was which, and one that would allow the market to organically percolate up which was the more popular by virtue of it being more obvious that there were more of them, could be a huge help in framing Microsoft's tablet proposition.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

Topics: Tablets, Laptops

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  • What a load of rubbish

    Why is what devices others are using so important to you? Sounds a lot like you want to be keeping up with what the Jones's have to me. If I am sat in a café getting on with work I don’t want people like you being nosy around me, I bet you get mad when you see someone with an Ipad that has a cover without a hole in it to show off the logo. When I purchase a device I look into what I want it to do first and then view my options, not look at what the majority of people are using in an airport and go with the most I spotted. The Surface looks great and making it different colours just for people like you is a rubbish idea. If you even know anything about these devises you would know that the RM version has no fan and the Pro version has fans, the addition of them leaves the pro with a distinct black line around the back lip of the device for the vents, should be easy to spot when you walk past one, if you cant see it then get your eyes checked and stop bothering other people with your odd ideas. Next you will be saying things like Welsh and English people should all dress different just so when you’re out and about you can tell the difference.
  • Who cares?

    Sorry, but who really cares? If I buy a tablet, I want it to be elegant and discreet. If I was given the option between green or red, I'd go elsewhere, where I could get one in black or aluminium finish.

    At the end of the day, I don't care if other people can see at a glance which device I am using. As long as the screen is good and I can use it, I don't care if others can identify it.

    The same for my car, my first considerations were, is it comfortable and are the controls well placed? Colour was pretty much irrelevant, as long as it was discreet.
  • Is this the biggest issue with the Surface

    Get 2 things from this article;

    1) If it's not Apple, you have a hard time distinguishing it. Good work for a tech blogger (would say journalist, but that would hardly be fair)

    2) The 4 hours battery which is key to a truly portable device is less important than the fact it's only in black and not red green or pink........

    Any actual news today?
  • Microsoft's Intent

    Matt, you seem to assume that Microsoft's intent in product design and branding is (or should be) to create clarity through individual product recognition. In my opinion, that's entirely the opposite of what Microsoft is & should be doing--building a brand. (Two brands, actually: Windows 8 and Surface.)

    Consistency is extremely important to brand-building. Any missteps--bad colors, logo placements, ads, etc.--can kill an early brand before it beings. In a sense, a company must "set the rules" for a brand, before it can start toying with it. Especially considering how minimalist the new Windows logo is, color variants would make brand-building extremely difficult.

    Then again, Microsoft has made plenty of other poor choices in branding Windows 8, especially regarding color. They adopted the old Windows brand colors for their company logo--which too closely resembles the old Windows logo--and shifted the Windows brand to that disgustingly bright shade of blue. For the RT, their first Win8-branded hardware release, they chose color options that made no sense (aside from, again, that hideous blue). And the Windows 8 start screen is riddled with even more colors--and none of the same. So, you should probably be thankful that they didn't color-code the different surface models... Odds are they would've turned out far worse than your mock-ups.
  • "If I start seeing more Surfaces out in the wild, if they're all black,"

    "I don't actually know whether people are buying Surface RT or Surface Pro."

    Maybe you should, ah... just ask them?
    William Farrel
    • Surface RT and Surface Pro can be easily distinugished

      If you look at the back, Surface Pro looks thicker than RT. I think Matt needs a good eye doctor.
      Ram U
  • Seriously?

    Sorry but the title is as far as I can go with this one
  • Halo Effect

    Another point, related to brand recognition vs. product recognition: the "halo" effect. If Surface Pros begin to be seen in the wild in great numbers, that bodes well for the RT line as well, and vice-versa. Both products can also help build anticipation for a Surface phone if they keep the product design consistent.
  • What ?

    Oh I see, different colors of lipstick.
    Alan Smithie
    • Maybe one of the shades you wear?

      Nothing too fancy.
      William Farrel
      • Willy

        are you imagining me in lipstick ?
        Alan Smithie
  • Just look for the poor Surface Pro user that has there's plugged in.

    Or frantically looking for a socket to plug in, cause the 3.5 hour battery life is just not enough for a modern mobile tablet.
    • Actually

      It's more like 4 1/2 to 5 hours.
      Michael Alan Goff
  • No way

    That is a pretty hideous sight. Not for me. Ever. But I guess that when you are an Apple Fan Boy, you find the idea interesting.
  • Surface Pro and Surface RT should have been different colors

    Seriously dude? You are bordering on stalking people with a Microsoft Surface. This is nuts. It doesn't matter what color a Microsoft Surface is, what matters is how its being used. I see no reason why Microsoft should change it up just so you can get your jollies on some eye candy. ZDNet, please terminate this guy's employment.
    • Pity

      I'd like different colors as it would match the color of the door is jamming.
      Alan Smithie
  • Very true

    I understand the importance of what you are saying that Microsoft should be making their Surfaces identifiable with some distinguishing mark that is easily seen but I don't believe color would be one that is good overall by itself. The logo in different colors might do the trick though, say silver for the RT and Gold for the Pro for instance, although any color would work if they stayed with it. The current Windows logo is blue and in order for it to work it would have to be coupled with something easily identifiable and distinguishable or done in such a way as to make it easily distinguished.
    Logo's are the way that we tell what we buy is what we want. The golden arches are a classic example of this. We see the logo long before we see the name and we know where a McDonald's is located.
    Tom French
  • Valid point

    Years ago, I used to own a red Acer Ferrari notebook. The only bad thing one could say about it was it came with Windows :)

    The notebook was nothing special, low-spec AMD CPU etc.
    But, taking out that notebook from the bag, made everyone around turn and some even dare to ask what this thing is. Including those people with Macbooks. If Acer were any serious with these things, they could have huge market.

    By the way, I have yet to see one Surface tablet in the wild. Perhaps Microsoft doesn't bother with color and design, becaus ethere is simply no point.
  • Flamboyant != Professional

    Pretty sure my peers would laugh at anyone over the age of 21 with a device that was colored like a preschool toy. Not that peer-pressure plays a role in the decision of what device to buy - but if you were to walk into an office in a suit that was bright red or green, you would definitely be making a statement about how you see yourself that could easily be misread. Granted, Microsofts adds for the surface all use college students, and peer pressure certainly plays in that arena, but "toddler chic" has yet to really break out - college kids apparently want to be mistaken for adults still. Aluminum and black still project power.
    M Peters
  • Non sense

    A boat load of non-sense.... and from a guy who tried his best with the stupidest argument to bad mouth Surface and Windows 8.

    Surface is not a toy and any comparisons with a shitty iPad/ Android tablets are pointless.