Why Surface looks like the tablet Microsoft built for itself

Why Surface looks like the tablet Microsoft built for itself

Summary: Anyone can buy a Surface but in many ways this tablet is a device designed for Microsoft's own employees.


There's a test we use when trying to understand the products and strategies of technology companies. Who, we ask, is the real customer? The answer isn't always what you expect and it's always revealing.

For Apple, the answer used to be Steve Jobs. Now it's the internal model of Jobs, perpetuated by the people who used to act as gatekeepers for him and by those trained in the Apple University in the ways of what he would have wanted.

READ THIS: Microsoft Surface review

For Google, it's the search-and-place-ads-against-results algorithm. When the algorithm runs out of massive data sets to learn on, Google Drive finally ships. When spammers start tainting the inputs to the algorithm, the translation API gets turned off almost overnight. Users of Google search are part data source, part beneficiary.

It's interesting to see how good a match Surface's strengths are for what Microsoft needs internally

And for Microsoft, rather too often, the answer is that the customer is the 80,000 to 100,000 Microsoft employees, plus associated contractors and service companies. Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint and Word and OneNote and Exchange and Windows and Windows Server and Visual Studio and SQL Server are all useful to lots of other companies, but they all have features that solve a problem at Microsoft.

The Ignore feature in Outlook 2010 and 2013 is there to deal with endless discussion on the massive distribution lists all Microsoft employees are on. DirectAccess in Windows Server is to let Microsoft employees get to their SharePoint document libraries on the road without a VPN that doesn't work on random hotel networks. System Center manages every PC inside Microsoft.

The problem is that while Microsoft is its own best customer, it's not the same as its other customers. Running IT for Energizer was a way to understand how other businesses use their PCs, which are often not running the latest release of software. And running BPOS and Office 365 and Azure are helping the product teams feel the pain of external customers, because if you're a developer on Exchange and there's a problem at 3am caused by your code, you get woken up at 3am to deal with it.

For Surface, just as for all its other products, Microsoft will have conducted focus groups and user testing — but it's probably been even more limited than the tablet use tests for Windows 8 that involved a few dozen families in the Seattle area. And while the Surface team will certainly have aimed to design a tablet with broad appeal, Surface suits Microsoft employees so well it gives you pause.

Take that fleece covered keyboard. It's waterproof so it can shrug off the omnipresent rain. It's comfortable to grab hold of as you carry it around campus — and if you live in Seattle, you probably wear a fleece almost every day.

Desirability of an Apple product

Joking aside, Surface delivers what Microsoft employees want and need. It's a thin and light tablet that has the visceral desirability of an Apple product. That means employees can and will carry it around instead of an iPad as they head to meetings around campus or take the shuttle buses to other offices.

It's got a built-in TPM security and cryptography chip that can be used as a virtual smartcard, so they can still connect to secure internal resources. At Microsoft, the smartcard you log into your PC with is also what you pay with in the cafeteria — and it might even be the ID card you use to get into your building.

The same TPM means the data is encrypted, but if your kid keeps trying to unlock your picture password, the device won't get wiped, leaving you frustrated because you can't get your work done and you can't get at the photos of your kids and having to make one of those expensive calls to the helpdesk to get it fixed.

Instead, Surface just throws away the encryption key and you can unlock it yourself using the recovery key it stores on SkyDrive when you set it up with your Microsoft account.

It runs Office on the desktop because Microsoft runs on Office. Of course most businesses run on Office, whether they realise it or not. The new Office apps are HTML5 based because that means they will work on Office on Windows RT, which probably matters more to Microsoft users than to most other companies. Lots of people find Office useful but for Microsoft employees, a tablet with Office is indispensable.

Surface's weak spots

What about the things Surface doesn't have? If Surface is the tablet for people who work at Microsoft, why doesn't it have a better mail client? The Mail app is improving. Until the Windows 8 launch, it didn't even have threaded conversations. But there are still no tags or categories or tasks. The answer isn't third-party apps.

EziConnect does tasks alongside email and we're eagerly awaiting TouchDown from Nitrodesk bringing its excellent experience from Android and iOS to Windows RT. But for Microsoft employees there's another option — Outlook Web Access in offline mode with Exchange 2013.

If Surface is the tablet for people who work at Microsoft, why doesn't it have a better mail client?

With Exchange 2013, Outlook Web Access looks the same and works the same as Outlook on the desktop, with an interface that's a huge improvement over Outlook Web Access today — and it works for email and calendar when you're offline. Even in the Metro IE interface — which doesn't work on iPad or Android.

And that makes sense of the aggressive schedule for Office 2013, with Exchange finished back at the end of September. Yes, that meant the Exchange team could go to the Microsoft Exchange Conference in late September to talk to Exchange admins, but it also meant Microsoft could start running Exchange 2013 for employees in time for when their Surfaces arrive in mid-November. Office 365 starts moving users to Exchange 2013 from the middle of November too, although some servers won't get the new version until January.

