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Fear and Loathing in Redmond: Microsoft Sorry for Surface Bugs

As most of you know, whenever Apple has a problem with hardware or software, it can make huge headlines. I said huge! One telling incident occurred last year, when the iOS 8.0.1 update essentially bricked any model from the iPhone 6 series. Apple had it up for maybe an hour or so before it was pulled, but that was quite enough to cause a furor, as if no other tech company had ever issued a flawed update.

More to the point, the small number of iPhones that were bricked could be fixed by running Restore. A corrected version, 8.0.2, was released the very next day, but I read fear-mongering articles about it for weeks after that. Few of those alleged journalists understood the problem or the fact that the faulty update was only available for a short time

Compare that to Windows, where Microsoft has released a number of buggy updates over the years, some of which would cause such symptoms as startup loops. You don’t see a rash of sensational headlines because Microsoft screwed up.

In any case, Microsoft has had a checkered past with hardware. Back in 2007, they allocated over one billion dollars to address what was described as “an unacceptable number of repairs” to the Xbox 360. The actual number of units impacted wasn’t mentioned, but that could be inferred from the amount set aside, since it would involve repairing or replacing the affected hardware.

Some of the failures were termed ‘Red Ring of Death” because the gaming console would display three flashing red lights on the face of the unit. While the problem was publicized to some extent, you didn’t have the tech media clamoring for Microsoft to shut down, or asserting the company was in a death spiral. I won’t even consider the cause, since it happened eight years ago. At least Microsoft made good on fixing the problem. The warranties were also extended to three years, another sign of good faith.

I’ve never heard of an Apple hardware glitch that had such a wide impact, and there have been a few. As with Microsoft, Apple offers to replace and extend the warrantees of the affected products.

This year’s problems for Microsoft involve the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, the highly touted convertible note-books that are supposed to rescue Microsoft’s tablet division. Now before I get to the problems, consider the fact that the modest Surface sales are flagging, from $908 million last year to $672 million in this year’s September quarter. That is not too promising. Apple still sold $4.276 billion worth of iPads in the same quarter despite falling sales.

So while the Microsoft sycophants in the media have touted the Surface as a sure iPad killer, the facts don’t bear that out, and now Microsoft is admitting to loads of bugs in these machines.

So according to Laptop magazine, a publication that offers pretty balanced coverage of desktop and mobile platforms, Microsoft has issued an apology for Surface problems, stating, “For those of you who’ve had a less-than-perfect experience, we’re sorry for any frustration this has caused.”

What sort of problems?

Well, Laptop’s test samples exhibited “laggy performance,” meaning they ran slow, and issues with booting the units; the latter reportedly occurred after a Windows 10 update. Now that’s a problem that’s roughly in line with the issues that resulted from the iOS 8.0.1 update, and a glitch with the iPad Pro, where the unit might become unresponsive after receiving a full charge. In both cases, Apple fixed the bugs in short order. The iOS 9.2 update evidently makes the iPad Pro responsive again, but I’ve not seen any problems with the review unit I received from Apple.

As for Windows 10, it has been updated frequency since the original release last summer, and the update rate has slowed over time.

Now other Surface problems include poor battery life when performing a continuous web surfing test over a Wi-Fi network. The rear camera also exhibited artifacts and pixelation on two of the three samples examined by Laptop.

This is where you have to aske some hard questions. When a manufacturer sends a review unit to the media, you assume they are striving to make good first impressions. Sure, some Apple gear will have bugs, but not near as serious as the ones that impacted the Surface. You can hardly believe that a magazine would need multiple samples to get a unit that actually worked. This doesn’t auger well for Microsoft’s efforts to become a credible manufacturer of tablets or hybrid note-book computers.

These issues are especially troubling in light of declining tablet sales, and Microsoft has yet to demonstrate that it has delivered a credible alternative to other PC convertibles, let alone the various MacBooks with which it has been compared.

I’m not suggesting Microsoft isn’t capable of making reliable hardware. I assume the Xbox problems are history, and it doesn’t appear that the Lumia smartphones, which still aren’t selling so well, are buggy. But the smartphones are built on established production lines that were tested and proven by Nokia, so unless Microsoft has cut back quality control too much in an effort to reduce costs, it shouldn’t come back to haunt them.

Releasing flawed hardware is obviously no way to demonstrate credibility, particularly in a market where there are other PC makers who are direct competitors. Indeed, I wonder what Microsoft’s executives were thinking in getting into that business. Wouldn’t it have been better to follow Intel’s lead with Ultrabook systems by releasing a set of reference designs and letting other companies sort things out? Microsoft doesn’t do well to compete with its partners.