Surface tablet: Microsoft almost got it right

Surface tablet: Microsoft almost got it right

Summary: Microsoft is late coming to the tablet party, but it brought an impressive present with its Windows Surface models. However, it's what the mobile hardware entrant didn't say that echoes loudest

SHARE:
TOPICS: Windows
28

Now the world has had a chance to recover from Microsoft's unveiling of its Windows Surface tablets, it's time to take a quick look at their chances of success — or of failure.

Only last week I wrote about five factors that could make or break a Microsoft tablet, looking ahead to Monday's announcement. At first glance, it looks like Microsoft had the same ideas as me — but perhaps it skipped the section on price.

Briefly, the tablet will come in two flavours: one running Windows RT on an Nvidia ARM chip, and the other running the full Windows 8 operating system on a third-generation Intel Core i5 CPU.

Surface for Windows RT will arrive first, to be followed approximately three months later by the full-fat Surface for Windows 8 Pro. So far, so good. But it's the things that Microsoft didn't really talk about that concern me. Like an actual arrival date, or pricing.

Surface tablets

Microsoft is late coming to the tablet party, but it brought an impressive present with its Windows Surface models. Image credit: Josh Lowensohn/CNET News

From the look of it, Microsoft has done well in designing its tardy response to the iPad. For one thing, it managed to get Surface RT to be slimmer — though not quite lighter — than an iPad. Plus, the Apple-esque cover with built-in keyboard and touchpad automatically powers down when not in use. Nice touch, even if it does look remarkably similar to the Smart Cover for iPad.

In fact, aside from a few minor gripes — would using USB 3.0 rather than 2.0 really have pushed up the RT's price that much? — the hardware looks pretty impressive. Of course, if using it turns out to be less impressive, then it doesn't matter how sleek it looks: it will crash and burn.

Beyond the hardware

But let's put aside the bells, whistles, trinkets and shiny things.

On stage, Steve Ballmer talked about the Surface giving "Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation" and "hardware and software pushing each other". But few details of the software, or specific optimisations for the tablets, were actually presented. Oh, it will have a Windows 8 RT-optimised Netflix app at launch though.

True, details of some features in Windows 8 Pro and Windows RT have already come out. But given that Windows president Steven Sinofsky said it was "important that we have the hardware fade to the background for this product", there could and should have been more bespoke features on display to get people on board — as IDC mobile device analyst Francisco Jeronimo noted.

"Despite some interesting hardware features, very little was said about the software, the user interface, the user experience and the ecosystem," Jeronimo told me.

"The main focus has been on the hardware and specs only. I was expecting to hear from Microsoft today about how the Surface delivers an integrated experience with the PC, what additional services or features are available and how the Microsoft ecosystem is growing to be a real alternative to the iPad and Android tablets," he added.

Price unknown

The other unknown is the price. Microsoft must do anything it can to keep the retail price down for any tablet it launches, and the fact we haven't been told this is worrying.

All we know right now is that the Pro version — clearly aimed at business users and the ultrabook sect — will be priced on a par with ultrabook-class PCs. Similarly, the sum of knowledge for the RT tablet is that it will cost the same as "comparable tablets based on ARM".

Why devote so much effort to designing hardware and software, and then market the device in a way that means fewer people will buy it?

That doesn't tell me much. Though it pains me to make the comparison, when was the last iPad or iPhone launch that didn't include pricing and release date details?

The Surface tablets don't have to be the cheapest of the cheap, as they provide more features, quality and value than budget Android alternatives. However, the price tag must be within the realms of decency, if Microsoft expects any kind of consumer support on the level of the iPad.

"What makes the iPad the most successful tablet on the market is the software, the applications and the added value that end users perceive from that. The reason why Android tablets need to be cheap is because they do not deliver as much when it comes to value," Jeronimo said. "Besides Apple, no other manufacturer has captured significant market share in this segment."

Surfacing the Surface

And that leads neatly to the last gripe — availability.

Microsoft is selling the Surface tablets online only in the UK, and not via Currys, PC World and the like. That massively limits its discoverability — if you want to buy it, you have to know it already exists. The same can't be said for buying a laptop or other tablet.

