Why confusion could be the killer blow to Microsoft with the Surface Pro

December 5, 2012

It’s fair to say that Microsoft has received something of a battering from the press so far with the Surface Pro.

Widely heralded, by Microsoft itself no less, as THE tablet to challenge the iPad in business, the slate has been saddled with the following in recent weeks:

  • Being three months later to market than Surface RT
  • A price (starting from $899) which is comparable with most Ultrabooks and MacBooks
  • And reportedly having just four hours of battery life

Such news has already had several journalists reaching for their iPad, InfoWorld's Woody Leonhard even proclaiming the Surface to be dead on arrival.

“Did I get this right? The low-end Surface Pro will set me back $1,300 for a 2-pound Windows 8 touch tablet with keyboard, Office, 1,920-by-1,080 screen, just a bit over 40GB of usable storage — and a battery that lasts just four hours? I think I'll run out and buy a dozen.”

I can see his frustration, and maybe this will turn most consumers towards an iPad, an Android tablet, or another Windows 8 tablet vendor, although there seem few around of those at the moment.

Despite this, I don’t think the Surface Pro is the bigger problem here. Most first generation products require some improvement (Apple’s original iPad is testament to that), but what is more concerning is that Microsoft itself doesn’t appear to know what the Surface Pro is or even who it is for.

Steve Ballmer has for one made noises about the fusion of touchscreen and keyboard, and about the Surface being a PC.

“You go on a trip, most people do some work and do some play. Do you want a device with no keyboard? Maybe, but we give you that option (a keyboard),” he said in one interview.

“I don’t think anybody today offers a product like this, a PC and a tablet”, he added in another.

There are two problems here. First, by most accounts, the Surface RT (*we cannot judge the Pro because it’s not available yet) does neither tablet nor PC very well. And second, a lot of business users are already getting an Office-like experience on their iPad or Android tablets, usually by coupling iWork or Quickoffice with a Bluetooth keyboard.

Also, not only does either Surface tablet bring nothing especially new to the table, with its specs and price, it’s hard to tell if Microsoft is competing with the iPad or more laptop-like devices aka the MacBook Air and Intel's Ultrabooks.

Maybe it’s both, but most consumers aren’t necessarily going to buy into that. If anything, they're already confused by the blurring hardware lines between PC and tablets, not to mention the different flavors of Windows 8 now available.

“A lot of people just want a tablet and as you see with Apple there is a lot of pure tablet innovation going on,” said Creative Strategies’ Ben Bajarin at the recent TabletBiz conference.

I am not saying the Surface Pro is dead in the water. With Office compatibility, connections for USB 3.0 and mini DisplayPort, plus the innovative Touch and Type Covers, the product has potential, especially for power business users.

And with Microsoft spending big dollars on advertising, apparently having another three models in the works and reportedly working with Intel for a next-gen Ivy Bridge chip which will offer better battery life, things look considerably brighter than they do right now.

But, if Microsoft is going to be truly successful with the Surface, it needs to refine what the Surface Pro is and who, precisely, is going to use it. It could arguably do with expanding the distribution for the Surface too, but that's a matter for another day.

One commenter recently put on the PCWorld blog that the Redmond company seems like ‘a ship without a rudder’. When it comes to the Surface Pro, I’d be inclined to agree with them.


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