Three days in the life of a once and former Microsoft Surface RT user

David Gewirtz showcases three days in the life of a typical consumer, originally excited by the Microsoft Surface RT tablet, who eventually becomes more and more upset and disappointed. David predicts this scenario will be repeated over and over in real life.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

UPDATE: Microsoft says returns okay on opened Surface RT product packaging.

I predict that the scenario I'm about to present here will happen over and over and over again. This is not going to be pretty.

Let's follow a typical consumer, Kevin, as he goes to buy a Microsoft Surface RT.

Last week, Sean Hollister of The Verge called a bunch of Microsoft Stores and spoke to representatives. The dialog I'm going to use for the store reps comes from real representatives who gave Sean these (very wrong) answers. Special kudos go out to Sean for doing this research.


Kevin is sitting down to lunch with Barbara and Mike, his co-workers. Mike says, "Hey, Kevin, did you hear about this new Windows tablet that's out?"

Kevin: Yeah, it might be what I've been looking for.

Barbara: What about an iPad? I like my iPad.

Kevin: Well, the iPad's nice, but I want to be able to do some work, too. I've been thinking about an Ultrabook, but I'd really like something a little smaller and cheaper.

Mike: There's a new Microsoft tablet that runs the new Windows version and has a flippy keyboard. Looks cool. You should check it out. It's even got Office.

Kevin: Yeah, maybe I will.


Kevin surfs the Web, visits the Microsoft Web site, and looks at the Surface RT tablet. The Microsoft site talks about serious fun and play.

Kevin sees the device runs the Home and Student version of Office, which has Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. That's good enough for him. He'd like Outlook, too, but since he can get a free copy from his Exchange provider, he figures it's not much of an issue.

Kevin's a diligent sort. He's been using Windows every day since the early XP days, and wants a little reassurance before he goes out and spends $600 or so. So he picks up the phone and calls his local Micosoft Store.

After waiting on hold for a few minutes, he is connected with a salesperson. Kevin asks, "What's the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT, or are they the same thing?" The rep replies, "They're pretty much the same thing. There's no real huge difference except the RT is more touch friendly."

That's what Kevin wanted to hear. Sweet. He thanks the woman on the phone, hangs up, and can't wait until work is over.


The Surface has been out for a few weeks now, and the initial sales rush is over. The Microsoft Store has the Surface in stock -- and it's gorgeous! Kevin is incredibly excited by how it feels in his hand.

Kevin likes the tile interface (how he thinks of the Metro UI), and how it looks. Touch and wipe actions are fast and fluid. The salesperson (not the same person Kevin talked to earlier on the phone) shows him how to lauch Office. Word feels like Word, PowerPoint is PowerPoint, and Excel is really Excel.

And all this on a tablet! It's even got the Windows desktop. As a long-time Windows user, Kevin is completely tickled by the idea of a full Windows Explorer desktop interface on a tablet. This is what he's always wanted.

There are also plenty of ports. He can't wait until he gets home, hooks up some of his USB devices, and moves some data and programs over to the new machine.

He's got one more question before he plunks down $699 for the 64GB version and another $110 for the Surface Touch keyboard. Yes, he's spending $809 plus tax, but he's spent that before on a crappy laptop. This is a tablet -- with Windows!

Next up, a questions and mistaken claims about Windows RT...

Kevin notices "Windows RT" on the display placard and remembers he wanted to learn a little more about RT before buying. Is it or isn't it Windows 8? He turns to the salesperson and asks, "What can you tell me about Windows RT?"

Salesperson: The Microsoft Surface RT has Windows 8 on it.

Kevin: Well, are there any other limitations I should be concerned about?

Salesperson: Also it can not do an installation of x86/64 and desktop software.

Kevin knows all about desktop software, and once in a while, when poking around Windows on his computers at home and at work, he's seen mention of x86/64. But he's never really figured out what that meant.

Many people using Windows never really encountered how techies refer to the Intel platform. X86 is the 32-bit version of Windows (named after the 80x86 processors it initially ran on) and the 64-bit version is used to describe the 64-bit versions of the OS and programs. Among other things, the 64-bit OS can support a lot more RAM on the computer. But Kevin doesn't really know all this. He's been using 32-bit Windows installs, with less than 4GB of RAM, for years and it's just fine for him.

But, since the sales person brought up x86/64, Kevin asks what it means.

