Microsoft announced on Monday that it will bring out its own line of Windows 8 PCs, a tablet/notebook hybrid called Surface. The reaction from the business and tech press was all over the map. Here's a summary of the week's coverage.
In fact, the entire tablet was designed in-house by Microsoft's teams, and if you believe what was said in the presentation yesterday, design and functionality in hardware has suddenly become a big deal in Redmond.
That's a big shift, and it's an important one. The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to make a break with its history — a history of hardware partnerships which relied on companies like Dell, HP, or Acer to actually bring its products to market.
That may burn partners in the short term, but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story.
It's a thoughtful post, with genuine enthusiasm for the idea and some doubt over whether Microsoft can pull it off.
But the Surface announcement raises as many question as it answers. And though it’s pretty clear that Apple and its iPad are the target of this product, Microsoft is taking a decidedly non-Apple approach to its design and creation.
Virtually everything about the Surface tablet is bizarre, even its name, which was previously used for a lumbering series of smart tables—yes, tables, not tablets—that have been unceremoniously recast as PixelSense. But what many on-site reports from the day of the launch didn’t care to mention is perhaps the most bizarre bit of all: The Surface tablet doesn’t even exist. It’s vaporware.
The devices that Microsoft showed off earlier this week weren’t real; they were simply prototypes. And anyone claiming to have gotten “hands-on” time with a Surface tablet was exaggerating, at best: No one was allowed to touch a working prototype, so those typing videos occurred on dead pieces of hardware without a working screen.
It's worth noting Thurrott skipped the announcement, so his reaction is based on secondhand accounts and viewing the video of the announcement. It's mostly a list of questions, interspersed with some sharp jabs. Given his generally pro-Microsoft leanings, it's curiously dismissive.
One factual correction: The machines shown at the Monday event were not prototypes. Microsoft's engineers probably built and tested hundreds of prototypes over the past three years as they refined the technologies in Surface. What Microsoft showed off on Monday represents the results of all those tests from all those prototypes. The Surface designs we saw are identical to the final product that will ship later this year. It might be more accurate to call them engineering samples.
This is a perceptive column from an experienced Microsoft watcher:
Let’s be clear, though: Microsoft making hardware is not a natural action. It’s what the company does in times of desperation. With the release of Windows 8 looming, Microsoft was indeed desperate for a hardware company to do something to blunt Apple’s runaway tablet machine. The Surface tablet represents an indictment of the entire PC and device industry, which has stood by for a couple of years trying to mimic Apple with a parade of hapless, copycat products.
Rather than complaining, PC makers ought to take note of what Microsoft has produced. It has one tablet—a 9 mm thick, 1.5 pounder—that will run on low-power ARM chips and arrive around October. The black device has beautiful, beveled edges; its shell is made of what Microsoft calls vapor-deposited magnesium, or VaporMg. (Brushed aluminum is so last year, Apple.) It also has a built-in kickstand. Best of all, the device comes with a cover that locks firmly in place, unlike Apple’s flimsy iPad protector, and which functions as a proper keyboard. Both the kickstand and cover-cum-keyboard seem such obvious ideas now that we’ve seen them, yet the great army of PC makers failed to think up anything so clever over the past two years.
More than any other observer, Vance really captures the tone of the event, with details about the human participants that are lacking in the more gear-focused tech press.
Fairly generic commentary:
Apple’s direction is clear on the iPad. Sure, there are keyboards you can buy and other accessories that will sort of turn it into a Frankenbook, but you don’t get the impression that the company really buys into that sort of thinking. “This is a touchscreen device,” the company seems to say. “It’s super at things that touchscreens are super at. If you’re more interested in a computing environment, may we direct your attention to these lovely laptops we have over here.”
See, therein lies the difference. Last week, Apple announced some new laptops. This week, Microsoft announced something that it hopes can replace some laptops.
Don't expect any opinions in this post that is so fair and balanced it seems afraid to answer a single question it raises.
This is a full-throated, start-to-finish rave-up, in which Surface is "beautiful and functional and simple and honest":
If Microsoft delivers—which means that the price and the battery life should be competitive with Apple's offerings, and that keyboard lives up to its billing—it has a real chance of stopping the seemingly unstoppable Apple empire. Or at least slowing it down.
If it fulfills its promise, if Microsoft Surface Pro is $800 or $900 and can pull six or seven hours of battery life, then things will change. It's going to be hard, since they don't have the app ecosystem yet, but that will come eventually. Microsoft has the user base, the developer base, and the deep pockets to make sure of that.
The only thing Microsoft was missing until yesterday just was a better platform. Now all the pieces are in place for a well-fought war, just like the good old days.
Consider this the canonical pro-Surface argument until further notice.
