Is the Microsoft Surface Tablet Another Zune or Just Vapor?

June 20th, 2012

On Monday, Microsoft essentially killed all or most third-party opportunities for Windows tablets by introducing a portable tablet version of Surface for the ARM and Intel platforms. After a procession of peculiar Windows 8 tablets were announced by various and sundry PC makers, Microsoft staged a media event Monday, where they attempted to make all those products obsolete. Evidently Microsoft anticipated that those would-be iPad killers would quickly go down in flames, so they decided to take matters into their own hands.

This development certainly seems familiar. That’s what Microsoft did to their PlaysForSure partners way back when the Zune was introduced in 2006. The act put the kibosh on many third-party digital music players. In both cases, Microsoft adopted the Apple model by opting to build the whole widget. Well, actually the original Zune was little more than a rebadged Toshiba Gigabeat media player. With the Surface, Microsoft claims to be making their own widget, but we’ll see.

Now some industry pundits have predictably praised the Surface, even though nobody outside of Microsoft and their manufacturing partners has evidently actually used them for any extended period of time. Although there were plenty of samples on display at Monday’s media event, many were described as non-functional prototypes, and reporters had very little opportunity to try out the working units to see how they fared in the real world.

This is certainly peculiar when you consider that the ARM-based Surface will supposedly appear at the same time that Windows 8 is expected to be released, which is some time this fall. A product that’s just a few months from release ought to be in the very final stages of production testing. In other words, except for minor hardware and/or software glitches, it should be quite usable. What’s Microsoft afraid of? Is the Surface for real?

While Microsoft’s execs went into endless detail about the fabrication process for the two Surfaces, they didn’t disclose key information that potential customers need to know. One is the purchase price, and the “competitive” dodge doesn’t cut it. Does that mean it’ll cost the same or a little more than the target tablet, which is obviously the iPad, or the MacBook Air for the Intel version of Surface? What about such niceties as battery life? The third generation iPad has a 42.5-watt hour capacity. The one in the Windows RT version of the Surface has 31.5-watt hours. Yes, the Surface doesn’t have a Retina display, nor, evidently, an LTE chip with which to suck up juice. So maybe it’ll be comparable to the iPad’s claimed 10 hours battery life.

But you have to wonder whether Microsoft, just entering the tablet manufacturing business, understands or is capable of the power efficiencies that Apple has mastered over the years. Don’t forget that Apple uses custom-engineered chips and other special components. Other than the sophisticated fabrication process of the case assembly, it would seem that Microsoft is just using off-the-shelf parts. How could it be otherwise?

More to the point, even state-of-the-art hardware means nothing if the hardware doesn’t integrate well with the OS. What sort of user experience will the Surface deliver with the desktop and mobile versions of Windows 8? Sure, Windows 8 seems to work well enough on a traditional PC. But what about coping with the limited resources of a slim Intel tablet? What about the Windows RT version on an ARM chip?

Remember, too, that this is essentially a version 1.0 product from a company with no history of building such gear. The Zune player, which was decent enough, was certainly not evidence that Microsoft can design and assemble credible full-sized tablets. Remember, it was originally a Toshiba design, and this is not the sort of expertise a company just acquires by throwing money at the problem. At the very least, Microsoft could be working with a third-party OEM partner, behind the scenes, to design the Surface. Even then, there’s no guarantee of success.

While the Windows 8 Pro version of the Surface will run traditional Windows apps, where is the app ecosystem for Windows RT? The answer is that, aside from a promised version of Microsoft Office, there really isn’t any evidence that a large number of developers could be persuaded, or bribed, to build Windows RT software. Sure, there may be a few hundred or a few thousand apps right at the starting gate, but if sales don’t take off right away, developers are going to stick with iOS and, to a lesser degree, Android.

But the biggest concern of all is Microsoft’s questionable history in demonstrating new products and failing to deliver the goods. It is very conceivable that the shipping dates will slip on both versions of the Surface. That Microsoft couldn’t produce a fully functional version for reporters at this late date raises serious red flags. It’s always possible this is yet another Microsoft vapor products that will appear late in crippled form. Maybe Microsoft introduced the Surface now in a desperate move to stem the migration to the iPad, hoping to dissuade customers with the promise of a possibly superior Windows 8 version a few months hence. That’s right out of the Microsoft playbook.

But aside from a few people who will tout a vapor product to the skies, I expect skepticism. Sure, the shipping Surface tablets may be just great, with superior performance and enough sex appeal to attract customers. But the Intel version looks clunky, and the ARM version, aside from that reportedly clumsy pop-out stand, doesn’t seem so different from a host of Android tablets, except for the OS of course. Putting convenient keyboards in an optional cover isn’t a bad idea, of course, but most people who use iPads rely on the built-in touchscreen for typing. How does the one on the Surface work? Oh yes, we just don’t know, nor do we know if the Surface will ever really see the light of day as a credible competitor to the iPad, or even an Android tablet.

Remember, one critical area in which the iPad trumps the Surface is that it’s shipping now, and we know exactly how it works. With the Windows Surface — either version — we won’t know till, or if, you can really buy one and take it home. But even if it really does ship, the Surface tablet is two years late and more than a few dollars short.

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4 Responses to “Is the Microsoft Surface Tablet Another Zune or Just Vapor?”

  1. Don108 says:

    I think another thing to consider is not just that this is total vapor hardware/software at the moment, but that Microsoft also has a habit of inducing FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt) in consumers (so they won’t buy competitors’ products) and then not including promised features. Due to this publicity I do think MS will have to produce something, but I find it quite likely that some of the announced features will turn out to be vapor features.

    Several commentators have claimed that either the Surface is a failure or the greatest advance since fire. Personally, I think this announcement just destroyed the market for Microsoft. Microsoft has traditionally been an exclusive software company. Their forays into hardware (set top boxes, zune, kin) have been a disaster or minor (mice, keyboards). Their one real success (Xbox) cost them $4 BILLION in losses before it started to make a profit.

    But now, with the Surface, why should any OEM want to manufacture Windows tablets?
    They depend upon MS for their computer OS software. Why anger MS with competition? They’ve just destroyed their market.

    MS will still make scads of money with server, OS and office software. They’ll make some money with Xbox. But this marks a fundamental change in marketing which will show their true vulnerabilities.

    • @Don108, Even more confusing is that it seems the Surface, should it appear, will only be sold by Microsoft online and at their tiny network of retail dealers. That hardly creates the climate for mass distribution, which is what would be required to compete with Apple.

      Maybe they are doing that so as not to piss off their OEMS any further. But they’ve killed that market with this singular announcement.


  2. DaveD says:

    At this point in time this has the stink of a desperate business decision. I as a simpleton don’t get what Microsoft-branded tablets bring to the table. Are they saying to HP, Dell and so many others that Microsoft can do it better? Making hardware to run the same “LEGO’s color building bricks” Windows OS better?

    If that is so. It’s a slap in the face or a spit in the eye to their hardware partners.

  3. PhillyG says:

    I’ve got the answer: Microsoft is trying to show it’s partners how to wow the press!

    How to get people excited about a me too product; how to get people excited about non-functioning prototypes; how to generate buzz – Microsoft did all that in a way that non of it’s partners have. Samsung bought a SuperBowl add to tout its stylus. Did that work? Did it work better than Monday’s presentation? Which cost more?

    Steve Jobs is dead, and Microsoft detects a weakness in “The Force”.

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