Surface Pro, Windows 8 and the rebirth of Microsoft

Surface Pro, Windows 8 and the rebirth of Microsoft

Summary: A new landscape of tablets, cloud and BYOD pressures means that Microsoft has to get both the software and the hardware right.


Last year's launch of Windows 8 and the soon-to-be-released Surface Pro tablet are setting the company on a very different course to the one it has pursued in recent years, and will define its strategy for the next decade.

Surface Pro
Microsoft is betting big on the Surface Pro. Image: Microsoft

Even before it was launched, Microsoft executives were describing Windows 8 as a "generational change" in its operating system, the likes of which has not seen for nearly two decades.

"This gives them the new interface and the phone and tablet-centric view and sets them up to try to compete in those markets" — Michael Silver, Gartner

And you shouldn't dismiss this as merely the obligatory hyperbole that attends the debut of every operating system. Not only does Windows 8 feature a brand new user interface, there are also a number of significant, but less obvious, changes underneath the surface. In among them is the fact that Microsoft has decided its future lies down a more cloud-focused path.

The emphasis in Windows 8 is very strongly on the new touch-friendly interface (previously known as Metro). Such a change is a big gamble for Microsoft as it risks upsetting millions of customers who are used to the traditional Windows look and feel, especially as the new interface does take some getting used to.

But changing the look and feel of Windows - the absolute core of Microsoft's offering - is not undertaken lightly.

The change in interface shows Microsoft has taken its cues from the world of smartphones and tablets — largely because it has no other choice. Because, much faster than the PC industry ever believed, consumer (and to a lesser extent business) tech priorities have changed.

Rather than a mostly homogenous market as it was before, when both business and consumers would buy (variously specced) Windows PCs, the PC market is tearing apart.

Most obviously users can choose form factors (notebook, tablet, smartphone) and operating systems (Windows, Android, iOS) in a way that just wasn't possible until now. The busines market is less affected by the changes, for now, so Microsoft is trying to stay relevant and bridge the widening gap between consumer and business in two ways - with software (Windows 8) and hardware (Surface).

As Gartner research director Michael Silver highlights, this is because the PC no longer dominates the average user's technology experience. "A few years ago the PC was the heart of people's technology universe — now it's their phone or their tablet. We've seen PC sales slumping — the world is changing and Microsoft has no market share to speak of in the phone or tablet market.

"They need to change. This gives them the new interface and the phone and tablet-centric view and sets them up to try to compete in those markets. This is the beginning of the end of the old interface."

For Tony Cripps, principal analyst at Ovum, the new UI is bold but necessary move.

"Microsoft had to do something quite spectacularly different if it was to keep Windows relevant as a platform. We've been used to the Windows UI for a long time now and there hadn't been much in the way of evolution. The expectations that many people have of how computing devices work and how they interact with them is rather different to how they were two or three years ago.

Indeed, it could turn out that the new UI is one of the least controversial elements of Microsoft's plan. "Despite some unhappy users, Cripps says: "What I suspect will end up happening is it will be one of those things where, in a couple of years, no one will ever really remember not using it."

A new world of WinRT (and Windows RT)

But it's not just the interface that's different. Windows 8 is also part of transition from Win32 to Windows Runtime (WinRT) APIs and a new programming model. And longer term, that could be a much more fundamental change for developers and users than the interface update.

Microsoft will certainly be hoping the nascent Windows Store could become a far more important software delivery mechanism as Windows 8 deployments increase — an app store on a grand scale (although it will need to improve significantly for that to happen).

As Simon Bisson points out elsewhere on ZDNet, the move to WinRT means the "heart of Windows future isn't the desktop". Instead, WinRT is the first step towards a world of cloud apps, via Azure. Windows 8 is a transitional release, straddling Win32 and WinRT.

It might not be as radical a departure as Google's Chrome OS, which requires constant connectivity and points you towards apps that are solely cloud-based, but it's heading in the same general direction: towards a world of easier to use, easier to manage devices and appliances — much more the smartphone model than Microsoft's PC heritage.

"It will take quite a while for all your applications to show up in the new Windows Store interface, especially in business. Over time what you'll see is Microsoft continue to advocate writing new applications using the new tools in WinRT and eventually your software will get replaced with new WinRT versions of it," Gartner's Silver says.

