Surface: Microsoft's 'yada yada' problem

The Surface tablet looks like the best product Microsoft has shipped in years. Yada, yada, yada -- it's a failure. Why?
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

One of my favorite episodes of the popular U.S. television sitcom Seinfeld involves a recurring joke in which various characters during the show use the nonsense phrase "yada, yada, yada" to gloss over the most interesting portions of a lengthy story.

"So speaking of exes, my old boyfriend came over late last night...yada, yada, yada, I'm really tired today."

The comedy, of course, is in what's left unsaid. There's enough detail for you to infer what was left out, but the excitement is the small chance that you're wrong. (In the above example, the neurotic character George Costanza -- pictured, above -- is desperately hoping that his new girlfriend Marcy didn't, uh, yada yada with her ex, if you know what I mean, as she recounts to him what happened the night prior.)

So here's a technology story for you to dissect. In June, Microsoft announced the Surface, a tablet device of its own design, that combines the finger-friendly and new Windows 8 operating system with the strength of the revamped Microsoft brand and its marketing resources. In late October, the device is released to the world. Attractive and memorable advertisements cover city surfaces, fill magazine pages and saturate television channels. It's Microsoft's strongest showing in years, an offering with extreme clarity around the who, what and why released during the hardware-happy Q4 holiday rush. 

Yada, yada, yada, it's not even Christmas yet and Surface is a failure.

That's according to Boston-based brokerage firm Detwiler Fenton, which indicated in a research note yesterday that it expects Microsoft to sell just 500,000 to 600,000 Surface RTs, despite reportedly manufacturing millions of them in anticipation of strong demand.

To compare, Apple sold one million iPads in 28 days after it released the first generation of the device in April 2010. (To Microsoft's credit, Apple had little to no serious competition to distract consumers. To Apple's credit, it basically created the majority of the market demand for what was then a largely unproven product.)

"So, speaking of tablets...Microsoft introduced its Surface tablet last month...yada, yada, yada, I bought the kids an iPad."

What, in the above sentence, is left unsaid? What inferred detail would make George Costanza, Microsoft executive, turn on his heels, throw up his arms in desperation and storm out of the room, slamming the door behind him?

What is the yada, yada?

There are clues. Surface received mixed product reviews, citing brilliant design and clunky performance in equal measure. It carries a high price tag, $499 at Microsoft's tiny network of branded Stores and $599 most everywhere else, which is as steep as that of Apple's iPad. For all its merits, that brilliant marketing campaign fails to mention the where and when, confusing terribly interested customers who seek to play with (and hopefully purchase) the device.

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And if you are indeed interested enough in Microsoft's new product to connect the dots yourself -- after all, we are not all conditioned to visit Microsoft's stores or website when we want one of its products, as we are with Apple -- you'll find the result extremely disappointing. Testing or obtaining a Surface is shockingly difficult.

(To wit: I live in the city of Philadelphia. If I want to play with an Apple product, I stroll into its retail store on Walnut Street. If I want to play with a Microsoft product, I...drive across state lines to Delaware to visit its retail store? Yeah, not gonna happen.)

AllThingsD's John Paczkowski agrees. "Given [Microsoft's] paucity of stores," he writes, "the average consumer's best chance of seeing Surface these days is on a billboard." I enthusiastically confirm this experience, having seen many representations of said device without ever having laid eyes on the real McCoy.

Microsoft's biggest hurdle for Surface? It's the yada yada.

Marcy: "Are you close with your parents?"

George: "Well, they gave birth to me and...yada, yada."

Marcy: "Yada what?"

George: (slowly, staring off into the distance) "Yada...yada, yada."

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