Salesperson: It's nothing you'd care about, that's more for people who are building their own software.

Kevin's not a programmer. He just wants to use the thing. He knows a programmer in the office, and that guy has a beast of a computer, two huge screens, and he's always cranky. Kevin has no intention of programming. He can't imagine being a programmer. The guy's always squinting and mumbling profanities under his breath about semicolons!

Of course, the salesperson's answer isn't true. What the spec really means is that Kevin is destined for disappointment. But let's not get ahead of our story.

Kevin is just about to pull the trigger, and then he remembers: his games. One of the things that really excites him about the Surface RT is that he wants to run some of his Steam games on it. He is pretty sure it can't handle his high-end shooters, but Kevin has a whole library of fun, older games and board and strategy-style games he thinks would be a hoot to run on his new tablet.

Kevin: I love playing Steam games. I know I probably can't run the big shooters, but should there be any other issues in running Steam? Can I run Steam and my games?

Salesperson: Sure, but you'll have to transfer them over via USB.

Dear Reader, if you've been following the trade press, you know that just about all the answers given by our fictitious salesperson are wrong. But as the Sean Hollister interviews revealed, these were real answers given by the people selling the product.

Let's continue to follow Kevin. By now, he's handed over his credit card, run up an $800+ charge, and has excitedly left the store headed home with his new prize.


Kevin's returned home, unboxed his new tablet, and plugged in the Surface RT to charge. He can't get over just how nice it feels. The fit and finish is actually nicer than anything he's seen come from Apple.

He's so excited about his purchase! It's getting pretty late, and it's a work day tomorrow, so he can't play with the device much. He loads a few Word documents onto a USB stick and transfers them over to the Surface RT. He's delighted to see that they're there. He creates a "Work" folder for them, launches Word, makes a few changes, and saves them back to the desktop.

This is just sweet. He wraps up for the night, and decides to take the Surface RT to work tomorrow.

Next up: Day 2, and unexpected frustrations...


For some reason, Kevin's having difficulty connecting the Surface RT to the office network. He's spoken to the IT guy, who is about as cranky as the programmer (what is it with these techies?). The IT guys says he hasn't run much Windows 8 software yet, and doesn't have time to configure another BYOD machine today.

In the meantime, the IT guy tells Kevin to just move over a copy of the company's network authorization installer and install it.

By now, it's noon, and Kevin's been fussing with the auth installer all morning. It just doesn't seem to work. He keeps getting a message that says, "This app can't run on your PC." He has a meeting to go into, so he just copies the meeting notes over to the Surface RT using a USB stick, and takes the Surface RT into the meeting.

He takes notes, but has a problem getting onto the Internet. Again, probably that auth program will need to be fixed.

It's now 2pm and Kevin catches a break. Janice tells him to connect to the guest network, which allows visitors to access the Internet without being on the corporate network. Within a few minutes, Kevin's up and running and connecting online.

That's good, because he's got a few programs he needs to download. He still can't get into the company shares (the auth program is the bottleneck), but he can download a copy of Outlook 2010 from his company's Exchange service provider. So he does that.

Kevin is one of those people who can't stand IE. It works well enough, but all his bookmarks are in Chrome, as well as all his carefully tuned extensions. So he goes to Google, types in Chrome, and downloads a copy.

It's 3:30pm and time for another meeting. Kevin loads up a PowerPoint onto his Surface RT and goes into the meeting. He doesn't have his usual bookmarks because he hasn't installed Chrome yet, so he fumbles for a bit trying to find one of his regular Web sources to answer a question -- but all-in-all, the meeting goes well.

It's 4:30pm and Kevin's got a little while before he can go home, so he tries to install Chrome. He gets another weird "This app can't run on your PC" error message, much like the one he was getting with the auth program. This is getting annoying, but it's quitting time. He'll tinker with it all after dinner.


This is what Kevin's been waiting for all day. He's been just champing at the bit to get his Steam games installed on the Surface RT. So far, Kevin hasn't really figured out that won't be possible.

He's seen some instances where various applications wouldn't install, but he's been in and out of the Windows desktop enough over the years that he's used to installation problems and how to overcome them. Kevin still has no clue he'll never be able to run his software.

That will be a painful discovery that takes place later tonight and tomorrow.

