Microsoft's Surface needs a reboot: Here's how

The mobile market needs a third player to keep iOS and Android on its toes, but as it stands Microsoft's Surface tablets don't cut it. But with a few tweaks the platform has a chance of being a serious player.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

How many Surface tablets has Microsoft sold? Other than a select few who pace the corridors at Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, WA., no one is really sure. But that doesn't stop the speculation. In fact, the absence of any figures from Microsoft is fueling speculation that sales have fallen short of expectation.

While I see little point in pulling a specific number out of the air, it's clear from both supply chain chatter and the fact that a major OEM has decided to give Windows RT tablets a wide berth that sales have not been stratospheric.

Many of the problems facing Microsoft's Surface platform are the same problems that are stagnating the entire PC market:

  • PCs are no longer sexy, whether they be desktops, notebooks, or tablets. Product branding -- such as Apple, Android, iOS, and so on -- is what seems to sell, not form factor;
  • Companies that were once helping to drive the massive PC juggernaut forward -- Intel, Dell, HP, et al -- have been sidelined as we move from the era of the PC into the post-PC era;
  • A polarization in how Windows 8 has been received by consumers. Users seem to either love Windows 8 or hate it, with the majority disliking the changes that Microsoft made;
  • By extension, Windows is not seen as sexy. For most, Windows is simply the software that has to boot up before they can fire up a browser;
  • The price tag of a PC -- and the Surface in particular -- is hard for consumers to swallow in the face of cheap tablets such as the Kindle Fire HD.

There are also Surface-specific problems facing the tablet.

  • Surface and Windows RT are new brands that Microsoft has to push into an already crowded market;
  • Windows RT is "Windows" in name only, and doesn't offer the backward-compatibility and legacy support that people associate with the Windows name;
  • Microsoft made it known that Windows RT-powered Surface tablets would be followed later by Windows 8-powered Surface Pro devices that would offer the backward-compatibility and legacy support that Windows is known for, dampening interest in Surface.

Surface is important to Microsoft's Windows 8 strategy because it shows OEMs and consumers alike what Microsoft thinks a Windows tablet should be like. Given that Microsoft has put so much emphasis on touch in Windows 8, it needs a platform that demonstrates the benefits of touch. If Surface fails then it would cast doubt over Microsoft's entire Windows 8 strategy.

What should Microsoft do? It should reboot Surface. Here's how:

  • Alleviate some of the market confusion by renaming Windows RT. Windows Tablet is a name that springs to mind. The "RT" of Windows RT is nebulous and fails to convey anything about the operating system.
  • Shift focus away from Windows RT and onto Windows 8-powered tablets. Unless Microsoft can price Windows RT hardware closer to that of Android, the platform is likely dead in the water. There's not enough value in the platform as it stands to justify the price.
  • Cut the price of Surface hardware. Microsoft still tries to pull in PC-level license fees in a post-PC world. For an emerging platform with no track record, and a patchy app ecosystem, that's possibly too optimistic.
  • Give Surface more of an enterprise focus. To do this Microsoft might need to employ the help of an OEM like Lenovo or Nokia. At present the hardware has a consumer vibe with an enterprise price tag -- a combination that makes it a hard sell to either markets. The success of the iPad with enterprises -- in particular the penetration is has made into Fortune 500 companies -- shows that there is great enthusiasm for the right tablet. Redmond should work on bringing this enterprise tablet to market.
  • Extend the Surface branding to a select number of tablets from other OEMs. This would help give the brand more traction and help it grab market share faster.  
  • Hardware needs an ecosystem. Not just apps, but also tablet-specific services that help to reduce out reliance on desktop/notebook systems. Think iCloud, but for Windows.

I like the Surface hardware, and think that the mobile market needs a third player to keep iOS and Android on its toes. And with a little tweaking, Surface could offer just that. 

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