Jun 182012
 

A combination screen protector/keyboard and a fold out rear stand are distinctive parts of Microsoft’s new Surface tablet.

Microsoft staged an event in Los Angeles late this afternoon.  Indeed, it was late both in the sense of scheduled start time and actual even later start time, and even if it did start at its planned start time, it would still have been an unusual thing – it was too late to make today’s East coast newspapers/news programs, and there seemed to be no clear reason to choose Los Angeles (where Microsoft has no real presence) over Seattle, where Microsoft is headquartered a mere mile from The Travel Insider’s own global headquarters in Redmond.

As seems de rigeur for such events these days, the topic of the release event was left a secret in an attempt to try and tease some interest and speculation and publicity prior to the event.  But whereas Apple does such things seemingly effortlessly, and the speculation on any new Apple announcement starts well before the announcement of a release event, Microsoft’s surprise announcement came out on Thursday last week, too late for any significant build up of interest or excitement.

A few people thought the event would be something to do with another costly attempt to blow some life into its seemingly free-falling and failing partner, Nokia.  Others guessed it to be a new Xbox (a game playing device).  Others, with no real enthusiasm, thought it might be some type of tablet announcement.

Well, before you fall off the edge of your seat from the suspense (and assuming the headline didn’t give you a big clue) Microsoft’s big event was indeed to announce a new tablet.  Yawn.  You can go now.

What We Don’t Know

If you’d like to know more, by all means, please do keep reading, although the most interesting parts of the release event are not what was announced, but what was not announced – details such as exactly when the units would be available for pre-order and when they would be delivered, details such as how much they’d cost, and also details about vital issues such as battery life and of relevant interesting things such as screen resolution.

We understand the concept of releasing a product prior to the first unit being shipped.  That is common these days.  But a successful release strategy involves giving the curious buying public full details of the units being promoted – everything they need to make a buying decision right away, and then following up with an ability to translate that buying decision into an immediate order, together with a promised date for when the units would start shipping.

Instead, we get fuzzy statements about fall availability for the entry level unit and a wait of another three months from then for the upgraded unit – in other words, possibly not even until next year.  As for pricing, all we are told is that it will be in line with other types of similar devices (whatever that means).

One is left with a clear perception of an appallingly amateurish approach, starting with the scheduled and actual timing of the event, its location, and its lack of specific information now being disclosed.  Let’s hope the people in charge of announcing and promoting the device come from a very different part of Microsoft to the people in charge of actually designing and making the device.

So why hold a premature release event?  It seems the release was rushed out, before the final specifics of the product have been locked down.  Is Microsoft aware of a big new announcement from Apple, Google, or Amazon that it hopes to blunt by coming out with its own spoiler announcement in advance?  We don’t know, but we do think that trying to infer any sort of underlying competence for this incompetent event is probably giving Microsoft more credit than it is due.

What We Do Know

Let’s play nice with Microsoft and share with you the little that they did share with us.

They announced two tablet devices, apparently designed by themselves and now being built (probably in China of course) to their specifications.  They will be called a ‘Surface’, with the lesser one being the Surface for Windows RT and the more fully featured one the Surface for Windows 8 Pro.

The units run on Windows 8, the not yet released new version of Windows.  The entry level unit, with an ARM processor inside, will run on the Windows RT version, the more advanced unit has an Intel i5 processor and will run regular Windows 8.  We’re assuming that software which runs on regular Windows 8 will also run on Windows RT, although we’ve seen some suggestions to the contrary.  We’re also assuming that software written for regular computers will also run on the tablets, and that’s also an assumption we’re not very happy making.

Both units have a 10.6″ diagonal screen, with a more ‘widescreen’ ratio than the iPad screen and its 9.7″ diagonal, but still with a few more square inches in total of screen area than the iPad offers.

Although the units have more screen area, they have massively fewer pixels, making for grainy unsatisfying picture quality on their screens.  The entry level unit is believed to have a resolution of 1366 x 768, and the better unit has an unknown resolution, but the ‘vertical’ dimension will probably be at least 1080 pixels due to being declared to be capable of 1080p video display.  Microsoft is refusing to confirm the screen resolutions of both devices (why?).

The entry level unit is an ounce heavier than an iPad, the fully featured unit is a massive half pound heavier, tipping the scales at 2 lbs.  This is way too heavy.

The units have a very clever feature – a protective cover which doubles as a keyboard, and available in two styles with different types of keyboards on them.

The entry level RT unit comes with 32GB and 64GB capacities, the Pro version has 64GB and 128GB capacities.  Both also support Micro SD cards, and have USB (2.0 in the RT, 3.0 in the Pro) ports too, giving them massively more connectivity and expandability options than the iPad.

