Stung by perfectly awful sales of the Surface tablets, Microsoft on Tuesday made it clear that they aren't giving up on trying to deliver some sort of a tablet solution.
In a media presentation in New York City, Microsoft launched a 12-inch model, one clearly meant as a direct notebook replacement rather than a dedicated mobile device. It's clear that approach has failed, but it's also true that attempts to deliver tablets as PC notebook alternatives has also failed, but maybe Microsoft didn't get the memo.
The new model certainly has higher-end pretensions than previous contenders, with Intel Core i3, Core i5 and Core i7 processors, depending on the configuration, a 2160x1440 resolution regarded as HD (similar to Apple's Retina display), and a 3x2 aspect ratio. Microsoft's claim, that the Surface Pro 3 is "the tablet that can replace your laptop" is a hollow promise. Putting traditional notebook specs in a thinner package is not necessarily going to convince buyers that they want yet another PC with Windows 8. The market has so far very much rejected Microsoft's approach, just as the market has rejected Microsoft's efforts to meld a traditional notebook with a tablet. One headline on the product intro even suggested Microsoft wants you to believe a tablet isn't a tablet.
The Surface 3 will be available for preorder this week, starting at $799, which is just above the average cost of a regular PC notebook, and $100 less than the low-end 11-inch Apple MacBook Air with which it's meant to compete. It's supposed to weigh 30% less than Apple's smallest and cheapest notebook, and seems a bit more robust, at least in pictures, than previous Surface tablets.
The unit itself, though, appears at first blush similar to an enlarged iPad. The Surface Pro Type Cover is a $129.99 option on all configurations, and the new model features an enhanced version of Microsoft's notorious kickstand. Curiously, Microsoft is touting use of a stylus, dubbed Surface Pen, rather than your fingers to navigate the screen. Talk about revisiting the past. I thought, by now, we were past that failed episode in proto-tablet history.
What it does demonstrate, however, is that Microsoft has learned absolutely nothing from the previous experiences with the Surface, and has doubled down on the concept of offering tablets as alternative PC notebooks.
Sure, it's clear Microsoft is fully dedicated to investing in the Surface and doing what they feel is necessary to make it succeed. But they should also be mindful of the terrible sales PC makers have encountered with convertible notebooks, those sporting touchscreens. Offering a keyboard as an option, however, still delivers the same result, though embedding a very thin keyboard in a case is never quite as good as a traditional notebook keyboard, even if we assume that it's well designed.
At a time where tablet sales may have reached a plateau, and Apple's iPad is not doing quite as well as used to, there may be a feeling the market is now becoming saturated. But it's also true that tablets can last indefinitely. There's no incentive to upgrade every two years, as there is with a mobile handset. So long as the operating system is updated, even the lowly iPad 2 can support current apps and a fair amount of current technology. Even then, the older iPads will last for years even if you can put up with a version of the iOS that's out of fashion.
Regardless, I felt for a time that Microsoft might be turning over a new leaf with the release of Office for iPad. Perhaps the new leadership realized that the old approach of Windows everywhere wasn't working. Certainly the fact that the Surface tablet has gone nowhere must have provided some incentive to seek a better way. But it seems that Microsoft's decision is to move further towards melding the Surface with the traditional PC, rather than building a strictly mobile device.
The promotional blurbs for the Surface 3 once again tout the fact that Office for Windows, still not available in a Windows 8-savvy version, is a linchpin of the new tablet. That's the very same strategy that went nowhere with the previous Surface tablets.
In the past, I've been mindful of the old catchphrase that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. But it's not that Microsoft really has much of a choice if the concept of a Windows tablet is ever to go somewhere. A larger Surface might gain some traction for people who are looking for a slimmer notebook. But the $799 is akin to the loss leader, with minimal processor power and just 64GB of solid state storage. Remember that Windows 8 is bloated.
Once the option list is checked to get a higher power product with additional storage, the price will go up by hundreds of dollars. The top-of-the-line Surface 3, with an Intel Core i7, 512GB storage and 8GB of RAM, takes it well into the territory of the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. A higher-end MacBook Pro configuration, with the Core i7, though only 256GB storage, is $1,799. But anyone who thinks a Mac is expensive will notice that the loaded Surface 3 is $1,949. The cover/keyboard is still optional, so do the math. Is that the Microsoft tax?
On the surface, if you'll forgive the pun, the new tablet seems to be yet another pig in a poke from Microsoft. If the Surface 3 ends up as yet another failure, where does Microsoft take this ill-conceived concept next?
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