Getting beneath the Surface of Microsoft's plans

Microsoft's ongoing hardware adventures, both with the Surface RT and the forthcoming Surface Pro, make sense as part of this broader strategy of managing the decline in PCs and the rise of bring your own device and the cloud.

"In a couple of years, no one will ever really remember not using it" — Tony Cripps, Ovum

Microsoft has already hinted that Surface is likely to be only the first of the devices it builds itself. Microsoft won the desktop operating system battle long ago but now the tech war has moved to a new arena, and controlling the hardware and the app store are the ways to win.

Right now Apple is in pole position when it comes to tablets so Microsoft has been forced to take the unusual step of building its own hardware to make up for the lack of excitment in its hardware partners' offerings to date. The Surface RT is Microsoft's attempt to reach out to consumers and the BYOD brigade, while the Surface Pro is its attempt to bring enterprise-grade tablets to market. Microsoft needs to position Windows 8 as a plausible tablet operating system for both business and consumers to prevent the fragmentation which is occuring in the consumer PC space threatening its position in the enterprise, too.

But Microsoft's success here is by no means certain.

"The question is: can Microsoft capture the consumer market or part of it? Because Microsoft has really not been keeping up and losing mind-share, and has been big in business but even business is seeing the effect of consumerisation make in-roads into the decision-making process," says Silver.

Balancing consumers and business

And balancing all these competing pressures - the rise of tablets, cloud and BYOD - without alienating its core business audience is a challenge for Microsoft. If it goes too far down the route of consumerised products, it could risk its enterprise popularity, says Silver.

"The real problem is that as they look to consumerise some of these products they become less appropriate for the enterprise, so the space where they are strong, they start giving up.

"Microsoft has a great business supporting the enterprise and if they tilt too much towards the consumer, that's going to be another problem. Businesses are going to have to rethink their commitment and it really opens the door for Apple because if enterprises are dealing with a consumer product company... then why do they need to deal just with Microsoft?"

Topics: Cloud, Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets, Windows, Microsoft Surface, Windows 8

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  • Good article

    I think you have some very valid points, especially related to focusing too much on the consumer. I think Surface Pro is the right mix. But since Windows 8 is the interim OS to a long term goal, at least if that truly turns out to be the case, then it could mean Windows 9 could be substantially different than even the minor complaints with Windows 8. Of course, I think Windows 8 and, hopefully, Windows 9 gives us the best chance of seeing a tablet that can fulfil all of our daily computing needs. Build Windows 9 with a high powered, 5" tablet that can make phone calls and then dock to replace your desktop. Perhaps always have a larger tablet "shell" with a big screen and additional battery, perhaps even additional computational resources, that you could use as a laptop/tablet hybrid. I would love to see the day when my phone can do everything, and my entire computing life travels in my pocket.

    If MS doesn't get it right it's entirely possible we see them end up as an Enterprise-only company. Let's face it, Exchange, SQL and AD aren't going anywhere any time soon. There still isn't a comparable product to SharePoint either. And then there is Office, which they would likely adapt to other platforms. But with the alternatives improving for consumer use, Office will be used in Enterprise and will start to lose momentum in the consumer space.

    If there is one thing that always holds true about information technology is that there is never a dull moment. The next 10 years could bring some very fundamental shifts in the way we use our devices.
    • Windows 8's "problems" are easily fixable...

      I think the easiest "fix" for Windows 8 is to scrap the dueling desktops. Instead, they should be combined. In my view, the OS would open to the Metro screen (tiles representing programs) which would still scroll horizontally (like the current Metro screen). The Start button & traditional task bar would be toggled off by default, but could be toggled back on for those who really wanted it. My hunch is that, once the two desktops were combined, users would find that they don't really need the Start button & taskbar anymore. In short, it's the dueling desktops that's causing the need.

      Furthermore, desktop apps & Metro apps could be "snapped" on split-screen side-by-side. This way, for example, I could use MS Word & the Xbox music app at the same time. I think this would help users explore the Metro apps more than they are now. In short, the segregation of desktops & apps is hurting Metro app exploration (because most people are living in desktop mode).

      In conclusion, the new, unified desktop would be like Windows 7 in that the Start button & task bar are available for power users (if they want to toggle it on), but the same desktop still works like the current Metro desktop in that it scrolls sideways & has "live tiles" for Metro apps. I think this unification would actually help Metro app uptake, because they wouldn't be limited to the "phantom zone" (Metro desktop), but could run side-by-side with the desktop apps that most people are still using.

      There are other changes that need to be made as well (i.e., finding various settings, etc.), but I think the unified desktop would go a long... long way in tamping down the complaints, confusion & frustration.
      • Apologies for asking, but ...

        ... have you actually used Windows 8?

        "I could use MS Word & the Xbox music app at the same time"

        You can already to this with Windows 8 today.

        And I don't think that "merging" the desktop and start-menu/metro-apps would make sense.

        The desktop is there to support desktop apps, many of which are not (and, particularly enterprise LOB apps, cannot) be ported to metro-style apps.

        More Windows features will be migrated to metro, particularly settings, various system functions, etc. On my SurfaceRT, I get A LOT of functionality out of the new app experience. And when I need to drop to the command-line or do some more focused file management, etc., I can drop back to the desktop. If I need to run legacy (desktop) apps, I can just remote-desktop into an Intel-based PC.

        Make no mistake - the desktop is now a legacy feature, provided in order to support legacy apps and experiences, just as Windows' DOS support STILL exists to support critical LOB apps that can't be ported to Windows.

        Most of Microsoft's efforts over the next 4-5 years will be in making modern apps & experiences sing. Power-users may whine and complain that this will result in "dumbing-down" Windows, but they don't realize that 80% of computer users are NOT geeks and nerds - they're normal humans who deserve a simpler, more modern computing experience than they've had in the past.
        • ...

          Yes 80% are not geeks or nerds and want simplicity which is why most windows users deman classic UI and start button as it is so much easier and user friendly then the disasterous modern ui thats ok at some things but not good at all things plus is way more complicated then need be. Why would microsoft hide things you need? Charms are more like headaches.
        • I think what he meant is...

          Snapping the apps in a 50:50 split rather than 75:25. Because currently, you can't get full use out of the 25 app, whilst if it was 50:50 you quite easily could.

          I do agree with the rest of what you've said though. Metro is surely the way Windows is heading for good.
          Oli Mills
      • That's right .. snap 2 whole apps .. wow.

        wow.. I must have windows 18 because I currently have a desktop with 18 apps running across two screens, cascaded, and full screened (one monitor only) as well as in the corners so I can easily click, copy paste, etc..

        I am not a Metro fan .. its eye candy and nothing more.. and the difference from desktop to metro is equally just as jarring a reality as any cold shower I've taken ..

        So.. the start screen .. why'd it have to be so huge? are you saying that microsoft couldn't have had the Hot corner / start button control there .. and slid up from the bottom (or from which ever side you pin the start bar to) and had a similar menuing experience?

        The simple fact is, microsoft didn't try to improve the experience for all users.. they focused on ONE THING and even that they didn't get right.. not for the "EVERY" user type .. but only for the idiots and the uninitiated. Those that have no real need to power use their systems.. those that can pick it up and put it down..

        those in the REAL world .. are put back into the "Desk Top" experience which looks familiar.. operates familiar.. but oh yeah.. anytime they want to access the menu.. that's when they are forced back into a hap-hazard metro UI that doesn't service their needs as well as Windows 7 did .. or windows vista (yuck) or as windows XP did/does.

        If microsoft wanted to bring us ALL to the table .. they could have done just a little more work, and given the users the CHOICE of their interfaces .. and how they interacted.. but no.. everyone gets it microsoft's way .. screw your choices .. you'll get the pickles and catsup on your burger .. 'cause windows 8 ain't burger king.
      • Easy fix but not that way...

        I do agree that the fix is easy I do not agree with your concept of doing so. The main issue is the metro live tiles issues. Microsoft needs to make windows 8 if they are going to force it fit the device it will go on as their idea of one size fits all is just horrible and everyone but Microsoft seemed to know it before Microsoft and Microsoft still seems to be in denile.

        They need to allow a standard classic windows install when windows 8 is being deployed. Let peope pick if they want a classic windows UI where no tiles get loaded at all...the system boots to the traditional desktop with startbutton and normal vertical scrolling or allow a new metro ui install for those who want those tiles and horizontal scrolling. This allows windows on desktops and laptops to be what the consumer wants then give those on tablets or phones the option to go with the live tiles if they wish or just a smaller version of classic windows. If Microsoft would have release their tablet with a classic ie windows 7 ui but with the goodies under the hood from windows 8 they would have had a smash hit all around os.For some reason Ballmer likes to take away all consumer and beta input disgard them and just dump stupid ideas out for sale and watch it fail.

