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More Proof Microsoft is in Deep Trouble?

During the most recent financial quarter, Microsoft spent huge amounts of money to entice you to buy a Surface RT tablet. The ads were loud, frantic, and were models of misdirection in the sense that you learned nothing more about the tablet other than it was a device that made lots of clicks and resembled a thin and flat PC note-book. Period.

The original Surface media event, a few months earlier, was a model of ineptitude. Microsoft invited the press to the Los Angeles area for the June 2012 presentation, but apparently didn’t reveal the exact location until the day of the event. Even Apple, with its legendary penchant for secrecy, will at least tell the media where their special events will take place. There’s hardly any reason to keep that under wraps. Better to leave the speculation to the products that will actually be introduced.

When all was said and done, the Surface launch was lots of talk with very little substance. Specs were bare bones, and the media was only allowed seconds to touch the thing before it was abruptly taken away. So there wasn’t much to say about performance, except for one report I read at the time indicating that it was glacial. At least, when Apple rolls out a new product at a special event, the press is given a reasonable chance to put it through its paces, before they have to let someone else get their chance.

To be sure, when the Surface went on sale in October of 2012, the reasons for Microsoft’s reluctance to give the media extended face time were understandable. It wasn’t very good, although some reviews were mostly positive. The first model to hit the store shelves, the Surface RC with an ARM processor, seemed to represent a clumsy attempt to move Windows 8 to a mobile platform. It looked essentially the same as the Intel-based Pro version, other than the fact that you couldn’t run standard Windows apps. Microsoft did give you Office, designed largely to operate in a desktop layer patterned after the traditional Windows interface, rather than in the touch-enabled Modern UI, formerly known as Metro.

Microsoft said sales for the holiday quarter were “modest,” but hasn’t revealed the actual numbers. But iSuppli, a market research firm, claims that Microsoft only managed to sell between 55% and 60% of the production run, which totaled an estimated 1.25 million units. That means sales of 680,000 to 700,000  units, which is utterly pathetic compared to the top-tier Android tablets, let alone the iPad.

Worse, returns were said to be “very high,” though the reasons why were unstated. Perhaps customers were disappointed to discover that these tablets couldn’t run traditional Windows apps. Yes, people who follow the nuts and bolts of technology knew what the Surface RT could and couldn’t do, but I’m sure lots of customers, knowing that Office was included, would mistakenly assume all their Windows apps would run too. After all, the Surface is being represented as essentially a netbook with a touch keyboard, rather than a tablet in the tradition of the iPad.

People who buy an iPad know that it doesn’t run their Mac apps. Having a Surface RT and, soon, the Surface Pro, is only going to compound the confusion. The more expensive Surface Pro is priced close enough to a MacBook Air as to make the comparisons inevitable, and the Apple wins out in most respects, even though the thing is bigger and heavier. So the Surface Pro is basically a regular Windows PC in a new dress, but does anyone care?

When it comes to the Surface, Microsoft meant it as their “design point,” to show the direction OEMs should take in building their own Windows 8-savvy computers. But the obvious failure of the RT version isn’t encouraging such companies as Samsung to deliver their own solutions. Perhaps a few products will appear that are in the tradition of the Surface Pro, but I expect PC makers will largely hold out and see whether it takes off, pleased that Microsoft is taking the risk.

Of course this doesn’t mean the Surface will vanish, or that Microsoft will discontinue that irritating TV ad campaign. Indeed, I caught the original spot, playing yet again on the TV the other day. Well, actually I didn’t see it; I just heard the noisy synthesized music and incessant clacking, and didn’t bother to pay any further attention.

Unfortunately, Microsoft will probably continue to develop the Surface, hoping that if they release enough new models, one will magically take off and vindicate the company’s PC+ vision. But Windows 8 hasn’t done so well either. It may be faring worse than Windows Vista, which may indicate that Microsoft will be forced to rush out of fix of some sort. What sort of fix? Well, in addition to restoring a Start menu, perhaps there will be improvements to make the convoluted touch interface less convoluted. Maybe the desktop layer will be enhanced to provide more of the look and feel of Windows 7. None of this is certain, however, but I can’t believe Microsoft won’t try to prevent a train wreck, if it’s not already too late.

Maybe it’s better to just stick with Windows 7, and forget about this misbegotten release. On the other hand, tens of millions of Windows users are still, after 12 years, staying with Windows XP. Or buying a tablet instead of a PC, which is where Apple, despite the growing competition, still reigns supreme.