Dyed-in-the-wool Mac guy Gruber could not resist putting in his two cents' worth, starting with a heaping helping of schadenfreude:
Watching the Microsoft Surface event video, I sensed uneasiness. Not panic, but discomfort. Some will argue that I’m simply spoiled by Apple’s on-stage polish, but Monday’s Microsoft event struck me as rushed and severely under-rehearsed. Ballmer offered nothing but blustering bromides, and nothing even vaguely resembling a coherent answer to the big question: Why? Steven Sinofsky was nervous and hurried. It didn’t help that his first Surface RT unit crashed before he’d done anything other than wake it up. There was a moment where he said Surface was perfect for sitting down, relaxing in a chair, and watching a movie. He sat in that chair for about three seconds before rushing into the next segment.
I found the presenters far less rehearsed and the presentation far less cohesive than an Apple event. (With the notable exception of designer Panos Panay, who was very solid on stage.) There was no story.
In the 1383-word post, Gruber continually returns to lengthy discussions of Apple's product philosophy and launch procedures and economics. Then, after a few paragraphs, he snaps back to the subject at hand with a start. "Ah, where was I again?"
He concludes with a bold prediction: "If I’m right, it’s inevitable now that Microsoft will acquire Nokia."
I'm filing that under claim chowder.
Harry is one of my favorite tech journalists of all time, precisely because he excels at posts like these. In the hands of a lesser talent, this would be a hackish list of cringingly obvious questions chosen for their SEO value. Harry, on the other hand, promises 23 questions and delivers the goods with each and every one.
21. What if Microsoft had begun work on all this a half-decade earlier?
Surface borrows its name, certain user-interface principles and perhaps some technologies from Microsoft’s pricey table-top computers. Those machines were announced back in 2007–here’s a piece I wrote about them at the time–and I suspect that the company sincerely thought they’d be everywhere by 2012. Instead, they never amounted to much. It’s tempting to fantasize about an alternate reality in which Microsoft skipped the Surface table research and proceeded directly to the Surface tablet. Instead of rushing to catch up with the iPad, the company could have rendered it less of a milestone by releasing a great tablet first.
Worth reading the whole thing.
Newman notes that Google is following a similar path, and that both companies are drawing their inspiration from the same well:
"We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience--hardware and software--are considered in working together," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said at the Surface press event. You could probably attribute that quote to Steve Jobs and get away with it.
Microsoft's not the only company that's taken a liking to Apple's approach. Google also intends to build more of its own hardware. A new Google-branded tablet, manufactured by Asus, may be announced next week at the Google I/O developers conference, according to numerous reports. Several more Google devices, including new Nexus phones, are also reportedly on the way. Don't forget that Google now owns a hardware maker, Motorola, which may start churning out its own Nexus hardware in the future.
The optimistic tone is noteworthy compared to the cautious, skeptical tone of just about everyone else in the industry (Gizmodo excluded).
Dedieu is a by-the-numbers kind of analyst, who whips out the charts early and isn't afraid to extrapolate.
For Microsoft to maintain their profitability, they have to find a way of obtaining $80 of profit per device. Under the current structure, device makers will not pay $55 per Windows license per device and users will not spend $68 per Office bundle per tablet. Price competition with Android tablets which have no software licensing costs and with iPad which has very cheap software means that a $300 tablet with a $68 software bill will not be competitive or profitable.
However, if Microsoft can sell a $400 (on average) device bundled with its software, and is able to get 20% margins then Microsoft is back to its $80 profit per device sold. This, I believe, is a large part of the practical motivation behind the Surface product.
Didieu is a master at analyzing Apple's moves. It's less clear that his math is as well grounded for Microsoft's very different business.
A good old-fashioned rant. I am sure the first draft had some cuss words in it:
Am I the only person who believes this thing is a total jump the shark cluster-you-know-what for Microsoft?
What are the OEMs supposed to do? Well I suspect that if you are someone like a Lenovo or a Hewlett-Packard, you probably are seriously going to re-think whether or not you really want to produce tablets with similar specs to the Surface RT and Surface Pro.
You now have to out-value the Surface devices, or you have to play the Enterprise game with beefier, more expensive Windows 8 convertible tablets with higher-res screens and faster CPUs and SSDs that nobody other than select Fortune 500 firms may want to buy, because they’d rather do business with a hardware partner they already buy systems from.
Cranky. But thought-provoking.
What I want to know is, what's in the water over at Gizmodo?
Microsoft is the most innovative consumer tech company right now.
And it isn't just this week's announcements that did it. This has been building all year. There's Windows 8, Xbox Live, Skydrive, Kinect, SmartGlass; even Hotmail stepped up its game. The Surface, and now Windows Phone 8, merely feel like the culmination—or maybe the fulfillment—of what Microsoft has been poking and prodding at for the past six years when it first introduced the Xbox 360.
Microsoft is a company reborn. It's not just significant because of past achievements. Microsoft is exciting again because of what it's doing right now.
OK, they've had a rocky relationship with Apple for a few years since that iPhone-in-a-bar incident, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend and all that. But still, this is pretty enthusiastic stuff: