About that Surface RT “Disaster”

What can we learn from the Surface RT disaster? | TabTimes

Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing any time soon. I am highly skeptical of the success of Microsoft’s re-org and they are yet to show any signs of understanding the pure consumer market. Because of this confusion they are writing off $900 million dollars worth of leftover inventory. By my approximations that equates to about 3 million unsold Surface RTs. Reports were also circulating that Microsoft cut orders down from their initial order from the manufacturer.  Meaning they genuinely thought they would sell quite a lot. How wrong they were. 

Microsoft needs to decide what kind of a company it wants to be in 20 years and craft a strategy with that vision in mind. Do they want to be a hardware company, software, company or services company? Do they want to be all three? Do they want to be a consumer focused company or an enterprise and business focused company? Do they want to focus on solving mobile problems or cloud problems? These and more are all questions the once dominant company in Redmond needs to come to grips with.  

My fear for Microsoft is not just that they lost their consumer compass, but that they have lost sight of who their customers are and what problems they need Microsoft to solve for them with hardware, software, and services.  

The Surface was an epic example of not only not knowing who their target customer was, but not even understanding what form factor the market wanted. Surface RT was a solution in search of a problem no one was asking to have fixed.  

First off, I was a very early adopter of the Surface RT. I posted about it here when I bought it, and at first I liked it quite a bit.

I don’t like carrying multiple machines. My goal was to slim down to essentially two machines – a full on portable computer capable of doing Real Work, that was also a tablet that would let me do Real Play, and a cell phone that would fill in any holes in the mobile mix – music player, camera, ebook reader, etc.

My first attempt at hitting this magical combination was to combine a Surface RT with a Samsung Galaxy Note II. I’ve been reasonably happy with the Note II, and still am because, aside from a certain amount of twitchy instability (web pages vanish, ebook readers lose their bookmarks, things turn on and off for no apparent reason), it works pretty well as a music player, camera, ebook reader, phone, and so on.

Over time, though, the Surface RT has become a different story for me. Not all of the change has been the RT’s fault, though. I have no problems with the candy-colored tile interface, and I don’t howl that the included Office apps aren’t optimized for touch – Office works better with mice, and that’s the end of that story.

The Surface RT rapidly became problematic for me, though. Partly it was my own fault – I discovered a writing app – Scrivener – so revolutionary, so effective, that I can no longer imagine writing without it.  And, of course, it won’t run on the crippled RT version of Windows 8.  Nor will any of the other Windows apps I use every day:  Firefox, Thunderbird, Scribefire, etc., etc.   Nor does the crippled Windows 8 app store offer decent substitutes or replacements for any of them.

As a tablet, the RT is adequate, maybe more than adequate.  Its weight is about the same as the iPad, its screen is quite nice, and it has decent (though not excellent) email, browser, music and video apps.  It’s fine for basic content consumption, or “Real Play.”

So: Surface RT:  Okay on weight, okay on form factor, okay on battery life – but lousy on the Real Work side of the equation.

Its younger brother, which runs full Windows, including legacy apps, is fine for Real Work.  However, it is too heavy as a tablet, has lousy battery life, and a generally, unsatisfactory form factor.

In other words, each version of the Surface – RT or Pro – is fatally flawed if what you are looking for is a great all-in-one hybrid tablet/PC machine.

Now, as to the “analysis” alluded to above:  All over the tech press, people are talking about Microsoft’s “terrible mistake” with the RT.  And, as usual, the tech press, for the most part, has its head up its ass.  The dominant tablet paradigm these days is the iPad.  So whenever they think about the future of tablets, they think in linear projections – more iPad all the time.  Of course, it was exactly that sort of thinking that led them to proclaim the iPad DOA when it first sprang from the forehead of Steve Jobs.