We don’t yet know what there might be in the form of sensors, gyros, compasses, accelerometers, and GPS receivers in the units.

The extremely limited and carefully controlled amount of ‘hands-on’ experience allowed to reporters at the press event this afternoon clearly underscores the fact that the units are currently massively pre-production and far from ready to be tested and trialed in an ordinary manner.

The Different Design Paradigm of Tablets

The good range of input/output features also point to the possible weakness of Microsoft’s design compromise.

In developing the iPad, we’d say that Apple started off with a desire to make a non-traditional ‘non-computer’ to which it then added some computing features/capabilities.  But the over-riding desire of Apple and its then CEO, Steve Jobs, was to come up with a device that was pure intuitive simplicity in operation – in part due to the ‘no moving parts’ design of the hardware and in part due to the similarly very simple and limited features in the operating system that was designed to work with it.

This concept of less being more has been taken by Android and applied to Android type tablets too, which are also something less than a computer and not devices intended to compete directly with notebooks and ultra-books for all purposes and scenarios.

Microsoft however seems to have approached the tablet design from the opposite perspective – wanting to graft a touch screen onto a computer type device, and running a regular computer operating system that has been designed as some bizarre bastard hybrid semi-touch screen semi-keyboard/mouse controlled system (ie Windows 8).

We are reminded of how the US military overspecs their equipment, and we wonder if Microsoft hasn’t done the same thing, and in doing so, lost sight of the successful simplicity of Apple’s vision – their iPad is a non-computer, something you don’t need to know anything at all about computers to operate, and something which unabashedly doesn’t claim to be capable of doing anything and everything.

Will the Windows 8 OS have the same elegant and largely hidden simplicity?  Will it be as bug-free and responsive?  Will they be instant on, instant off, instant loading type devices?  Will it be necessary to read a manual, to learn commands and gestures?

Microsoft Now at Odds with its Hardware Manufacturing Partners

We’ve recently been observing how Google’s now completed purchase of Motorola puts it in the new situation of competing directly with its phone hardware manufacturers, and suggested this could encourage phone manufacturers to de-emphasize their commitment to Google’s Android phone OS and to perhaps take a second more positive look at the Microsoft Windows Phone 7 OS instead.

But now we see Microsoft putting itself at odds with – in many cases the same hardware manufacturers – companies it is hoping will make Windows 8 based tablets, and, if they do so, who will now find themselves competing against Microsoft’s own tablets.

How complex is that!  A hardware manufacturer now has reason to be distrustful of Google when it comes to phone hardware, but it also now has reason to be distrustful of Microsoft when it comes to tablet hardware.

Google sort of had oblique reasons for buying Motorola (which we believe it did primarily to get Motorola’s patents) and after buying Motorola, it sort of makes sense to keep the company alive and making phones.  But Microsoft seems to have no pressing reason or need to enter into the tablet marketplace.  There’s nothing uniquely innovating in its tablet designs, and even if there would have been, there is no reason why it couldn’t have licensed the technology at preferential rates to hardware manufacturers building Windows 8 based tablets.

Instead, Microsoft is now creating tension and ill-will among one of the two core constituencies it needs support from – hardware manufacturers.  Or has Microsoft decided it can switch business models and now emulate Apple and be both the only source of hardware and the software to run on it?

The premature nature of this release is also interesting when considered from the perspective of Microsoft’s relationship with its hardware partners/competitors.  A more win-win approach would have been for Microsoft to coordinate and host a joint launch event with itself and several other manufacturers all simultaneously announcing Windows 8 based tablet computers.

But with Microsoft’s rush to announce its own products well before the point at which most responsible hardware manufacturers choose to formally launch new products, it could be thought that Microsoft’s urgency at getting its announcement out was partially due to wanting to compete more strongly with its own hardware ‘partners’.

Application Software and Pricing

One of the two core constituencies Microsoft nees onside are the hardware manufacturers, mentioned above.  The other is the universe of software developers.  Without application software, any type of tablet is totally useless.

One of the great things about the iPad is that there are many many hundreds of thousands of apps and games you can run on the iPad, all conveniently available from Apple’s iTunes store, and most of which range in price from free up to typically less than $10.  Many programs are between $1 and $5 in price.

They are not only inexpensive, they are also small in size.  An iPad app only requires a few tens of megabytes of storage.

There are a smaller number of Android apps, but still numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and with similar bargain pricing and small ‘footprints’ in terms of megabyte size.

But what of Windows 8 software?  While we expect most Windows 7 software will run on Windows 8 too, this is all software that is designed for a keyboard and mouse interface and which is massively bloated in size, filling up hundreds of megabytes of space.  This doesn’t matter when you have a 500GB or larger hard drive, but if you are trying to fit many different programs, plus pictures, songs and videos, all into one tenth that space, you will have huge problems.