It bears repeating: manufacturers have to make it easy for consumers to hand over their money. Why devote so much effort to designing hardware and software, and then market the device in a way that means fewer people will buy it?

Microsoft's retail approach will limit the impact of the Surface, even if it ends up placating Windows 8 and Windows RT partners building their own tablets.

Overall, I'm quietly hopeful for the Surface RT, though not so much for the Pro version — people are unlikely to want to pay around £900 for a tablet, enterprise targeted or not.

Wherever your tablet loyalties lie in the Microsoft, Apple or Google camp, Microsoft has undeniably brought a new approach to tablets to the table with the 'one OS to fit all' for its PCs and tablets alike.

Topic: Windows

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

28 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • > Why devote so much effort to designing hardware and software, and
    > then market the device in a way that means fewer people will buy it?

    Because it doesn't want to upset the OEMs too much ;-)
    http://www.zdnet.co.uk/blogs/jacks-blog-10017212/microsoft-surface-puts-the-heat-on-pc-makers-10026431/
    Jack Schofield
  • iPAD = 230,000 Apps

    WinRT = near 0 Apps
    anonymous
    • iPad/iPhone started out with 0 apps

      We all have to work our way up to something. The story is the same with Android whose Market was once a laughing stock...not so much anymore. Agreed MS app market is minimal today, but it'll catch up quick.
      milo ducillo
    • Can we see your proof?

      Windows RT can run all Windows Phone 7 apps (whether or not Microsoft shoves them into the Windows Store remains a different question). Also, all the apps in the preview versions of Windows 8 are metro apps which means they'll run on RT. Potentially WindowsRT = ~100,000 apps, which was also the promise from Microsoft for launch (at least 100,000 apps).
      ikissfutebol
      • potentially, that's the catch word

        ikissfutebol:
        meaning, it can be, it may be not. Right now is all wishful thinking.
        My advice to our clients: Stay away from Windows ReTard and have an happy life
        theo_durcan
    • IPAD Apps

      Apple users Brain cells 0
      Windows & Androind Brain Cells Billions and Billions
      DomDroid
      • boy you look quite intelligent

        now, for a change try to multitask, err, to think while you type!
        theo_durcan
  • "the Apple-esque cover with built-in keyboard and touchpad automatically powers down when not in use. Nice touch, even if it does look remarkably similar to the Smart Cover for iPad"

    Are you extracting the urine? Does the Surface cover fold? And become a stand? Oh sorry forgot apple invented magnets.

    iDiot.
    BM02GAN
    • A cover that will break

      I can just see the wear and tear on those flimsy folds.
      CaviarBlack
  • > For one thing, it managed to get Surface RT to be slimmer
    > and lighter than an iPad

    Okay, the Surface RT is slimmer by 0.1 of a millimetre than the iPad 3. However, it is 676g compared to the iPad 3's 653g in weight, so it is *not* lighter. Please correct.

    And that's best case for MS and worst for Apple. The iPad 2 is still available and is lighter and slimmer than the iPad 3 (although with a poorer quality screen, of course). We still don't the resolution of Microsoft's screens.

    As for the Intel-based Surface Pro machines.... rumour has it that Microsoft is still optimising the complimentary wheelbarrow it will supply with each one!
    BrownieBoy-4ea41
  • @BrownieBoy

    What? The Surface RT is 23g heavier than an iPad 3? That's a whole tablespoon of salt, maybe even a tablespoon-and-a-quarter! How do they compare without the detatchable keyboard?

    Ah.

    Actually, since the Surface and Surface Pro aren't just tablets that can watch videos and browse the web, but are also ultrabooks that can run MS Office, you could argue that the real comparison should be with the MacBook Air, in which case they clearly win. They also win in functionality, since the MacBook Air can't double as a touchscreen tablet.
    Xenia Onatopp
    • Big deal

      "but are also ultrabooks that can run MS Office, you could argue that the real comparison should be with the MacBook Air, in which case they clearly win."

      Which means lousy three hour battery times because of all the bloatware it will carry (full Office, Flash, Java, MSE, etc...)

      Not impressed.
      CaviarBlack
  • ...and 0.1mm is what, the thickness of a sheet of A4, but I didn't quibble. Thinner is thinner.