The future of computing is clear to some, if not to the tech chattering class.  While geeks hold endless debates about the proper defition of “PC” – is an Apple a “PC?”  Is a tablet?  Is a telephone? – the correct answer is simple – all computers are becoming more and more personal.  Any machine that computes is a computer.  Any computer that individual humans use for their own purposes is a personal computer.

Hence computers will continue on down the line toward more power, more portability, more personal intimacy (yes, wearable computers), more battery life, more seamless integration with their users and the personal needs and wants of those users.

The Surface RT was Microsoft’s attempt to mimic the success of the iPad – same processor, same form factor, same build quality,  same battery life, but with the added advantage of being able to run Office.  The big selling point was Office.  And, yes, the RT was, and is, a flop.  The reason it flopped is that people who really saw Office as a selling point also wanted the rest of the package – all the Windows legacy apps.  And that was exactly what the RT did not offer them, although MS’s marketing campaign was so murky more than a few buyers didn’t understand the difference.  Windows was Windows, right?  What more did you need to know?  Well, you needed to know that Windows RT was a crippled version of Windows, and it wouldn’t do almost all of the things you expect Windows to be able to do.

MS is apparently doubling down on this concept, but I don’t expect the RT-2 – still crippled – to be any more successful than Version One.  It is becoming clear that nobody else intends to market a new version, and MS won’t be able to sell enough of them to ever reach critical mass.

And it doesn’t matter.  I expect MS to botch the new Surface Pro, too:  They’ll stick a Haswell in it, keep its price high, increase the screen resolution, and leave the weight unchanged, although battery life will increase by several hours.  So you’ll end up with a machine okay for doing Real Work, but lousy, clumsy, heavy, and over-priced for doing Real Play.

Somebody else, though, will come up with a form factor as clean as the Surface RT, with similar or lighter weight, long battery life, and full Windows, but based on the Atom Silvermont (Bay Trail) chip, and it will be a monstrous, game-changing, totally unexpected (by the tech press) success.

At that, folks, will be the next “PC” that I buy,

UPDATE:  If the iPad was late, ran Windows 8, it would fail too | Microsoft – CNET News

The bigger problem is that Windows 8 isn’t driving sales of tablets. When consumers think tablet, they think Apple and Android.

More bullshit.

There are currently no tablets running full Windows 8 with the sort of form factor and power that the iPad demonstrates. There will be, though, and fairly soon: That’s when the real evaluation will be made.

Posted in Technology permalink

About Bill Quick

I am a small-l libertarian. My primary concern is to increase individual liberty as much as possible in the face of statist efforts to restrict it from both the right and the left. If I had to sum up my beliefs as concisely as possible, I would say, "Stay out of my wallet and my bedroom," "your liberty stops at my nose," and "don't tread on me." I will believe that things are taking a turn for the better in America when married gays are able to, and do, maintain large arsenals of automatic weapons, and tax collectors are, and do, not.


About that Surface RT “Disaster” — 11 Comments

  1. Bill, I’m glad to see you’ve finally “come around” on the Surface RT. It was getting to the point where, every time you posted something glowing about the device, I wanted to post a comment in response saying, “How much did Microsoft pay you to say that?” (Because that’s always the default assumption.)

    It has now become apparent that the Surface RT was a machine designed to solve Microsoft’s problems, as opposed to, say, any problems of their actual customers. They wanted an “iPad killer,” yet they insisted on hanging the ancient “Windows” millstone around its neck. (If they had called whatever the RT runs “Metro OS” or something like that instead, it might have shaped expectations accordingly.) Then, too, the RT might not be so bad if anyone could deploy code on it as easily as on a regular Windows machine, and perhaps some of the software you miss would, in fact, be available, as it got cross-compiled for ARM. Yet Microsoft insisted on locking WinRT down, and forcing all software to go through the “Windows Store” (where Microsoft could take their 30% cut of sales, making it Yet Another Microsoft Tollbooth Attempt).