Have a look at your current computer hard drive.  How much space is used on it at present?

Current Windows software is not only enormous in size, it is expensive, too.  Although Apple sells word processing and similar core business programs for as little as $10 a piece, Microsoft’s Office suite can cost $200 – $350.  Is Microsoft now going to release a version of Office for its tablet, and slash its price down to $20 – $35?  You might think ‘why not’ – it is an extra sale, after all.  But there is a possible reason why not – that Windows tablet device would very likely be a device that was purchased instead of a notebook/ultrabook device, and Microsoft still sells its regular Windows software at ‘full’ price for notebooks and ultrabooks.

Indeed, it seems Microsoft is bundling some basic Office software into the entry level Surface (although – at least at present – it doesn’t seem to be including any Office software with the Pro version Surface).  So instead of selling Office software onto a Notebook or Ultrabook, it is now giving it away on a Tablet.  Does that make good sense?

How about companies like Adobe.  Buying a copy of Adobe Photoshop can cost $1000 on a notebook or ultrabook.  How much will Adobe now sell it for on a tablet?

For that matter, if you simply buy yourself some sort of game program to run on a Windows computer, you’re probably looking at prices of up to $100 for that.  Compare that to game software for the iPads and Android tablets, priced anywhere from free to $10.

At present, it seems there is a huge lack of software to run on the new tablets, and a need for companies that have created business models and cost structures based on very high software prices on regular computers to now re-invent themselves to offer the same software on the Windows tablets.

This also refocuses on the earlier issue – the different design paradigm between the current crop of tablets and the small portable traditional type computers they have been selling alongside (and against).  Is the Microsoft Surface a device that will take the best features of current tablets and notebooks and carve out a new category of device?  Or is it a device that will combine the worst features of both current categories, and fail massively?

Microsoft’s Mixed Track Record of Hardware Successes and Failures

Our preceding question about whether the Surface will spectacularly succeed, or equally spectacularly fail, isn’t just based on the mismanaged release event earlier today.  Microsoft has a very mixed track record when it comes to hardware products.

Yes, the company has sometimes released excellent hardware, for example, the Microsoft version mouse and ergonomic keyboard are both extremely good devices.

But it has also released some outrageous plonkers – most recently the Kin line of mobile phones, released in May 2010 and discontinued a mere two months later.  The ink had hardly dried on their press releases proclaiming that the Kin was the new game changer for the mobile phone marketplace, and sneering at people who disagreed as being people lacking in vision and comprehension, before all of a sudden, the device died without a trace.  It has to be one of the most spectacular marketing failures ever.

Microsoft’s Zune line of iPod competing devices, first coming out in November 2006, and struggling to get any measurable market share for almost four years before being discontinued, is another example of a colossal failure.  After four years and who knows how many millions/billions of dollars, Microsoft was unable to get a device that had any type of compelling value-add or appeal to compete against the Apple iPod.  And while iPods are good, they are also very basic simple units that surely a mega-corporation like Microsoft could have managed to compete against.

It is very puzzling and rather unsettling as to how a company with the seemingly unlimited intellectual and financial and marketing resources that Microsoft has can make such colossal mistakes.

Microsoft’s hardware successes have not been limited to simple things like keyboards and mice – their Xbox game player has been a successful product for 11 years now, and more recently, the related Kinect controller has been successful too.

So, based on past performance, the Surface could go either way.  Can we perhaps extract an omen from Microsoft’s choice of the name Surface?  This is not a new product name – Microsoft earlier had a device of that name, which promised much but which never really materialized its promises.  Think of the movie Minority Report – it was a large touch screen device vaguely similar to the ones shown in that movie (indeed some of the people developing the one also helped develop the other), and, just like the new Surface, it had both hardware and software made by Microsoft.

The product attracted a lot of interest, but little sales, and was renamed to PixelSense and now features hardware made by Samsung.

Does this Event Demonstrate Microsoft’s Software-Centric Approach to Marketing?

The most inexplicable aspect of this entire event is why did Microsoft so massively mishandle its new product launch?

This is truly a big thing – Microsoft coming out with its own tablet device, and a tablet device that shows a different underlying design concept – being more closely analogous to netbooks and ultrabooks than has been the case with previous iPad and Android tablets.

But this message, and its implications, were at best very blurred in the launch event.  They should be headline grabbing exciting news, but a quick glance at the news stories coming out after the launch event show a fuzzy set of headlines that indicate the writers don’t have a clear view of what the new tablet’s key features are.

Most of all, the launch event was way premature, occurring before Microsoft was in a position to provide a complete set of information on all elements of the devices, their launch dates, their pricing, and so on.  A ‘best practice’ type launch event gets potential customers excited, fully describes the products, and provides them with a way to immediately start pre-ordering the newly announced products.