The new version of SharePoint makes features available in the browser and in Explorer, an excellent reason for keeping Explorer on the desktop. SharePoint team sites have a new wiki-style tool for keeping notes in. It's actually OneNote so you'll also see it in OneNote on the Surface desktop.

Many Microsoft internal apps are web services, such as the expenses system which seems to be used to prototype every new development technology Microsoft comes up with. We're expecting a Windows Store app for expenses and Microsoft will use an employee portal created in System Center 2012 SP1 or Intune 4 to host those kinds of apps, which means they'll be in use at Microsoft soon — so we might hear about a beta or CTP soon after.

Other Microsoft tools

But what about all the other tools Microsoft employees need to do their jobs, such as Visual Studio and Blend, or whatever CAD package they used to design Surface?

Surface is a companion device, so Microsoft users will still have a PC and they can connect to it from Surface using the Remote Desktop app. Or they can get individual virtualised programs from a server using RemoteApp, which is how you get Visual Studio or AutoCAD on a Surface.

Microsoft has all that infrastructure set up already so streaming applications will be easy for its employees. Other businesses might have to do the same amount of work to get that up and running as they'd have to do to virtualise applications with Citrix for iPad.

Surface isn't only designed for Microsoft employees, by any means — and it's certainly a great device for a wide range of home and business users. But it's interesting to see how good a match its strengths are for what Microsoft needs internally — and how the company already has all the solutions to get past limitations in Surface that may trip other business users up if they try to use it as more than a great companion device.

Topics: Microsoft, Tablets, Windows

Mary Branscombe

About Mary Branscombe

Mary Branscombe is a freelance tech journalist. Mary has been a technology writer for nearly two decades, covering everything from early versions of Windows and Office to the first smartphones, the arrival of the web and most things inbetween.

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  • Why do so many act as though computer companies

    are different then the rest of the world?

    reading this artical you would thnk that Microsoft, Apple, Google have some magical infrastructer that takes care of itself while eveyone in the build just programs away.

    I think the blogger has it backward - These tools are designed for the world in general, it's just that since MS is a business like any other, they have the advantage of being able to test it right on premises with large groups of people in accounting, project management, facilities, ect.
    William Farrel
    • Or maybe not

      What makes you think Mary's opinion is far from the truth? It seems very logical and actually matches most observations over the past decades.

      By the way, most people who come here and claim they ordered an Surface RT are either wild Microsoft religion followers, or Microsoft employees or Microsoft contractors... or possible a combination of all these.
    • words

      article, etc.
  • Already problems with Surface being reported

    I have read elsewhere (CNET) there are already reports of the touch cover cracking after a few days.
    D.J. 43
    • touch cover cracking after a few days

      and Microsoft is shipping a replacement free of charge to affected users.
      • Until when?

        The replacement is likely to crack too, so what follows? No more replacements, or Microsoft will keep replacing keyboard, like they replaced Xbox 360s?
        • "The replacement is likely to crack too"

          So you have a crystal ball to be able to predict that! Great! I want to buy a lotto ticket, lend me your crystal ball!
        • Replacement is NOT likely to crack.

          Again, someone who either dosnt know how to read or has some filter/editor in their head that only displays to their eyes what the brain wants to see.

          The cracking Surface keyboards are said to be few in number. This would seem to any sane mind that in fact the replacment covers will not be likely to crack. This seems to be very very obvious.

          The only possible explaination for someone coming to the skewed conclusion that the replacements are likely to crack is a complete lack of understanding about math and "odds" when someone speaks of something happening in a few instances and the likelyhood of happening again. EIther that or they just cannot read properly...or, they are plain simple FUD masters.
    • its not common, few cases

      My two Surfaces are getting overworked last two weeks and abused by my kids. I don't see any issue yet. So may be a manufacturing defect.

      Microsoft is giving replacements, and not forcing us to hold it in a different way
    • So what? There where problems with iPads, MacBooks, ect

      yellow screens, dead pixels, scratched and flaking finishes right out of the box, before the customers ever touched it.

      Not sure this is the right venue for your issue, as I'm not seeing the point in relation to the article.
      William Farrel
  • Chicken and Egg

    They'd be crazy not to design their internal systems and make their purchase decisions so their infrastructure works together harmoniously. However, whether they made the solutions they were already creating glue together well for themselves (where needed, with specialized features so they'll work really well), or whether they designed for themselves first is an open question. I tend to think that a company with hundreds of millions (billions) of customers did not just design for themselves first, but rather made the things they were designing work together right through intelligent decision making. The obvious integration efforts not withstanding, that you'll find in any company.
  • That is a complement

    "a device designed for Microsoft's own employees"

    Microsoft is fundamentally the same as any other organisation on the planet, whether it be a large corporation or a public sector institution.
    Tim Acheson
  • This article is confused and patronising

    "Microsoft Excel and PowerPoint and Word and OneNote and Exchange and Windows and Windows Server and Visual Studio and SQL Server are all useful to lots of other companies"

    That's an understatement, when almost every computer on almost every desk in almost every home and business on the planet is a PC or laptop running Windows, and almost every major business uses at the very least MS Office. They don't do this just for fun, they actually have a job to do. You may find that the decision-makers in these homes and businesses have a somewhat more intimate understanding of their own requirements than you do.

