The Surface Pro's available storage problem

Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet/notebook has much less available storage capacity than other tablets. While my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott defended Microsoft, they clearly goofed. Here's why.

Is it a tablet or not?  Ed argues , in effect, that the Surface Pro is really an Ultrabook in tablet guise. As an Ultrabook, its usable storage capacity is on par with the market leader, the MacBook Air.

But Microsoft isn't calling it an Ultrabook, but a "laptop in tablet form." And it shares the same root name - Surface - with the Surface RT, which has been out for months and is marketed only as a tablet.

The Surface Pro can also be used as a tablet, albeit a thick, heavy tablet with lousy battery life. So, is it a tablet or an Ultrabook?

Perceptions matter A marketing truism is "perception is reality." Not in the Fox News sense of making stuff up, but in the mind of the customer: if they believe it, that is the reality the seller has to deal with.

Thus it is possible - and all too common in tech - for companies to be honest and correct and still run afoul of customer perceptions. Which is just what Microsoft did here. Their marketing messages are leading to confusion that the capacity fracas highlights.

Where Microsoft went wrong With the Surface Pro Microsoft is pioneering a new PC form factor: the tablet PC. Yes, there have been other "tablet" PCs, but this is the first that attempts to take the best of the iPad - form factor, app store, keyboardless use, vendor integrated - with a touch-optimized full Windows OS.

Here's how Microsoft can start to fix their confused marketing:

  • Call the Surface Pro something that acknowledges that it is a new category of computer. UltraTablet perhaps?
  • Focus the Surface brand only on iPad competitors, not UltraTablets too. Why? Think it through: in 3-5 years UltraTablets - if successful - will probably be the fastest growing part of a shrinking PC market, while Surface tablets will be the consumer platform of choice for people who don't want to manage a PC. Touch will be everywhere and the Surface brand will obscure important differences between Microsoft's touch-enabled platforms. 
  • Give up your non-standard binary measurement of storage as Apple did several years ago  adopt the IEEE/SI/IEC standard meaning of gigabyte as 1 billion bytes. Consumers and your marketing people will be less confused, your apparent capacities will be larger and you'll be supporting standards.

The Storage Bits take The Surface Pro is a worthy v.1 product, much more usable than the first MacBook Air, but it will need a couple of year's advances in CPU, storage and battery technology to become an Ultrabook competitor. But if Microsoft marketing continues down its current confused path the Surface Pro may never make it to v.2.

And for all of us who benefit by robust competition, that would be a real shame. I hope that Microsoft will up its marketing game to match the fine engineering of the Surface products.

Comments welcome, of course. And please, no rants about base 2 capacity metrics being the "standard." They aren't, so move on before the problem gets worse.

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