My Thoughts on Microsoft Surface
Thereís a saying: past performance is no guarantee of future results. While itís normally used to describe financial performance there are many other situations where itís true: Weekend at Bernies II, Rocky 5, Dumb and Dumberer, Batman and Robin, etc.
Windows on PCís has been a runaway success for many years now. As popular as it has been, its big problem is that its success has been largely limited to the desktop and laptop market. The idea that there should be a computer on every desk is suddenly a very limiting concept. (anyone remember how 640kb should be enough for everyone?).
Microsoft has tried to put Windows onto TVís with their Media Center software. Iíve tried it numerous times and have never been satisfied with the result. Itís not flexible enough and requires too much work. I also havenít been able to convince any family members to jump through the hoops to get it to work. Inevitably youíll also need to exit the Media Center interface at some point which is when youíll realize the Windows user interface just isnít suited for use on a TV.
Iíve also experimented with various Tablet optimized versions of Windows from the first Windows XP Tablet Edition all the way to a beta version of Windows 8 on an ASUS tablet. On XP Tablet Edition the experience was a complete and utter train wreck. It was hard to enter text and for the most part the things were too small to touch. To me it was basically unusable unless you were running specialty software which made it easier to use.
Windows 8 on the Asus Tablet was a little better in that Microsoft finally included a decent keyboard plus they added the Metro UI from their Windows Phones which made it easier to use. The problem here is that when I use Windows I want to use the Windows programs Iím used to. Those programs donít necessarily work with Metro which then requires me to use the classic desktop which isnít well suited for a tablet.
The other day, Microsoft announced their new Surface Tablet. It runs their upcoming Windows 8 operating system. There are versions available for both Intelís x86 architecture (Surface Pro) as well as the ARM architecture (Surface) which is found on pretty much all smartphone platforms.
In a break from tradition, instead of being available from their partners (like ASUS, Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo) Surface is only available from Microsoft. Perhaps itís a case of Microsoft not being confident that their partners can properly interpret their vision of Surface.
Is Microsoft Cool again?
On a slightly different but still relevant front Microsoft is poised to open their first store in Canada. While Canada isnít a huge market it shows that theyíre serious about their Surface push.
Of course, Microsoft going it alone isnít the first time theyíve done this. The first four things that come to mind when I think about Microsoft hardware are XBOX, XBOX 360, KIN and Zune. The first 2 are examples of success while the last 2, not so much. So going alone might not work.
Then again, maybe Microsoft wants to become more vertically integrated. On the Windows Phone front the best thing I can say about their partnership with Nokia is that weíll have to wait and see. Maybe Microsoft sees a brigther future if they go it alone.
When is a great legacy a bad thing?
To me, the greatest thing about Windows is that Iím able to run my favorite programs on it. This may also be one of the worst things about Surface. If Iím to buy a Surface tablet Iím doing it because I want the program compatibility. The problem is that while programs may work I may not enjoy using them because of the difference in form factors.
When the iPad and Android tablets came out they didnít have the weight of 10 years worth of programs compatibility weighing down on them. In a sense they got to have a fresh start.
Now itís obvious some developers will rewrite their programs to be Metro friendly. In Microsoftís ideal world all developers will do this within a couple of months and weíll all forget about the classic Windows desktop giving Microsoft the fresh start they need.
The reality is that most developers will probably take a wait-and-see approach with Surface. If customers buy it they will develop for it. In the meanwhile they will focus their attention on iPad and Android. Most customers will adopt a similar strategy. Itís one of the reasons why itís so hard to get an ecosystem started.
When is choice a bad thing?
Surface will be available in x86 (like our desktops) and ARM flavours. The x86 versions will be compatible with the programs we expect to be compatible with Windows. The ARM flavour will be running a different architecture which is not compatible with x86. Try explaining this to a non enthusiast.
The wild card is business
If you look at any business and North America youíll probably find at least one computer running Windows. So intuitively Surface will take off because businesses will demand it right? Not so fast - if that was the case weíd all still be using Blackberries. The market has changed fundamentally. Itís now very much a bring your own device market.
So where is the demand for Surface going to come from?
Timing is key
No matter how perfect Surface and Windows 8 are one factor which looms over it is that itís really late to market. Weíre on our 3rd iPad generation while Android tablets are about 2.5 generations in. Thereís a reason why the 2 dominant Tablet ecosystems both launched in approximately the same time frame.
If you already own an iPad with a bunch of programs on it and are happy with it why would you buy a Surface?
Iíll buy that for a dollar!
One wildcard is the price. I remember netbooks, they were really, really cheap laptop PCís which were just terrible. While they were adequate for surfing the web theyíve pretty much died off. You can make really cheap PCís but theyíre not going to be really good.
The tablet space is so competitive we already have many sub $250/$200 Android tablets. Even the iPad 2ís price has dropped from a low of $499 to $399.
Even if the Surface is a very solid piece of hardware (and initial impressions are that it is) itís not enough to have great hardware. Look at the Blackberry Playbook - itís a solid piece of kit. The Palm Pre wasnít bad. These days it takes more than solid hardware to succeed.
Just because Microsoft Windows has billions of users does not mean billions of users will want a Surface.
The irony of this piece is that I typed part of this on my Windows 7 laptop and finished it up on my Windows 7 desktop.
While I hope Microsoft succeeds itís going to be an uphill battle. The industry needs competition otherwise it will grow stagnant.