    There's plenty of Office alternatives on iPad and Android tablets if people want that, and I'm not sure that they do.

    Surface vs Macbook Air? Don't make me giggle. They may try to position the Surface Pro that way, and they'll have the weight, size and piss-poor battery life to prove it! But RT? Not in the same park at all. Not even the same sport.
    BrownieBoy-4ea41
  • @BrownieBoy good spot, that's been changed, thank you.
    Jon Yeomans
  • @ Steven Zahl

    "iPAD = 230,000 Apps

    WinRT = near 0 Apps"

    iPAD at launch = near 0 Apps

    WinRT at launch = thousands of awesome industry standard familiar Windows apps just waiting to be recompiled, no compromise on App quality, the full blown Windows program
    TheRealField
    • No, you're wrong

      "thousands of awesome industry standard familiar Windows apps just waiting to be recompiled"

      No, no, no. Only the Metro API's are in RT. Win32 is not there, full .Net is not there, Winforms is not there, WPF is not there. I'm afraid that there are a lot of confused people like you who think that Windows RT is something that it isn't, and man are you going to be upset when you buy one and find out.
      AnalogJoystick
  • @TheRealField

    Sorry, you can't recompile Windows x86 apps and run them on RT: that's not allowed. The only full scale Windows x86 ports are the ones bundled by Microsoft, including Office 2013 Home/Student.

    So, Surface RT is the equivalent of an iPad, with a better interface, proper stylus support, more ports (USB etc) and Microsoft Office, but currently fewer tablet apps. Surface Pro is the equivalent of an iPad and a MacBook Air, with several umpteen million more desktop apps than Apple, but it's quite a bit heavier than the RT version....
    Jack Schofield
    • oh yeah, the old paradigm

      it work this way
      Unix: done. Done right from the beginning. 30 years ago, still the best OS fundation.
      mac OS UI; Done. Done right many years ago. No need to change
      Windows: crapware version after crapware version. Every new version, the usual fanboys come in numbers claiming a paradigm shift. Just sound like PR stuff to fool naive people.
      theo_durcan
  • @Jack,

    > Sorry, you can't recompile Windows x86 apps and run them on RT

    I assumed he meant "recompile" from desktop apps into full Windows RT apps, as if a recompiled desktop app could magically sprout a Metro interface that made any sense!
    BrownieBoy-4ea41
  • @Jack
    ->So, Surface RT is the equivalent of an iPad, with a better interface, proper stylus support, more ports (USB etc) and Microsoft Office, but currently fewer tablet apps.

    Better inferface than the iPad? The Devil is in the detail, this is still very much work in progress. If you term better - Metro being 'non-conservative-far too trendy for its own good' combined with poor information density, then yes it has a better interface. Give me the new iPad any day of the week, its pure bliss to use, and the pure bliss 'is' in the detail.

    The Surface Win RT Version doesn't have stylus support, only the Surface Pro. USB 2.0 only on RT Version, USB 3.0 on Surface Pro.

    Other than MS Weather, Office 2013 RT Apps, thats petty much the extent of RT Tablet Apps so far, so '0' above was pretty near the mark.

    My hunch is that the cut-down Microsoft Office 2013 RT won't support VBA Editing (Visual Basic for Applications) which is going to be a big negative for a lot of people, the interface for Excel certainly doesn't appear fully optimised for touch, from the previews, so far.

    It will probably run alongside a compiled executable of the VBA Code for each static spreadsheet, when running on Win RT, but in fairness, there's no need for VBA Editing on the RT Version, just in-cell value changes.

    Office is going to make or break this device, so MS better get it right.

    But if supposing these two devices ever did start to become a threat to the sales of iPads:

    Apple has lots of leeway on price, it can bundle more flash storage without much penalty, reduce itunes prices, reduce app prices, reduce ibook prices, increase developer/publisher margins, increase icloud storage limits - any or all of the above. Produce smaller/larger versions.

    I really don't think Microsoft have truely realised what the iPad juggernaut has developed into, and what they are up against. 12 months from now, when Win 8 is just getting going/ramped up, there will be another 60-80 Million ipads sold, a lot in the enterprise.
    SoapyTablet