Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, Surface is lacking heart

Product development in the post-PC age is not an issue of specification sheets and balancing costs. Products need to involve the owners and make them feel joy...
Written by Matt Baxter-Reynolds, Contributor
One of these products is a great product, the other is a good product. (That mouse, on the other hand, is fantastic.)

I currently drive a Ford. I used to drive a BMW 3-series with a suitably large engine but -- and some of you may relate to this -- I traded in the BMW for the Ford about the same time that our first child arrived.

Truth be told, I really like the Ford. It's the most practical car I've ever owned. It has fantastic fuel economy, it's large enough to swallow most pieces of furniture and it's nice to drive. As is the main test with every product review.

But I actually loved the BMW. Driving that thing was relentlessly good. It was way more expensive than the Ford, and nowhere near as practical, but -- as BMW's current suggests says -- there was a constant undercurrent of joy whenever you sat behind the wheel of the thing.

There's no way that I could tell you why though. I couldn't write down on a piece of paper all the things that made essentially the same components create on the one hand a "great car" and on the other hand a "good car".

And why am I talking about cars? It's because the rules about writing on technology topics dictate that if I were to create the same allegory between "iPad" and "Surface" you're duty bound to scroll to the comments and start typing.

But the issue is the same -- the problem with Surface (like the Ford) is that it doesn't have heart.

Power supply

What prompted me to think about this was the arrival of a replacement power supply for my Surface. I'd left mine at a client's site and although helpfully someone at the client's staff shipped it onto me, the much less helpful Post Office lost it. I bought a new one for the staggering price of £35 ($56). In the UK, you can buy an iPad power supply for £25 ($40).

I have deeply ambivalent feelings about both Windows RT and Surface. I took a conscious decision to stop writing about it having got into a place where I felt I wanted to write little else than articles that focussed on the less good aspects of the two products. I've "come out of retirement" to do this piece as my experience of this power supply highlights a key problem with the two products.

Accepting that it was my own idiocy that led to the loss of the original power adapter, I kept putting off buying a new one. But on the other hand I had a Surface without any power in it and no juice meant the thing was little more than a physical manifestation of wasted money sitting on my desk.

(That's another odd thing about the Surface. I find myself desperately wanting to use it, but its rare that I actually do so. At the weekend the kids wanted to use my laptop to watch a film, and I thought I'd use the Surface to write this article whilst they were doing that. I was actually looking forward to using the Surface despite not missing it that much during the two weeks when it was terminally unpowered. That said, the moment passed, the film didn't get watched and I'm writing this on my Mac and not on the Surface. Hence, ambivalence.)

Much has been written about how the physical Surface hardware feels and the emotional responses that it engenders in its owners. Generally, I agree with way the populace of Surface owners feel about this. The power supply unit itself I find to be particularly pleasing in this regard. Ignoring the fact they've put the little indicator light in the wrong place, the materials feel appropriately well matches to the premium market that Surface is trying to hit.

But the box the replacement power supply comes in tells you a lot about the way Microsoft is managing this product and points us at the gaping hole where its heart should be.


The odd thing about Windows RT is that it's exactly what you'd expect to get if you said to a collection of very talented engineers "make Windows run on ARM processors". I can confirm that Windows RT is a version of Windows that runs on ARM processors. *Ticks box*.

But what's happened with Windows RT is exactly the same thing that would happen if an alien race came down to earth, took copies of all the romantic comedy movies they could find and headed back to their mothership (assuming they have mothers) whereupon they attempted to synthesise this "human emotion which the earthlings call love". You'd have alien simulacrums walking the earth acting as much like Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts as they possibly could, but any time they propositioned one of their human would-be victims, said human would-be victim would know that something was a bit off. The alien's love implementation would be missing what Simon Cowell calls the "x factor" -- that indefinable something that makes a thing greater than the some of its parts.

I now realise I haven't said what's wrong with the packaging of the power supply…

The box itself is in two parts. You have an outer sheath, which feels exactly right. It's the same matte, other-worldy feeling of the main Surface box. But the inside is the cheapest mishmash of badly folded cardboard and Scotch tape that you could possibly imagine. The outside says "I know you didn't want to spent £35 on a new power supply, but don't I feel nice!". The inside says "LOL! You spent $56 on a power supply but I'm only worth $20!"

When I tweeted about this last week, we got a bit of a debate going on the topic. Personally, philosophically even, I would go so far as to say that I hate packaging. I hate walking into a food shop and seeing this total waste of the planet's resources going into flashy packaging for little other reason than for marketing. If I could have ticked a box that said "just send this to me in the minimum packaging" I would have done so. I even would have paid more to have no packaging at all.

The problem here is the mismatch, or rather the poor execution. Like the aliens trying to learn love by watching Richard Curtis movies, Microsoft's designers know them that they need to deliver a premium product but their lack of heart prevents them from delivering one that hits the mark. If Microsoft's engineers had heart, the packaging wouldn't have been like that. An obvious move would have been to make the inner carton and outer sheath have the same experience. A bolder company, using its heart for bravery, might have decided to take a stand that flashy packaging like Apple's was bad for the environment (perhaps even decadent) and framed that message. What you have instead is basic poor execution where they look like they've tried to go in one direction and simply stuffed up the end result.


Whilst watching the progression of Microsoft's tablet strategy over the whole of this year, I've wanted them to do just one thing: shamelessly copy Apple in every regard. The iPad is a product that I personally think is very good, but much more relevantly the market has uncontrovertibly validated the iPad. A "first principles" approach tells you that plagiarism is probably a good plan, especially when what makes your competitor's product work and sell well is hard to define.

But like a lot of things that sound good the first time you think of it, reality usually imposes itself and what needs to happen for success to follow is more nuanced and subtle. You don't just "have heart" because you want it. Particularly, Microsoft isn't known for its heart. It makes good products that are market-appropriate. The issue now is that in the technology world that we now live in is "relationship-centric". Apple has up until now been on the fringes in the technology market because the relationship between the product and its owner wasn't important to the whole market -- it only applied to the small subset of users that discovered its products. Now that mobile is eating the world and as a result the technology market is tending to being relationic-centric generally, Apple finds itself in the ascendency. Apple's ability to build products with heart is resonating with a much, much larger market than they had before. Luckily for them, the potential market for smartphones and tablets is way, way bigger than the PC market. The timing has finally come right.

It's no longer enough at "market scale" to be smitten by technology just for the technology's sake. There are many appallingly bad products that technologist would buy but a normal human being never should. This is part of what makes thinking about this new world so difficult. Everything that's new today is about how normal people feel, and that transcends things like specifications, design by committee, and most importantly logic.

Microsoft then has two options. Either imbue its consumer products with heart (which it's actually managed to do with Xbox, importantly), or transform the market so that heart isn't important. Both of those sound tricky, and the clock is ticking.

What do you think? Post a comment, or talk to me on Twitter: @mbrit.

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