Blissfully unaware of his impending frustration, Kevin happily downloads the Steam installer. It takes a little longer than normal, because he still can't seem to get Chrome to work, which means he's forgotten that Steam comes from steampowered.com, not just steam.com, but in a minute or two, he does a Google search and he's back on track.

Steam's installer is downloaded, but after a clicking it, he's getting no joy. Figuring he got a corrupted download, he deletes the installer, and downloads it again. Still no joy.

Kevin hasn't quite figured out how to do a full restart on the Microsoft Surface RT, but he finds one of the little "Charms" in the Metro interface, pokes around for a little while, and eventually restarts the machine. After all, with Windows, if something doesn't work, restart.

Kevin is back in the tile interface now that the machine has restarted. He's quickly learned how to drop into the desktop and so he's in the desktop, once again trying to launch Steam. It's still not working.

This time, Kevin reads the smaller print under the "This app can't run on your PC" message. It says "To find apps for this PC, open the Windows Store." Well, Kevin isn't looking for apps. He's trying to get Steam to run.

In Kevin's mind, apps are the little accessory things in the tiles, and he's trying to run a regular Windows program (which, to him, is clearly a different thing). He's got plenty of apps on his phone, and he knows the new tablet also supports apps in the tiles, which he is looking forward to playing with. But he bought this Windows tablet mostly to run Windows programs. That's why he was so thrilled to see the Windows desktop on the tablet.

Kevin still doesn't realize that the Windows RT environment won't let him run any of his favorite software or any desktop applications other than what came pre-installed on the tablet. He still thinks he's running into a one of the many install problems he's encountered in Windows over the years, and he's still trying to find a fix.

Kevin can't remember the URL for the forums he goes to for Steam support, so he puts aside the Microsoft Surface RT, fires up his trusty Windows 7 laptop, launches Chrome, and logs into his favorite support forum. Weirdly enough, he's finding people saying Steam won't run on Windows RT.

This is disturbing. He starts to Google "Windows RT" and is finding all sorts of tech articles. There are some glowing reviews of the Surface RT, some curmudgeonly whining about the lack of a Windows 8 Start menu, and even some annoyed-looking bearded dude saying that you can't run Office apps in the office.

It's now 11pm, and Kevin has gotten more and more upset. He can't tell who's lying. The sales reps swore Kevin would be able to run his software, but these online geeks keep saying he can't. But he's got to be up at six the next morning, so it's time for bed. He'll deal with this tomorrow.

Next up: Day 3, wherein it all goes off the rails...


Kevin is back on the phone to the Microsoft Store. He's trying to get some answers. He speaks to a rep, who tells him, "I honestly can't say there's much a difference at all when it comes to a regular computer user. For an average user the differences between the pro and RT are slim."

This raises another red flag. "What," Kevin asks, "is pro?"

The sales rep tells him that "pro" means the Surface Pro, which will be out sometime next year and will run full Windows 8 for Intel.

Now, Kevin is starting to freak out. "What," he asks, "Do you mean by 'full' Windows 8 for Intel? Isn't that what I just bought?"

"Oh, no," the rep replies. "You have Windows RT. Only mobile apps would run on Windows RT."

By this point, Kevin is nearly enraged. It doesn't make sense. He bought a product from Microsoft that looks like Windows 8 and has Office, has a Windows 8 desktop, but won't run Windows applications -- and yet, he was told it would.

He's spent almost three days (and nights) trying to get things to work, he's out more than $800, and not only can't he get the programs he wants to run to run, he's also apparently not allowed to use the machine for work.

What? The? Frak?

Kevin calms down enough to tell the sales rep that he's going to come back to the store later today to return the machine. Kevin wants to know how to securely erase the machine, so the work documents he installed on the machine are no longer stored on the machine.

UPDATE: After publishing this article, a Microsoft spokesperson reached out to me regarding return policy. Although I believe the wording could still be misinterpreted, I've been assured that Microsoft will, in fact, accept returns even if the Surface RT package has been opened. Here are the details:

See Also: Microsoft says returns okay on opened Surface RT product packaging

I've added strikethroughs on the sections below where the policy has been clarified and, therefore, the returnability concern portrayed in this story is no longer an issue. Big thanks to Microsoft for stepping up with an honorable answer.

The rep tells Kevin that a support person will have to answer his question about securely erasing the machine, and that Kevin can make an appointment to see a support person in the store. But the rep also tells Kevin that since he's opened up his computer's packaging, it's not something he can return.

