For Microsoft Surface, will third time be a charm?

In New York City this week, Microsoft's new CEO Satya Nadella will host a press event for the company's Surface line. There's plenty of speculation about products, but the real challenge lies on the business side. Can new management turn Surface into a smooth-running machine?
Written by Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor

When Microsoft unveiled its Surface PCs in Los Angeles nearly two years ago, some observers were skeptical of the company’s long-term commitment. The announcement itself was so unexpected that it confounded all the usual observers.

A week after that surprise announcement (the most surprising part was how well Microsoft kept it a secret), I rounded up the reactions of a dozen media observers. Reading that story now (How the tech press reacted to Microsoft Surface) is fascinating. Some of the most ardent Microsoft watchers were nonplussed, while Daring Fireball’s John Gruber nailed the analysis, even predicting based on that announcement that it was inevitable Microsoft would buy Nokia.

It’s worth going back and re-reading those reactions today, as Microsoft gathers the press for another Surface event whose details it has once again managed to keep under wraps.

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The story of Surface in the past two years has been consistent: brilliant ideas, accompanied by erratic execution and some outright stumbles.

In many ways, the Surface story mirrors that of Windows 8. That’s not surprising, given that Microsoft’s then-new hardware was intended to be “a stage” for Microsoft’s soon-to-be-released OS.

Much has changed since 2012. Steve Ballmer and Steven Sinofsky, who co-headlined that event, are both gone. New CEO Satya Nadella will take the stage in New York City to unveil … something. Almost certainly there will be a small tablet and who knows what else.

But the real challenge for the new CEO is turning Surface into a well-run business unit.

In the past 18 months, I’ve used every Surface-branded device: the Surface RT and Surface Pro, the second-generation Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, and a host of peripherals including input devices and docking stations.

The devices themselves are, without exception, beautiful. As I noted in my hands-on report of Microsoft's Surface RT, the hardware itself is drop-dead gorgeous, and the build quality is exceptional. The same is true of the Surface Pro, whose killer feature is its nearly silent operation, thanks to a clever design that vents heat around the edges rather than relying on a fan and a vent as so many competing devices do.

It’s almost a cliché to point to the company’s history of getting things right on the third try.

And, as I predicted when the first Surface device reached the market in October 2012, this is a family of devices that have gotten better with age. That’s especially true of the Surface RT and its successor, the Surface 2.

On the software front, the biggest improvement for those Windows RT-powered devices was the addition of Outlook, followed closely by built-in support for synchronizing files with the cloud via SkyDrive (now OneDrive). And every member of the Surface family has benefited from the improvements in Windows 8.1 and Internet Explorer 11. Improvements in both the number and quality of Windows Store apps make the Surface story more interesting as well.

The second generation of both hardware devices also included welcome improvements. Adding a Haswell processor to the Surface Pro 2 moved battery life from disappointing to acceptable, and redesigning the kickstand with two positions rather than one improved the user experience tremendously.

I’ve been very impressed with the Surface accessories, including the redesigned Type Cover 2, with backlit keys and a much better feel than the original. The Surface docking station, which turns a Pro or Pro 2 into a no-holds-barred desktop computer that can go mobile in a (literal) snap, is the best implementation of a docking station I’ve ever seen.


But good luck finding those peripherals, or for that matter some of the more popular configurations of the newer Surface devices. After building far too many of the original Surface RT devices and having to take a $900 million writedown, Microsoft has swung in the other direction, leading to perennial shortages at its online store. When I checked just now, the only Surface Pro 2 model available online was the $1800 edition with 512 GB of storage. The 64, 128, and 256 GB models are out of stock.

When I reviewed the Surface Pro, I called it brilliant, quirky, and flawed. The improvements in the Surface Pro 2 are welcome, but it’s still too heavy and battery life is still not good enough.

And on the Surface Pro 2 (a review unit provided by Microsoft) I’ve experienced an ongoing problem: After awakening from sleep, the Surface Pro 2 occasionally crashes and restarts. Microsoft confirmed that they are “aware of a limited number of reports where Surface Pro 2 will experience spontaneous reboot when waking from sleep.” The company says it’s “investigating the reports and working to deploy an update for customers in the near future.”

For Microsoft watchers, it’s almost a cliché to point to the company’s history of getting things right on the third try. After a rocky start, it will be interesting to see whether new management can put all the pieces together and finally turn Surface into a critical and financial success.

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