On Microsoft’s Surface Strategy

“It’s a hot story – it could potentially be a hot product. But it’s going to have ample time to cool.”


Yesterday, Microsoft announced a tablet. It’s called the Surface (no, not that Surface), and there are two versions. One runs on the ARM architecture, and is therefore powering Windows RT. The other runs on an Intel x64 processor, which powers Windows 8 Pro. Their designs are reminiscent of a large Zune HD; in other words, they are charmingly simple, very thin, and are some of the first tablets to come forward that seem to be able to challenge the iPad on design.

In other words, Microsoft has taken the best of the iPad and brought it Windows 8. It isn’t copying, it’s common sense: the consumer now demands a better product. Apple has one of the best, and Microsoft distilled the iPad’s hardware down to what makes it great. I have the utmost respect for Microsoft for taking a stand in this field with products that they believe are great; that takes guts, it’s a complete 180-degree turnaround from the Microsoft of the Windows 95 years (1995-2009), and it shows that the company is listening to the concerns of the press and their stockholders, as well as being ready to take the next step in their history.

However, it isn’t all picture perfect. Microsoft made one of the classic blunders that, as history has shown, can kill a product. Both Surface tablets were announced without pricing or a release date. As Windows 8 is rumored to ship in October, it is reasonable to assume that Microsoft plans to ship the Surface tablets in that time frame.

But why, Microsoft, did you announce them so early, without any details that could seal the deal for potential buyers? Can I give you just two examples of other tablets that were announced far to early? The RIM PlayBook, which has been dying a slow, painful death since it was released as RIM’s QNX testbed with a half-baked OS, and the HP TouchPad, which was killed merely weeks after being on the market. We’ve also seen that tablets with killer design aren’t ensured success – just ask Samsung, who’s been producing “iPad-killers” with an insanely thin profile that simply sit on the shelves.

The lack of information is troubling enough, but it raises another question. Currently, the Surface continues to be one of the most discussed topics in technology. The Surface is popular on Facebook, Twitter, and even national news publications. It’s a hot story – it could potentially be a hot product. But it’s going to have ample time to cool.

This timeline draws multiple parallels in the technology space. Once upon a time, a little company named Palm unveiled a new OS that wowed everyone at CES. It was new, innovative, and had amazing design. Six months later, the news cycle had moved on to bigger and better things (read: 3GS) as the Palm Pre had a lackluster launch on Sprint. Microsoft could be facing a similar predicament: Windows 8 (and the Surface tablets) ship in October. That’s four months away, which is plenty of time for everyone to move on. And in four months, there’s a good chance that we will all be wowed by a Nokia tablet running Windows 8.

As I said, Microsoft has distilled the design of the iPad down to examine and use what makes it insanely great. In doing so, they seemed to have forgotten some of the common sense business directives that Apple acts on time and time again.

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