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Musings on the Microsoft Surface

June 19, 2012

So like every tech blogger on the planet, I’ve spent a lot of the last 24 hours thinking about the Microsoft Surface announcements yesterday. In case you’ve been under a rock, Microsoft announced a new tablet line called “Surface”, with two sublines: one based on the ARM processor and Windows RT, the other based on the Intel Core i5 processor and Windows 8 Professional.

Here are my Top 5 thoughts.

Surface is not just an iPad competitor
Of course the big news is that Microsoft is making a tablet, or a tablet-form PC, or whatever. But the two versions of Surface point to an interesting strategy. This isn’t just an iPad competitor, it’s an Apple competitor. With Surface (I wish we could call this one Surface Lite), Microsoft is targeting the iPad. Windows RT, ARM proc, within an ounce of iPad’s weight, etc.

But the Surface Pro has set it’s sights somewhat higher: The Macbook Air. Surface Pro uses a Core i5 Ivy Bridge CPU. It’s running a full version of Windows 8 Professional. It’s a computer with a clever keyboard. At 14 mm (18 mm with the Type Cover) and 2 pounds, it’s a heavy tablet but it’s a light laptop. And with USB 3 and Bluetooth it starts to look like a nice expandable laptop. Unfortunately it also starts to look like an Ultrabook killer (see thought 5).

Microsoft was pushed into pre-announcing
While the last-minute nature of the announcement could be Microsoft wanting to create buzz, there were too many critical items missing on Monday. Sure, pricing and availability info was nonexistent, but so was any discussion of wireless data, processor specs or battery life. Since these would have made the presentation stronger, I’m interpreting their lack as a sign that Microsoft announced before they were ready.

Tablet computing just became more than just “apps”
For the knowledge workers that do their real work on a computer, the iPad and Android tablets are woefully inadequate. Sandboxed applications and a lack of multitasking make the existing tablets useful toys but not great for “real” work. And iOS6 doesn’t change that.

So with this announcement Microsoft changes the game — now there is an ARM-compatible O/S that acts more like a traditional operating system, but runs on a tablet. And although the lighter version of Surface will only run new Metro-style apps, it will include a full version of Office, and it will run those apps the way Windows does today — apps can work with each other, multitasking will work, etc.

Although we knew it was coming, seeing it in a real device makes it even more clear: the iPad may have more apps (many more apps) but it is still fundamentally a consumption device.

Microsoft has finally gotten back to its grass roots
The Microsoft I grew up with, and the Microsoft that employed me for years, was a company that was used to being the underdog. It thrived by appealing to the end user even when big bad corporate IT would not look twice at Windows PCs. Windows ended up in offices because users liked the power and simplicity (compared to their IBM 3278 “green screen” terminals) and users would not back down. This grass-roots strategy worked for Windows, it worked for Office, and it even worked spectacularly well for Exchange. But in the early 2000’s Microsoft forgot the end user in its desire to appeal to large companies. Thus we ended up with the original Tablet PC, Windows Vista and the Windows Mobile nightmares.

Now I see Microsoft going back to the grass roots strategy, and building the device the people (not committees) want. I see that with Windows Phone (although I wish it happened two years earlier), and I see that with Surface.

This isn’t jut a product, it’s a bet-the-company strategy
The hidden message on Monday was simple: Windows OEMs are free to build whatever they want, but if they stick to the safe designs then Microsoft will come in and compete directly. That is going to push some manufacturers out, and it will make the others nervous.

And that’s just the RT version. The Surface Pro is going to priced presumably to compete with Ultrabooks, but could be a lot more attractive. Which could be great for Microsoft, but not so great for vendors who were hoping for a great Windows 8 boost to their laptop sales.

I think that in the long run this will reduce 3rd-party innovation in the Windows space. That means that more innovation has to come from Mama Microsoft, or Apple will win by default. Microsoft has the deep pockets to make this happen, but in the past they haven’t had the stamina to work on hardware for years (the Xbox is a notable exception). With the Surface announcement, the mission of Sinofsky’s Windows group has changed. Not just for today, or for this year, but forever. They are now a hardware & software design & integration team, just like Apple, and they better get used to a rhythm of ongoing releases to make this work.

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From → Tablet Computing

One Comment
  1. Diego permalink

    Thanks for the blog :-)

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