The rep points Kevin to the Microsoft Store return policy and quotes the return policy for hardware, including computers and Xbox:

Returns and exchanges of computers, computer hardware items (including mice, keyboards, and printers), and other hardware items (including Xbox 360 consoles and controllers, Zune players, and accessories), will be honored for thirty (30) days from the date of purchase, provided the item has not been opened or altered from its original state and does not show wear or damage.

By now, Kevin's worked up a full head of steam. It's probably good that he's calling on the phone, because he's just been told he's spent more than $800 for a computer that won't do what he wants it to do, what he'd been told it would do -- and he can't get his money back.


The day passes, but slowly. Kevin has growled and been surly to everyone in the office, because he's been so upset about his purchase. He was even more upset that the rep told him he couldn't return the device.

It took most of the day, but Kevin has finally calmed down. Kevin is a very capable negotiator and he knows that most things will go his way if he just takes them slow and stays calm.

He's decided to go to the Microsoft Store and talk with the people there, in person. After about an hour waiting for the manager to be freed up, and another 45 minutes arguing his case, the store waives the return policy, and Kevin finally gets a full refund for the Surface RT.

There was no tech available to help him securely erase the tablet, so Kevin had to give up on fully clearing the storage on the RT. He decided that while the work documents he had on the machine were confidential, nobody would really find much use in them, and besides, he wanted his money back on the tablet, and that was more important.

Kevin leaves the store stressed out, but satisfied. The whole Surface RT experience was a huge letdown for him, but he feels he was eventually treated fairly, and he got his money back.

Kevin has decided to take Barbara's advice from lunch the other day. He is going to buy an iPad. After all, while it also won't run Windows, it's got hundreds of thousands of apps. Kevin can't play his Steam games, but he's heard Angry Birds is pretty good.

Next up: lessons learned...

Where this thing went off the rails

If you're reading this, you're probably thinking Kevin is stupid, that he should have read the online sources, and he would have known that the Surface RT wouldn't run desktop applications.

But Kevin is like most consumers. He's busy living his life and doing his job. He sees ads, does a little investigation, asks questions of sales reps, and buys products.

Microsoft apparently told Sean Hollister of The Verge that the sort of misleading statements he got from Microsoft Store representatives (which I used as dialog in this article) won't happen in the future. The company claims it's going to better train its employees and will make sure the marketing used is very clear about the use (or lack of use) of desktop "legacy" applications.

But we've all met sales representatives, they come, they go. Microsoft can do its best to provide good training, but there's no doubt there will be confusion and there will be unhappy customers who feel the product was misrepresented. If the Microsoft return policy is upheld as written, and people who take their Surface RTs out of the packaging, try them, and find them wanting can't return them, there will be a lot of very unhappy consumers who feel really ripped off. 

UPDATE: Kudos to Microsoft for stepping up to the plate and assuring us that returns will be accepted. See Microsoft says returns okay on opened Surface RT product packaging.

I'm convinced that there will be a lot of Kevins out there, people who will buy the Microsoft Surface RT thinking it runs full Windows.

I strongly advise Microsoft to play fair and let their stores know that they should allow consumers to return these devices, whether opened or not.

Most users don't consider their daily-use applications legacy applications. Most work users aren't going to go for the Metro interface for all their work. They can't. They need four or five or six or seven or eight windows open at once. They need to multitask between CRM and accounting and writing and programming and special terminal interfaces into their corporate ERP system.

While, as Ed Bott reported earlier, the Surface RT is a fine device for certain usage models, I'm convinced that there will be a lot of Kevins out there, people who will buy the Microsoft Surface RT thinking it runs full Windows.

The difference, as Hollister describes, is that when you go from Mac OS X to an iPad, there's a very, very clear difference in user interface. But when you go from Windows 8 to a Windows RT, there's absolutely no difference in UI. They look identical. This confusion will permeate product sales into the future -- unless Microsoft finds a way to differentiate Windows RT from Windows 8 more clearly.

In the meantime, Microsoft can count on more buyers' remorse and more product returns.

As for Kevin, it turns out he's quite happy with his iPad. He also bought a sweet little Ultrabook for doing real work on, and he's also quite happy with the full version of Windows 8 that runs on the Ultrabook.


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