Five things that could make a next-gen Surface into a hit product

Can anything save Microsoft's Surface product? Rumors are that a next-gen Surface will be announced in June and our own David Gewirtz speculates on five factors that might give the Surface renewed life.

Yesterday, our sister-site CNET reported that Microsoft is readying a next-generation Surface tablet to be announced in June.

Microsoft needs a next-generation product, because the first generation product hasn't been much of a barn-burner .

Given the existing Surface device's relatively poor success in gaining traction in the market, it might be useful for us to look at five features that — taken together — could raise the product's profile in a second-gen product.

7-inch form factor

The CNET article reported that Microsoft is readying a smaller device. That would be a relatively big step for Windows-based machines (especially desktop-oriented Windows machines), since there are relatively few that run on small displays.

This could actually be a big win for Windows 8 users, because there are many uses of Windows that could benefit from what would essentially be a small, smart flat-panel display.

Beyond the full Windows 8 experience, even the anaemic Windows RT could benefit from a smaller device. Reports are that Apple's iPad mini is outselling the full-sized iPad. I have both an iPad mini and an iPad, I very much prefer the mini because it seems to fit into my work style more conveniently.

And as ZDNet Health blogger Denise Amrich (our resident RN) reported in an interview with two health professionals , a  tablet-based Windows 8 may have some unique advantages in healthcare .

The Xbox Arcade library

In The Verge's coverage of a possible new Surface, there's mention of an Xbox Surface. Way back in June of last year, I wildly speculated that Microsoft would announce an Xbox tablet.

That obviously never happened, and it's somewhat unlikely that it will this June either. We'll know more on May 21st, when Microsoft is widely expected to announce the next generation of Xbox, what everyone is calling Xbox 720.

The current-generation Xbox 360 is based on a 64-bit PowerPC architecture, while the original Xbox was based on a Pentium III architecture. Obviously, with the current Surface devices running ARM and Core i5, getting Xbox applications to run on the Surface might be a challenge.

That said, Apple has a history of emulating PowerPC on it's older Intel machines (using the now-discontinued Rosetta emulator), so it's possible to do.

I see two possible courses here: First, while it would be impractical to run the full-experience Xbox console games on a new Surface without a lot of additional hardware (and heat-dissipation improvements), a new Surface could run Xbox Arcade games.

The Xbox Arcade is hugely popular, and might prove to be a very compelling reason for consumers to pick up a Surface. It would almost immediately counter Android and iPad's game-availability advantage.

The second possibility is that Microsoft may announce a move off the PowerPC architecture for Xbox 720, and there may be an opening for lower-powered games to run on Atom or Core i5 in a refreshed Surface. Frankly, I don't think that's the barn-burner move. I think introducing Arcade on the Surface would make for a market winner.

Lighter and more comfortable to hold

One of the failings of the Surface is that it's great on a desk, but it's not quite that comfortable to hold. If ever there was a critical design flaw in a tablet, that's your problem, right there.

ZDNet's James Kendrick reported after 45-days of using his HP Envy x2 (a full Windows 8-based convertable tablet), the tablet part of the Envy is lighter and easier to hold than an iPad — and it's running full Windows 8.

If HP can do it, so can Microsoft. In fact, Microsoft must improve the hold-a-bility of its tablet or it stands almost no chance of widespread acceptance.

Price price price

Speaking of widespread acceptance, there are two relatively hot competitors to the iPad — the Nexus 7 and the Kindle Fire. Why? The answer is really quite simple: Price.

These are two great devices that were released for $200, a breakthrough price for a tablet. Consumers are very price-sensitive, and if they're going to adopt something widely, Microsoft will need to offer a much less expensive offering or a next-gen Surface just won't stand much chance against its more entrenched (and less expensive) rivals.

Compelling Metro apps

I have asked Windows 8 user after Windows 8 user (and the few Surface users I could find) about what good Metro (uh, Modern UI) apps there are out there. The universal answer: None.

I'm writing this on Windows 8 right now, and I have access to the entire Modern UI Windows store. I tried to find a good text editor, but they all sucked. Not just mediocre, but terrible. So I'm happily using my traditional Windows desktop applications — fine for desktop use, but not a compelling tablet app solution.

Evernote makes nice little tablet apps on the iPad and even on the iPhone, but the Metro app for Windows 8 is pretty much unusable.

I know there are some useful Metro apps being released for verticals, and vertical-market custom software has always been a strength of Microsoft's, but unless Microsoft builds up a stable of really good, best-of-show Modern UI apps, the entire tablet/Start screen/touch model of the Surface will go the way of Microsoft Bob.

But if Microsoft does follow these five pieces of advice, they'll have a winner. And Bob's your uncle.