        This would allow those who expect Windows to be windows and work simply to use classic ui and be happy with the new improvments then those who seem to likke the tiles which is a much smaller crowd to use those annoying tiles. Simply at install have the option Classic Install...or Live Tile install and let the buyers decide. Same for tablets have the option on set up to use either ui from day one.
    • Surface Pro Will Change the game!!!

      I think that the Surface Pro will forever change the tablet game! Being and IT Professional for well over 20 years... The thought of my users having the ability to actaully work on a tablet is simply AMAZING!!! I have users asking me about the Surface Pro all the time. The first thing they ask is if it will run FULL BLOWN desktop Applications. I tell them, according to Microsoft and all the reports, YES SIR!!! The look in thier eyes says it all. You can just see how management would purchase these devices for thier employees. Corporate IT Departments will embrace the Surface Pro, because they know, understand and are currently supporting the underlying technologies. Just Think of this one.... You are on a 2 or 8 hr flight to do a presentation and you get an idea or email that requires you to modify your MS Project Plan/PowerPoint Slides/Photoshop Photo/Flash Animation/Excel Spreadsheet/Illustrator Layout/etc... What do you do? If you have a Surface Pro, its a no brainer!! This is the change i speak of!! Simply AMAZING, from a business/student/comsumer standpoint.
      • I hope you're right...

        If Microsoft can't gain mobile market share soon--with Windows 8, Windows Phone, and the Surface--I'm not sure that they can. They need to start changing hearts, minds and wallets (towards Microsoft's ecosystem), or they may start to lose their strength on the desktop.

        I guess we'll have a better sense of things in about a year.
        • Modern Interface vs "Windows" Line of business applications

          Are we the only developers in the world to think that a lot of line of business software have benefitted the users because of the the ability to have multiple windows, tab controls within the same window as list controls and the myriad things that Microsoft have allowed developers to provide to make the end users MUCH more efficient in their daily tasks.

          The interface formally known as Metro simply does NOT offer more than a tiny fraction of that capability at the moment and its no good Microsoft saying that developers need to redesign the software. Unless and until Win RT starts to provide more comprehensive capabilities ANY "modern" interface complex line of business software will make the users less efficient, necessitating more staff to do the same job. Just look at the trivial examples MS provide of so called "Line of Business" software using the Modern interface. Where is their vision for anything remotely like accounting software or Order processing and Stock Control or any data entry intensive application??

          Or do MS actually think that the desktop will be around for decades to come because they don't intend to ever add sufficient features to Win RT to allow such applications to become "modern" without damaging the businesses that use them?
          • Oh ...

            ... and if you want to see some of the things Microsoft thinks may appear in the future, watch this:

            Are we anywhere near this reality today? No. But we're at the beginning of a brand new world of user experiences and we'll see them unfold over the coming years.

            One thing I am fairly certain of though, is that Microsoft's vision of the interconnectedness of data and experiences is, to me at least, FAR more compelling than devices that just run independent apps represented as icons with different, inconsistent experiences (i.e. EVERYONE else).
      • Hmmmm

        This almost looks like a Mile Cox post, in which case it is funny. It sounds like the Pro will save the world.

        "You are on a 2 or 8 hr flight to do a presentation and you get an idea or email that requires you to modify your MS Project Plan/PowerPoint Slides/Photoshop Photo/Flash Animation/Excel Spreadsheet/Illustrator Layout/etc... What do you do?"

        You use an Ultrabook, that is what you do. :-)
      • You're funny

        I've been an IT professional for 34 years, and I've never met a 20-year IT professional that would write something like "AMAZING!!!" and "YES SIR!!!". Most likely you are a 20 year old MicroShill being paid by Microsoft in a desperate attempt to prop up the massively collapsing Widows 8/Windows RT ecosystem via a web campaign of lies and misinformation. Still, your juvenile sales pitch is quite a hoot!
        Asok Smith
        • ==-

          Asok, I am SOO proud of you!

        • But then again...

          Being, as you said, an IT professional for 34 years makes you a dinosaur, does it not?
      • The Surface pro is DOA

        The surface pro is already a dead product. It has been tried before and failed for the following reasons.

