New Surface Is A Question Mark

So, Microsoft is now in the end-user computing game. Up until now, the only end-user computing device you could buy from Microsoft was the XBox, and it was aimed at entertainment-only. Otherwise, they made mice, keyboards and other peripherals (most of which are quite good. I’ve used several over the years). But with the Surface, Microsoft is now going head-to-head with its own 3rd party hardware manufacturers, the guys they have depended on to generate software sales. The device looks very, very cool, but at the same time, the timing of the announcement feels a bit like desperation. The machine, announced yesterday, won’t be available until about 3 months after Windows 8 is released. And Windows 8 doesn’t come out until sometime in the 3rd or 4th quarter of this year. Basically, these tablets likely won’t be on store shelves until around December.

The Cool Parts

There is no doubt these tablets look cool, and their spec sheets are pretty impressive in some ways. Microsoft is making them full-on slate PC’s, with USB ports and optional keyboards and such. The higher-end model uses an Intel Core i5 processor (so expect battery life on that to be pretty bad compared to other tablets). The lower-end device is an ARM-based machine. Both will run versions of Windows 8, which brings the substantial catalog of Windows applications (at least on the Intel platform) along for the ride.

The case and overall industrial design is quite sharp. What is appealing (at least to me) is the matte finish on the case, rather than the usual shiny metal/plastic that pretty much every tablet uses today. What is impressive to me is that the enclosure doesn’t look like plastic (because it isn’t, it is metal) even with the matte finish. There are times where a matte surface is actually paint, making whatever material is underneath look like cheap plastic. This device looks substantial but elegant at the same time. Microsoft has done a pretty good job in the industrial design department on this thing.

The integrated kickstand is pretty neat, and a feature that I would potentially find useful. I currently have a folio case on my iPad that offers something sort-of similar. It isn’t great for vertical viewing (it isn’t that stable), but it works fine when I lay it just-off-horizontal. I gave up on the smart cover, simply because it kept detaching at the wrong time, and doesn’t protect the whole device. Besides, the folio means I can take my Kensington stylus+pen along, and have room for business cards, a few bits of paper, etc. The cover and integrated kickstand for the Surface looks like it might do a better job than Apple’s solution (but I have yet to try the new Smart Case to see if it is truly an improvement).

But, Why So Early?

Microsoft should have learned a lesson from RIM and Nokia: pre-announcing your product doesn’t work anymore. There was a time when sales of competing product could be effectively closed down when a major player pre-announced upcoming new product. That was a pretty effective strategy in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s. Some ambitious companies would start some new product, but all it took was a pre-announcement from Microsoft or IBM, and that virtually ended sales for the poor upstart.

That doesn’t work all that well today. Part of this is because there is an expectation that product announced today is available today (or very, very soon afterward). Apple is the archetype for this now: with some exceptions, Apple generally announces product that will be shipping either the day of the announcement, or within a few weeks. Software still tends to get announced in advance, but hardware is (for the most part) available the day of the presentation. Companies like Dell, HP and Sony are generally following this same approach.

One Shot To Make A Splash

But RIM tried this approach with the Playbook, and it didn’t have a measurable impact on iPad sales. All it did was give people time to first nit-pick about shortcomings, and then forget the thing was on its way. Trying to maintain excitement about a product that isn’t due out for months is very hard. There are too many other things that will happen in the interim, and it is easy to get lost in the noise. Basically, you don’t get to make a splash with the same product twice. You have one shot to get everyone’s attention, get them excited and hopefully get them to act and buy your product.

RIM isn’t alone in trying this tactic. Nokia and Microsoft tried a similar, albeit less detailed, “pre-announce and hold back the tide” approach with Windows Phone. Nokia was going to change everything for Windows Phone. The largest manufacturers of phones, and pioneer and one-time leader in smartphones, was going to vault Windows Phone to the top. The devices would be as good or better than iPhone. They would be cheaper. But there was a 10-month gap between when Nokia jumped on the Windows Phone ship and when product actually shipped. People forgot about it. Sure, the die-hard Windows supporters kept saying “just wait until Nokia’s phones arrive”, but when they finally did, apparently everyone forgot to go and buy one.

Will Surface Give iPad Some Competition?

To date, no tablet has given iPad any sort of real competition. There was some early promise in the Kindle Fire, but once the Christmas sales rush was over, unit sales plummeted back to earth. The most successful non-iPad tablets have been Samsung’s Android-based devices (which are nice tablets). But none have put a dent in iPad sales, or slowed them down one iota. In the still-nascent tablet market, Apple is rolling over the space in much the same way they steamrolled the MP3 player market with iPod.

The real proof will come when these devices are finally on sale, but we appear to be 6 months away from that (and possibly more). Until then, it is pure speculation, and debating future success based on paper specifications is generally a pointless exercise. History is littered with products that were better on paper that failed in the market place. The so-called “experts” and pundits have been wrong, too. Few predicted the success of the iPod. There were plenty of people who figured the iPhone would be a bust. There were plenty of people that didn’t expect the iPad to have any success.

These same experts (including me) expected RIM to be a dominant player in the smartphone market (they aren’t) and continue to own the enterprise (they don’t). There were plenty that predicted that Windows Phone would be a major part of the smartphone market, with supposedly superior design and with support from the biggest mobile phone manufacturer (it didn’t happen).

Should Apple be worried? Possibly, because the tablet market is still pretty new. We are basically into the 3rd year of this space, so much can still change. Things are still fluid, and while the iPad has gained some traction in the enterprise, a viable Windows-based tablet could change that situation. Businesses are generally conservative when it comes to technology, and there is a still a “do what everyone else does” mentality when it comes to core technology. Businesses don’t choose “the best”. They choose “the safest” or “the most stable”. But mainly, they choose whatever means the lowest learning curve and whatever has the biggest pool of people with skills to use the technology. So far, iPad has done well because so many people have them, and a business has a good chance of their own people being familiar with iPad, and being able find new hires how have some experience with it.

But a Windows tablet from Microsoft has the potential to change that picture. It means businesses can still use software they trust and understand, and more importantly have invested substantial amounts of money in. The only caveat is that, unlike the PC market, the tablet market has been driven primarily by consumers initially. PC’s didn’t get rolling until businesses started to adopt them, and the consumer market for PC’s came later. The tablet, though, has been largely a consumer-driven market, and there is already a fair bit of inertia to overcome there. The tablet, and the iPad specifically, didn’t need the enterprise to drive growth and sales. The iPhone and Androids have seen the same phenomenon, since neither was built for or targeted at the enterprise. While businesses initially took the lead on smartphones, they were relegated to second-tier status when consumers started to drive the market. The enterprise has been very much in second-place when it comes to driving the tablet market.

Best Foot Forward May Not Be Enough

Ultimately, we won’t know until there is real product that you can buy. Microsoft has definitely put some effort into the Surface, and something beyond the cosmetic elements. The device looks good. It has impressive specifications on paper. Windows 8 may be a step in the right direction. But given how fluid and how dynamic new markets can be, the real success won’t be known until the thing hits stores. Until then, I wouldn’t necessarily bet a lot of money on the Surface, but I’m not prepared to write it off just yet. There is potential in the device.