Perhaps one explanation is that the people who designed the launch event are used to software launches.  Microsoft’s typical approach to announcing new software is to drip-feed the information to the market a bit at a time.  The first announcements tell the public very little, other than the unsurprising information that Microsoft is developing a new version of one of its products, then over the months that follow, key details of what it might include are released, followed by semi-public beta testing.

It is only at the end of the development process that a final feature set is locked in place, a delivery date announced, and pricing determined.

That presumably makes sense for software, but it is not the way that hardware products are brought to market, although it does seem to be very much the way that Microsoft is staging its Surface launch.  Maybe Microsoft views the world too much through a software-based perspective.

Summary

The bad news is we don’t yet know enough about the new Microsoft Surface tablets to be able to advice you fully as to if you should rush out and order one or not.

The good news is that you don’t need to make that decision yet, because Microsoft has yet to announce either pricing or availability (as well as the rest of the feature sets of the two Surface tablets).

However, from what has been disclosed, we can advise that there is nothing revolutionary or ‘must have’ in these new devices, and for now, if you are looking for a tablet type device, you should continue to do the same thing most other people do, and buy an Apple iPad 3.

Clearly this was a rushed announcement of a product that is still some months away from being ready to be truly and fully announced and launched.  We can’t even guess why Microsoft rushed to make such an impaired and incomplete announcement, and it is an unsettling start to a device with an uncertain future.

  5 Responses to “Microsoft’s Strangely Incomplete Tablet Announcement”

  1. Me thinks you overlook Microsoft’s real strategy: the enterprise. The i5-Win8 Pro-tablet is the next step from very expensive ultrabooks–clearly aimed at users and the enterprise who want to run complex programs and full featured Office. The ARM-RT Win8-tablet will be a lot cheaper than the one I just described, but priced like the iPad. I’ll bet both tablets will run new apps and many of the millions of utility programs now available to Windows users.

    That means Microsoft is leaving the sub-$500 tablet market to traditional PC mfgers. As the Nook and Fire have shown along with the Samsung Galaxy Tab line of tablets, this is a vast area where most tablet users are perfectly happy with a less powerful device. I’ll keep my powerful desktop and my netbook for serious and semi-serious work. I’m looking at the $400 Asus TF300T and Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 Android tablets for email, blogging, surfing, and light work tasks when I’m away from my desktop.

    • Hi, Jerry

      Thanks for your comments. Microsoft may well have a brilliant strategy waiting in the wings, and for that matter, either or both of its new tablets may well prove to be amazingly successful. I don’t argue against either possibility.

      My point is simply this – their bizarre release event seems to be gratuitously too early and incomplete. You yourself have to say ‘I’ll bet’ about some of the possible issues/inclusions/capabilities – neither of us can say ‘We know’.

      That’s not the way product launches are supposed to be done. Unless there are compelling market pressures that force you to rush out a premature launch announcement (and there don’t seem to be such pressures in this case) it is better to wait until you can provide a complete release of all the essential aspects of the product being announced and introduced.

      I’m all for good and great gadgetry, and I hope the Surface products will be great. But as of today, neither of us have any idea at all as to their future potential. Tell us their prices, tell us their battery lives, tell us their screen resolutions, tell us how they interact with existing Windows software, tell us about new software slated to be released on it and the price points, tell us about the rest of their hardware features. Then we’ll both be able to discuss the reality, without needing to guess and hope and bet.

  2. […] on the heels of Microsoft’s semi-launch of its new Surface tablets on Monday, Microsoft has now announced the eventual release of Windows Phone 8, the next version of its phone […]

  3. Regarding this exceprt:

    They are not only inexpensive, they are also small in size. An iPad app only requires a few tens of megabytes of storage.

    There are a smaller number of Android apps, but still numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and with similar bargain pricing and small ‘footprints’ in terms of megabyte size.

    Being a “dinasaur” of the computing age, I just found the “small in size” comment amusing/astounding in that when I first started along my career path the systems we were working on were lucky to have 256K of memory and a 200 MB hard drive was top of the line.

    Amazing how things change, isn’t it?

    • Hi, Steve

      I can match you and beat you on that.

      When I started working in the computer industry – after training at college using punched paper tape and 80 column cards – we were selling as state of the art for small/medium sized businesses computers running on dual floppy drives. An entry level system cost $20k. Adding a hard drive the size of a four drawer filing cabinet (20MB) would also add another $20k to the price.

      We were still concurrently selling ‘computers’ that used magnetic strips on the sides of ledger cards as upgrades to companies with those machines currently installed. The latest and greatest of those had twice the on-card capacity, by virtue of – gasp – a double stripe running along its side.

      Yes, it is indeed amazing how things change.

Leave a Reply