Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Can Microsoft scratch the "Surface"?

I have been reading and hearing extreme reactions to Surface, Microsoft's new tablet(s). At one extreme, people have said that Microsoft is finally ready to kill Apple! At the other extreme, people have said that this is going to die as soon as they launch it because of lack of apps ecosystem. Has Microsoft confused people by announcing two devices in one shot? One is a pure tablet (Surface RT) and another is a tablet that can become an ultrabook (Surface Pro). Most of the reviews on the internet are not talking about these two products in isolation. Most people start talking about the tablet (Surface RT) and then add the features from Surface Pro (full desktop apps, ability to become laptop etc) and it all becomes a little fuzzy and seems to sound as if this tablet from Microsoft is ready to not only "kill" iPad but also laptops! Can it really do that? Let us find out!

There are two Surface products - you should know which one you want & why!

So, for clarity sake, first let us list down features of both products separately and then understand where each of them stand. I have taken these details from

The table here shows the features of the two products. Surface RT is the pure tablet which will compete with the iPad and Android tablets, not to mention other Win8 RT tablets as well! The parts where it really scores are the external ports to allow greater connectivity to other devices and its compatibility with Office – so you can be more productive and actually create some content (using the new keyboard cover!) rather than just consuming it as we mostly do on our touch devices. Flexible storage options also help. But it can only run Metro apps and not your regular desktop apps, so that is a big point to consider. Microsoft has not really been able to get too many apps on its Windows Phone also. However, as I have tried to prove earlier, it does have a lot of the basic apps that people need, so number one priority for Microsoft should be to bust the (half-true) myth that it does not have apps. Yes, it does not have as many apps as Apple and Android but its working towards it and it seems to have enough apps for the average user. So, Microsoft, please please please can you showcase a lot of apps in your advertisements of the Surface because you have done a miserable job with Windows Phone?

Is Surface Pro the "ultimate" device?

Moving to Surface Pro, this is the product that has the full power of a laptop and can serve as a new product that is both a tablet and a laptop. This will run the full Win8 and support both Metro apps and the desktop apps. There are lots of people who have raised doubts about Windows8 as Microsoft seems to always run into troubles with a new product (remember Vista?) – they fix it later and then come up with a better product (Windows7) but that image needs to be worked on. If they don't deliver well on the OS this time around, it is going to be an uphill ride from the word go! But it looks good and MS did a good job with the Windows Phone 7 also, so fingers crossed.

Now, a lot has been said about the Surface Pro being the ultimate device given its ability to work as a tablet and as a laptop. I agree that it does meet my idea of the ultimate device as well. However, I have some doubts in my mind. While these may or may not matter in your situation, my motivation behind listing out these points is to bring this point that mixing all in one may not be the only thing in the world for some people.

Can you use the Surface Pro on your bed or on your lap?
Can you put this on TOP of your LAP?
If I have to use the Surface as a laptop, I need to get the kickstand out and open up the magnetically attached cover/keyboard. While all those gorgeous pics in shining colours do impress, my doubt pertains to the actual target segment of such devices. A lot of these people will be the high flying category who will need to use their devices to work productively while in transit, at the airport, in the car, on the bed in the hotel room etc. However, the Surface seems to be useful as a laptop only when it is placed on a flat surface (forgive the pun). I can't imagine it being useful when I want to use it on "top" of my "lap" because of the wafer thin keyboard which may not be able to respond properly in the absence of a flat surface beneath it. The screen also needs a flat surface to allow the kickstand to do its magic. Having said that, not all buyers would probably face this issue 'cos some may be more than willing to use it as a computer on the table but I wanted to put that point out for consideration. If you look at the Surface from the side, you can see how much flat surface it needs to work as a pure laptop with keyboard.

Laptop and tablet in one is fine but some times two is better than one!
Next doubt is with respect to the fact that the ultimate device is a tablet and a laptop and makes me happy that I own two items when I paid for only one. But someone like my daughter may not be that happy! My daughter likes to play kids games and lots of other stuff on touch devices. So, in today's world, I could give the tablet to her so that she can play on it while I want to do some productive work on the laptop. When she is fed up of the touch games and wants to play some real games with her Barbie, I can use the tablet for my own use. But if the tablet and the computer are one and the same - how do we do that? Point is that most families will need to buy two devices anyway because of such dynamics. It is not a point against the Surface but a point to consider. Now, you could go ahead and buy two Surfaces - RT  as a real tablet and Pro as a "laptop" but then you may really go and buy a laptop as well. Food for thought!

Do you use your tablet sitting on a table or lying on your bed?
The last point is something again related to how people generally use their iPads (and other tablets). It is clearly more of a consuming device rather than a productive device. A lot of people use it for going through Facebook updates of their friends, "liking" pics etc and occasionally commenting on those pics etc or reading books or news or watching videos etc - all while lying in their bed or sofa, basically, in a relaxing position and not sitting in their table and chair!
Is the keyboard radical enough to "kill" iPad?

The points above just want to highlight that just by having a keyboard as a standard accessory, the Surface may not become the ultimate device. In any case, if this experiment with the keyboard does work out well, there is nothing stopping the iPad users from buying one and using the iPad as a laptop too - even though it may never sit on the top of their laps!

Microsoft Surface Pro can run both the Metro apps as well as the regular desktop version. So, it has best of both worlds but the Surface Pro is fighting with the ultrabooks and laptops. Based on my thoughts outlined above, I believe Surface Pro is more than a tablet but lesser than a laptop. So, pricing the Pro somewhere between the tablet and ultrabooks may help otherwise it is going to be a real tough ride for Surface Pro. 

It seems to me that Microsoft has addressed some pain points of iPad users by providing external ports and compatibility with Office in the Surface RT tablet. It will probably not get the Apple lovers to move to Microsoft. But there are so many others who want more from their devices - especially the business people where looks and brand appeal matter but practicality matters too. This is classical marketing - you find the gaps in your rivals' products and serve those. However, when it comes to Surface Pro, if its price is anywhere near the price tag of ultrabooks, it may not really work as most would not want to compromise  about usability at that price.

In my opinion, Microsoft should not confuse itself as the new Apple. Apple's products have been game changers for a variety of reasons. It delivers discontinuous innovations. Microsoft has tried to deliver what could be called continuous innovation - improving upon an existing product. Microsoft should play to its strengths of providing a practical, more productive solution that is compatible with the world's most popular OS. It should work on its weaknesses in marketing so that consumers actually realize the worth of its product. If that happens, Surface will be a winner even though the iPad will not be killed.

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