Thoughts on Microsoft Surface

On June 18 Microsoft unveiled a new family of tablets; the Surface for Windows RT and the Surface for Windows 8 Pro. I found this name curious as there already is a Microsoft product called “Surface”. Terrible naming aside, the Surface tablets are important products for Microsoft and the industry in general.

What is Surface?

“Surface for Windows RT” most closely matches an iPad’s hardware. It is powered by an ARM architecture CPU (specifically an nVidia Tegra), is very thin (slightly thinner than an iPad 3), and weighs in at 1.5 pounds. This device runs Windows RT, which is Windows 8 for ARM processors so it will not run legacy Windows applications. The spec sheet does say it will include Office 15 Apps. It will be offered with either 32 or 64GB of storage.

“Surface for Windows 8 Pro” is a similarly sized tablet but is powered by an Intel Core i5 processor. This device is 50% thicker and about 33% heavier than its sibling but can run legacy Windows apps. The Intel version has a higher resolution screen as well as a stylus for digital ink. The stylus is not capacitive but electronic, so additional sensor covers the screen. It will be offered with either 64 or 128GB of storage. The spec sheet does not mention Office will be included so I expect that to be at extra cost.

Both devices have a 10.6 inch screen with a 16×9 ratio. Although the device can be used in either portrait or landscape orientations, it seems that it is meant to be used in landscape. The WinRT display is described as “ClearType HD” and the Win8 version as “ClearType Full HD”, but they did not explain the difference. It sounds like the latter has a vertical resolution of 1080 and the former 720.

Technical details like screen resolution, RAM, and CPU clock speeds were not specified. It appears that Microsoft, like Apple, is getting away from the spec wars.

Why is Surface important?

The Surface tablets are important devices for several reasons.

First, this is Microsoft’s first Microsoft branded PC. This puts Microsoft in a position it hasn’t been in before; competing with its hardware partners. Microsoft will only sell the devices online and in its Microsoft stores, probably to appease its hardware partners and avoid competition. Still, this has to be worrisome to Microsoft’s hardware partners like Dell, HP, and Lenovo.

Second, it shows that Microsoft is not trusting its partners to present Windows 8/RT in a compelling way. Several times they described Surface as “a stage for Windows 8”. Microsoft is telling its partners that they need to step it up for Windows 8 and not just put Windows 8 onto generic devices.

It also shows how important Windows 8 is to Microsoft. This is not just another OS release like Vista or Windows 7. They want it to shine and are taking matters into its own hands to ensure that.

Thoughts/Questions

The Surface presentation showed some interesting hardware but left a lot of open questions that we won’t know until the devices ship later this year. Here are my take aways.

Microsoft can do hardware

The Surface tablets are not generic tablets or reference designs. It is clear Microsoft put a great deal of time, thought, and capital into the design of the tablet and its accessories. They sweated the details. This is shown in the materials, custom made display, angles of the camera, and even the sound made opening and closing the kickstand.

I have to say it – the touch cover is brilliant. Putting a touch sensitive keyboard into the cover gives you a portable full size keyboard without taking up screen space which is especially important on a 16×9 display. There is even a touchpad which can be used for legacy Windows apps. The cover is smart enough to know when it is wrapped around the back and not accept key-presses and knows when your fingers are just resting on it as opposed to typing. Even little touches such as the start screen automatically matching the cover’s color shows how much they are paying attention.

Going large

These tablets are clearly targeted at the higher end of the tablet market dominated now by iPad. These are not competitors for the Kindle Fire and Nook Tablet. They will not sell for $200.

Why did Microsoft announce Surface now?

If the WinRT tablet is not going to ship until the fall and the Win8 tablet three months after that, why announce them now? Palm and RIM are both examples of companies that announced products too early and suffered greatly for it.

I think there are two reasons for announcing Surface this early. First, I think this is a shot across the bow of hardware makers to step up their game. Microsoft wants to see Windows 8 on premium devices, not last year’s or “me too” hardware. The message is clear; if they won’t do it Microsoft will. Second, it is a statement to software vendors. Windows 8 will be released on splashy devices and there is opportunity to be part of a high profile product release if they ship their Win8 apps by this fall.

Price

No specific prices were given for either tablet, just to expect them to be similar to competitors’. With that said, I expect the WinRT version to start at $500 (same as iPad) and the Win8 version to be over $900. This will put the Win8 Surface in competition with the 11″ MacBook Air.

Also not mentioned were the prices for the touch cover, type cover, or stylus. I expect the covers will cost at least $75 if not more.

Availability

Again, no launch dates were given except that the RT version will ship “around when Windows 8 ships”, so that means October, and the Win8 version will ship three months later.

It sounds like the WinRT version will be available for the holidays, but the Win8 version will not. I don’t know if this is a logistical issue or they want some time separation to let Windows RT get some traction.

The next iPad will likely ship in March 2013, around the time the Win8 tablet will ship so it better be good enough to compete with next generation iPad.

Cheap MS Office

The WinRT tablet will come with Office 15. If the tablet sells for $600, that is not a bad deal considering Office for home sells for $150.

Differentiation between products

The two Surface tablets look very similar but are very different devices. They are different on the inside (ARM vs Intel), will have different software (WinRT vs Win8), will have different pricing, and will have different battery life.

How is Microsoft going to explain these differences to buyers before they get confused, give up, and buy an iPad? It is likely people will buy a WinRT tablet (because it is cheaper and lighter) to later find out their legacy software doesn’t run on it. Microsoft Stores can help here, but there are only 30 of them. The marketing folks have their work cut out for them.

Battery life

Conspicuously missing from the presentation was the estimated battery life of either device. One of the iPad’s most important features is that it can run all day long (10 hours) on a charge. If the Surface tablets (especially the WinRT version) can’t match that they will have a big problem. Not mentioning battery life at all indicates that battery life is not something to brag about, which is worrisome.

Cellular options

No mention was made of 3G or 4G cellular radios. I hope this is because they need to work out deals with carriers and will be offered as options in the final product. A good number of iPads sold are 3G/4G models and absence of the option would be a problem for Microsoft.

Microsoft’s Commitment

My biggest worry with Surface is Microsoft’s commitment to the product. What is their goal with the Surface? Does Microsoft really want to be in the tablet business, or are they just trying to scare their hardware partners to step up their game? Are they willing to take a loss to get units into the field? Is this an Xbox or a Zune HD?

Biggest Losers and Winners

I think Google and Samsung is the biggest potential losers here. This has the potential to kill Samsung’s Galaxy Tab sales (they’re the leading Android tablet) and high end Android tablets in general.

I think consumers are the biggest winner as this stirs the pot and will force all tablet makers (especially Apple) to keep up their game. As I say often, competition is good. Even though Apple dominates the tablet space today that can quickly change if they get complacent. Ask RIM or Nokia about that.

Conclusions

Microsoft took the covers off of some innovative tablet products and have me cautiously optimistic. There is a lot to like here, but there are many important unanswered questions. Execution is going to be crucial for Surface to be successful. They have to get the details right out of the gate.

Is the Surface an “iPad Killer”? Probably not, seeing how well the iPad is entrenched in the market, but it doesn’t have to kill the iPad to be to be successful. The tablet market is in its infancy – its just a little more than two years old. There is room for iPad and Windows tablets to both have a healthy business. (And Android too if they can create a compelling product.)

The tablet industry needs some serious competition to move forward. Perhaps the Surface tablets can help other tablet makers to do better also.

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About Lee J.

Mobile Guy!
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