    "but they all have features that solve a problem at Microsoft"

    That's plainly nonsense. But it would not be a bad thing. Many good ideas and products originate from somebody trying to address a need that they or their organisation has, and then realising it could benefit other people.

    In conclusion, this entire article seems to have set out from the beginning to try be anti-Microsoft rhetoric, to the point where this has got in the way of thinking through the arguments -- because the key criticisms advanced above are in fact complements. Doh!
    Tim Acheson
    • truth hurts sometimes

      Face it. It is not true, and actually has never been true that "almost every computer on almost every desk in almost every home and business on the planet is a PC or laptop running Windows, and almost every major business uses at the very least MS Office"

      There is not a single device in my home running Microsoft software and there is nothing in my companies running Microsoft software -- except few workstations that use Windows to load AutoCAD.

      We don't do this just for fun. We do it, because we have job to do. And we found again and again over the years, that Microsoft's software actually reduces our ability to be competitive and productive.
      This is what we, the decision makers have decided: avoid Microsoft "technologies", despite the arguments of many self-appointed "experts" that "Windows is easier". When this is all those people know, they go seek job elsewhere.

      Of course, for some or for many, Microsoft software might work. It certainly works for Microsoft. Good for them. It doesn't for the rest of us. Get over it.
      • Truth really does hurt, and you seem to be hurt than most...

        You hurt anytime somebody mentions Microsoft or any of their products or services.

        You hurt when anybody purchase anything Microsoft.

        You hurt because, Microsoft might finally have the mobile devices ecosystem correct.

        You hurt because, you can't stand the idea that, most of the world uses and prefers Microsoft for business and even personal us.

        You hurt because, you were born with an anti-Microsoft genetic makeup.

        Now, go out and start being really productive, by purchasing a Microsoft Surface. You probably already have a few at home, but you hide them in the closet anytime anybody visits. You might be a closet Microsoft lover, but you can't bring yourself to admit it.

        Now, how do you know anything about Microsoft if you hate them so much? If you hate them so much that you would never be caught with any of their stuff, that disqualifies you from ever uttering anything negative about them that would be even remotely credible.

        Now, go play with you XBox and leave the discussion to those that have more credibility and less hate.
        • After some time and surface failure

          We can say he was right, you lost a good opportunity to remain quite :-)
    • "That's an understatement"

      "when almost every computer on almost every desk in almost every home and business on the planet is a PC or laptop running Windows, and almost every major business uses at the very least MS Office."

      It did say "useful" so not sure why you complain so much. In any case, the best in pretty much any field is not what makes the masses happy. VHS was not the best vi standard as I understand. MS could not have gained monopoly going for better than 'useful'. The IBM computers were about the least capable machines out there, which is why the compatibles eventually took over the market. MS, thru contracts, not programming skill became top dog. MS maintained that not by making something better than the others, but by making something 'good enuff' and re-releasing the OS for each bit added. Add Stacker tech and release, add multitask (version 1) and release, add multitask (real) and release. Build much more funds that way than making a full product and then release. And it was always fun. The MS worshipers would proclaim how the feature the Apple crowd or Linux promoters was useless and unnecessary, then when MS added it, they'd proclaim how great MS was for thinking of it or just downplay everything with 'yeah.. we do that too'. Unfortunately, the best of computerdom died when the suits (Jobs, Gates, Balmer etc) became more important than the programmers and the innovators themselves. We still get to see some good stuff for sure, they do still keep some good programmers in their dungeons. Who knows, history will probably repeat itself. Some upstart comp company will be touring thru and talk to these innovators, respect their work, and get rights to use the (real) next great thing.
  • This article blatantly misses the point

    "they [MS products] all have features that solve a problem at Microsoft ..."

    "The Ignore feature in Outlook 2010 and 2013 is there to deal with endless discussion on the massive distribution lists all Microsoft employees are on."

    The author may not be aware, but most large organisations have mailing lists. It's the norm. Is this flawed logic seriously the whole premise of this attempt at a negative article about Surface?

    "DirectAccess in Windows Server is to let Microsoft employees get to their SharePoint document libraries on the road"

    You'll find that people outside Microsoft do in fact work "on the road" too.

    "It runs Office on the desktop because Microsoft runs on Office"

    Eh? Most businesses run Office.

    "Surface's weak spots"

    Under this title, the author fails to actually find any major weaknesses, and the whole argument again hinges on "if this is a tablet for Microsoft" which is an idea the author seems desperate to push -- but is an ill-conceived, meaningless paradigm.
    Tim Acheson
  • Author's photo

    I started wondering what the person who wrote this might look like. Then I saw the photo. Now I see.
    Tim Acheson
    • Now why the heck would that be relevant?

      Prejudiced by any chance?