        - Keyboard/mouse centered programs are a pain to use on a tablet.
        - They cost too much.
        - They weight too much.
        - Poor battery live.

        The pro is nothing new, if it was so good you'd see them every where but you don't. If MS is to make a go of this the RT is its future but they need to correct the follow to make a it serious competitor.

        - Lower price
        - Increase software pool
        - Rewrite Office interface to work with a touch screen, the port does not cut it.
        - Focus on the business community, consumer is already owned by iPad and Android.

        I heard all your same reasons why the pro will be successful 20 years ago when MS introduced the Tablet and it went no where for the reasons above. MS needs to stop wasting time with a dead concept and focus on the RT.
        • Surface pro

          In other words you haven't even used Windows 8. And then there's that silly claim the MS invented the tablet "20 years ago"- I wonder why no one else ever noticed? Perhaps you're living in some sort of alternate timeline wherein Windows xp was released in 1993 rather than 2001?
          And if "The Pro is nothing new, if it was so good we'd see it everywhere" then, again, you're living in a different world than the rest of us- the Surface Pro was released all of a week ago, but there have been tens of millions upgrades to Windows 8 Pro since October 26, 2012. Three months and a week on the market and far outselling anything other than the shiny Apple toy called the "ipad".
          And apparently you not even aware that Windows 8 (pro or otherwise) IS NOT the same thing as WinRT?
          Look, if you want to be a troll, at least get the simple things right, such as DECADES... (hint: the rest of us are in 2013 but you seen to be living in 2033).
          • Let me make this simple for you

            OK you obviously are missing the point here, my fault for assuming a level of understanding that does not exist. Now, MS released the tablet 20 years ago and a guy named Bill Gates (you may have heard of him) announced this was going to change the way we all work. It didn't and never caught on for the reasons I out lined. You with me so far?

            Now, jump ahead to 2013 and MS once again is releasing the same thing with a new OS but all the original limitations are still there especially when compared to the current crop of pads that are available. The Pro is heavier, more costly, shorter battery life and is still going to run keyboard/mouse focused programs on a touch screen. Is the light starting to flicker on now?

            That "iPad toy" understood all this and delivered what people wanted and now hold almost 70% of the market, Android followed this lead and now has around 30% of the market and growing. Now how is the Pro doing.......

            Very observant of you to see that RT is a different OS and the reason that I pointed out that it is MS's best shot because it avoids most the limitations of the Pro.

            The last I have seen of sales figures on the Pro is that there are none. Maybe you can share your secret source with us unless of course Ballmer is calling you at night to give you personal updates.

            "those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it"
        • Agree but disagree.

          Agree on the following: tablet PCs didn't catch on before because:

          - They cost too much
          - They weighed too much
          - They had poor battery life

          And I would also like to add they were underpowered.

          But those tablets of yesteryear were twice as heavy, twice as thick, cost twice as much, and have half the power of Surface. Obviously I have yet to use a surface, but I have plenty of experience using and selling tablet PCs to businesses. The "wish list" from 2008 I got from most businesses looks incredibly similar to what the Surface ended up being.

          People on boards like this are making such a big deal out of the .5 lb or .1" between Surface Pro and iPad, but the marginal benefit is next to meaningless compared to the infinite utility of being able to use x86 applications.

          Disagree on the following: "- Keyboard/mouse centered programs are a pain to use on a tablet."

          Some are, some are not. It depends on the application. Most applications can be used just fine with a pen. Input heavy apps like excel will never be suited for touch screen. But the bigger gain from Windows 8 for businesses isn't the app compatibility, but the ability to fit seamlessly in a corporate environment an your workflow.

          Surface pro is not "new" in the sense that the idea has been tried before, but it's new in the sense that it's never been done right.

          "- Focus on the business community, consumer is already owned by iPad and Android."

          Correction, consumer is owned by iPad. Android has been on tablets since 2011 and have yet to make any serious inroads against the iPad. The biggest selling Android tablet doesn't even run Android proper, but Amazon's proprietary version. I'd say a more accurate description is the tablet space is owned by Apple, with a two horse race between Android and Windows RT for 2nd.
  • Does flagging actually do anything?

    I've seen spam comments like these and obvious trolls simply cursing profusely, adding nothing to the discussion with dozens of flags, yet they never get removed. What's the point of flagging if nothing is ever moderated?