    Now, you might rightly say, Apple does the same thing with the iPhone/iPad, why isn’t that a bad thing there? Well, maybe it is. But the point is: Apple never made the pretense that iOS was an “open” system. Microsoft, by naming their locked-down, dumbed-down “tablet” operating system “Windows,” effectively did. It’s classic bait-and-switch, and you, along with all the other dissatisfied Surface RT users, fell for it.

    And, to add insult to injury, the Surface RT hardware is also locked down (along with all hardware running WinRT, by order of Microsoft), so you can’t even repurpose the lousy device by rooting it and installing something reasonable on it, like Android or Linux.

    Oh well…maybe in twenty years or so, the Surface RT will become a collector’s item, and you can recoup some of your losses by selling the thing on eBay.

  2. Postscript: Karl Denninger has written a piece recently that discusses the secular shift in the terms of what a “PC” actually is. And, in his view, the company that comes closest to actually “getting it” on this shift is not Microsoft, and it’s not Apple either. It’s Blackberry.

      • Not necessarily. He owns a Blackberry Z10, and has been pushing its capabilities pretty hard. (He has previously not only worked with Android, but ported it to a new device, and he has plenty of other technical chops. I’m pretty sure he knows what he’s talking about here.) The new Blackberry devices, thanks in part to the BB10 OS and its QNX underpinnings, are technically superior in many respects to Android and iOS, including having the built-in ability to have your own “private cloud” by being able to connect to your home or office PC from the phone, anywhere, and access your files.

        The question is whether Blackberry the corporation can press these technical advantages aggressively enough to help define this coming secular shift. Sadly, their track record in that respect is not promising, to say the least.

        • I should have read his article before I responded.  He’s not nuts, he’s totally right.  Not only that, he’s only saying exactly what I’ve been saying for a good while now.

          His approval of Blackberry has nothing to do with the tech – he only notes that Rim doesn’t have the vast pool of trained-seal users that will have to be butchered in order to make the inevitable move toward personal computing that all of us have been predicting for a good long while now, me included.

          What is he saying that I haven’t said, or than I don’t do?  All my devices are equipped with at least 64GB of flash storage above and beyond their SSDs.  My Win machines are all set to connect via Desktop Connect to each other.  My “office desktop computer” consists of a docking connections and a big screen.  Two of my machines connect wirelessly to my big TV.

          Basically he’s talking about a small machine (I use two because I want a screen big enough to write on comfortably) you carry with you that uses whatever peripherals I need, wirelessly, when I need them.

          And as I say, there is nothing startling about either his concept of the PC (personal computer) or his recognition of the shift currently now well underway.

          And yes, Microsoft will be playing a huge role in that shift.  Maybe more than Apple or Android.  It certainly is well-positioned to do so.


  3. This isn’t the first time M$ has screwed up, and folks are always jumping up and down and pointing and shouting that M$ is doomed, DOOOOOMED, I tell you! Ad they come back.
    (No, Bill, I’m not accusing you of that. But some delight in predicting Microsoft’s demise. Kinda like America, come to think of it…)

    As for busting up Microsoft “like Ma Bell”, well, Ma Bell was broken up because it was more-or-less a monopoly. If breaking Microsoft makes business sense, it will do that, but otherwise, no point.

  4. MS is no longer a monopoly. It’s problem is competition, which it is not used to counteracting. Either Ballmer needs to formulate a strategy or he needs to go. Quickly. Six months to get some strategy or get someone who can.

    Value investor in me suggests buying MS but gut instinct says value trap dead ahead. Let’s see what they do.

    • They were supposed to die over the advent of the Internet – remember the famous Bill Gates “changing directions” speech?

      I like Microsoft.  This first attempt at changing the notion of PC hardware – hybrids, primarily – ran aground on the shoals of bad planning/marketing, and a shortfall in hardware capabilities.

      The planning and marketing will change, and the hardware will catch up very shortly.  A billion buck write-down?  Chump change.  They took it and still had nearly five billion in net on the quarter.  They could buy RIM for that kind of money.

Leave a Reply