Will the 'first' Microsoft tablet surface a winner?
By Edwin Yapp June 26, 2012
- Microsoft Surface may have the chops as a decent tablet to compete with Apple
- But to succeed, it needs to have more mojo than just a great spec sheet, looks
YESTERDAY, my eminent colleague A.Asohan made some very salient points summarizing the various issues defining Microsoft's foray into the device manufacturing world for the first time in its 37 years of existence.
In what we know today as the biggest tech news to be reported last week, the world's largest software company caused heads to turn, announcing that it will bring to the world its first directly manufactured tablet computer dubbed the Microsoft Surface, later this year ostensibly before the holiday season begins.
For the most part, this move surprised quite a few in the tech world, although some did suspect it was going into device manufacturing. Since the announcement last Tuesday (June 20), a lot has been said and I'm sure you've read the many analyses that have followed.
Notwithstanding that, and not to be undone by my colleague, here are some of my own thoughts on the Surface announcement.
Firstly, while the move to manufacture the Surface tablet -- both the pro and base version -- on its own will undeniably give the Redmond, Washington-based company much better control over the entire creation process including hardware, software and services, it does also raise the question as to whether it will end up alienating itself from its established hardware partners.
With tight control over the entire ecosystem, not unlike how Apple does it, Microsoft could have a winner in making the Surface work. After all, rather than depending on other hardware makers' abilities and priorities to make the Surface work, Microsoft can now dictate what is best for its own hardware.
But while this might be advantageous to Microsoft, this could make it difficult for partners like HP, Acer, Samsung, as well as other smaller players, to work with Microsoft as they will also compete with the Surface's full form factor tablet product and not just as the supplier of the base operating system in the form of Windows 8. These issues have already been highlighted by Asohan's piece.
But as antsy as this relationship might be in the coming days, my sense is that Microsoft had little or no choice but to manufacturer the Surface itself for two reasons:
One, because Microsoft needed to create a flagship product that will not only showcase its design prowess but also to establish the Surface as a game changer in the market so that it can begin to win back mindshare from Apple and to a lesser extent, Google.
Two, because its hardware partners to date have failed make an impression in the market insofar as manufacturing tablets that can challenge Apple, something that Microsoft has no choice but to address.
Which leads to my next observation -- Can Microsoft play catch up effectively given that Apple continues to dominate the world of tablets?
On the face of it, Microsoft seems to have a winner in the Surface (pic). The specs are impressive as is the design. Giving it an in-built, super thin keyboard that doubles up as a cover, while not a stroke of genius, does immediately differentiate itself not only from Apple, but also from other Windows-powered tablets in the market.
Now while very few of us have tried the new Windows 8 OS on the Surface, it's reasonable to say that the overall feel is like the Windows Phone 7 since it's a tablet computer. The Live Tiles feature, driven by an app ecosystem on the Surface should be good to attract a lot of users to it.
That said, Microsoft has not announced the price points for these devices nor have has it spoken much about app marketplace or store, in particular how many developers will support the ecosystem -- two factors that are absolutely key to making tablet computing work.
In fact, in one analysis last week, Reuters reported that developers have questioned the enthusiasm among developers for creating applications that run on the new Windows 8 operating system and the absence of hard details on pricing and availability.
"Though pricing details are unclear ... Microsoft will need to significantly undercut the iPad to be competitive," Jefferies analyst Peter Misek was quoted as saying.
Which is what Amazon did with when its Kindle Fire tablet came to market. The Kindle Fire differentiated itself from the iPad by being significantly cheaper and functionally worked with fewer features compared with the iPad.
As a result, it was a hit as Amazon clearly hedged its bet on the Kindle Fire as a conduit to its Amazon store rather than banking on it as a device that will stand out by itself.
All these issues need to be answered, and until they are, the success of the Surface is still in doubt for me.
Lastly, is the issue of distribution channels. In a posting last week, CNET blogger Brooke Crothers argued that in order for Microsoft to sell the Surface successfully, assuming that people take to it, the price is right and the apps are supported, there is an issue as to whether people can get to it.
Noting that there were only 20 or so Microsoft stores in US alone compared to a lot more Apple stores, Crothers said, "Here's the challenge: to be a hit, a product has to have sell-through (units shipped that actually sold) in the millions per year, according to analysts. So, even if Surface is a good design – which it appears to be – it's not clear whether Microsoft can sell that many."
While that argument might be a stretch, it does raise an interesting point. Microsoft has for years marketed its products through OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), often tapping into its hardware partners' distribution channels to move its software.
In marketing and selling the Surface, it would need touch points for which customers can experience the Surface before committing to buying one because let's face it, buying the Surface isn't going to be as easy a trip to the local IT mall to pick up a Microsoft gaming mouse or keyboard.
So for me, the jury's still out on whether Microsoft can win the battle of hearts and minds and convince those who don't already have iPads and Galaxy Tabs in their hands to part with their money.
Microsoft, IMHO, has a mountain to climb and would need to put a lot of marketing dollars into its promotions to even begin to chip away at Apple's success.
For all intents and purposes, building a good product isn't just enough anymore. What's needed is a lot of marketing blitz and high-profile advertising to complement the job.
Just look at Nokia's recent misfortunes, and you'll know what I mean. And by the way, for those who don’t know, Nokia runs Windows Mobile software too…