Windows 8

Microsoft places a heavy bet on Surface

Patrick Gray thinks Microsoft's Surface tablet is a necessary but bold step for Microsoft. Do you think their bet will pay off?

This week's big news is the pending release of Microsoft's Surface tablet, which is a major push for the company on several fronts. At a high level, Surface marks Microsoft's re-entry into the tablet market, one that it helped create in the early 2000s, only to see limited acceptance -- and eventually, Apple dominated the market with its launch of the iPad.

Superficially, this seems like another entry into the "Look, Ma, I have a tablet, too!" category, but it's noteworthy because it's Microsoft's first foray into a major piece of hardware, one of the first "flagship" tablet-style devices running Windows 8, and the first major piece of hardware running Windows RT, the tablet-focused version of Windows 8 that's targeted toward the optimized ARM-based processor.

Initial reports indicate that Microsoft has bet heavily on this particular tablet, producing an initial run of five million units at a starting price of $499 (USD) apiece. In my mind, this move also marks some boldness and risk-taking from a company that seemed content to give up on innovator status in the last few years, cashing checks from its desktop OS and Office suite rather than attempting to change computing as we know it.

Own it

While Microsoft has taken some flak for producing its own hardware, it's a necessary move. As an owner of several past tablet PCs, the experience and good ideas represented by the platform were marred by poor driver support, inadequate batteries, high price tags, and a lack of interesting hardware.

Apple has long realized the benefit of tightly integrating hardware and software, and if Microsoft can successfully drive a hybrid strategy, whereby it releases flagship devices and maintains a cadre of hardware vendors filling in the gaps, some interesting things might happen. If nothing else, Microsoft has already set a high bar on the hardware front and will hopefully do for the Windows-based tablet what competition from the likes of the MacBook Air did for the ultralight PC laptop category.

Looking good

Microsoft has apparently also hired some industrial and graphics designers, a marked departure from the past when most of the visual tweaks to its products were geeky or more sizzle than steak. While the dramatic change to the Windows 8 interface has CIOs raising a skeptical eyebrow, it is certainly pushing computing in a different direction and represents far more bold thinking than pretty windows and animations.

Where it could all go wrong

There's a lot to like about the moves Microsoft is making, but at this point, they are little more than pretty pictures, release candidate software, and marketing superlatives. There are no extensive, hands-on reviews of the Surface tablet at the time of this writing (although the device is slated to go on sale in just a few hours -- on Friday, Oct. 26, 2012). So, the Windows 8 interface remains untried on a massive scale, and developers who are likely growing weary of the proliferation of tablet platforms now have another one to deal with.

These are all problems that have been routinely discussed, but a more nuanced one is the question of whether users can be bothered to jump aboard an entirely new platform that encompasses hardware and core OS functionality. I've talked to quite a few people, and many of them think that desktop- and laptop-type platforms represent the past. The majority of their computing interactions take place in browsers. Even in the corporate environment, Outlook and Office do the majority of the desktop-based work, and all the "action" happens in web or proprietary-client applications.

For these people, consumers and corporate customers, Windows 8 with its new interface represents an answer to an unasked question, with Windows 7 essentially "good enough." Considering quite a few major companies still run the venerable Windows XP, Windows 8 may be a bridge too far.

One of the criticisms of the iPad, that it's just a "big iPhone," is also its biggest strength. The interface is no-frills and essentially gets out of the way so you can interact with your content and applications. Even with high-quality hardware, a new platform that's completely different from anything, except perhaps Windows Phone, may be a tough sell to a public wary of the "platform du jour."

While there are many unanswered questions around Surface and the raft of risks the platform presents, it's exciting to see a resurgent Microsoft that's breaking out of its rut, has learned a thing or two about design, and is willing to abandon decades-old computing conventions and partner relationships. Betting big has big risks, but quiet stagnation is equally risky and perhaps even more painful.

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About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

12 comments
kerry.sisler
kerry.sisler

Kinda cool. Would be a great alternate desktop for the new Jellybean Nexus tablets...

rcoady67
rcoady67

The full Windows 8 version of this tablet will succeed, enterprise integration is the key. Features such as the ability to run applications that are Internet Explorer (a large number at many corporations) dependent will be a huge factor for adoption. Applying group policies and preferences to these devices, printing to windows print servers, full MS Office capability including Outlook, and access to file shares are some of the features that will convince executives and average corporate users that this is the device to have. The integration of IOS devices into the enterprise is challenging for most of the features listed. Apple has a fine consumer device that works great, but is challenged to fit into the corporate environment securely without large expenditures on mobile device management software.

gak
gak

I guess the greatest Surface problem is to convince customers that it is not a piece of junk. Since it is good from both the hardware and OS points of view, that might be easy, but unfortunately the market is trained to go for "experience" instead of hardware and OS, and Android or iOS can do everything Surface can do, only better. Thus, Microsoft has a problem and it is too late to do anything about it - they are making wrong machines (RT instead of Pro) and are installing wrong apps (desktop Office is a confession that the used-to-be-Metro interface is so hard to use that thousands of Microsoft programmers cannot release anything meaningful in a year or so). Thus, two actions would be beneficial. First, say goodbye to the idea of a closed (or, at least, tightly closed) ecosystem and use all the media weight to retrain customers educating them to look what they are buying. Android will benefit from that too, but Windows RT is better than Android, so no problem with that. Second, announce Visual Studio Express RT and Office RT. If it is possible to develop for RT on RT, then RT cannot be junk, right?

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

One of the big aspects being pushed in the media about Win 8 and Surface is that Surface can 'just' link up with a PC to give you a totally synced operations - except the media and MS sales people are not making clear the difference between the Surface RT and the Surface Pro in this area as the RT can't do that. Thus many people will end up going back and complaining about how their Surface won't do it because the advertising wasn't clear enough on this distinctions. Then some people will not like the Win 8 OS for their PC so they'll stay with Win 7 or Win XP and the indicators so far are Surface Pro doesn't like talking to anything that doesn't have Win 8 on it. Thus another group of consumers will be upset when the advantage the advertising told them about doesn't happen. You have to remember your average consumer is NOT tech savvy enough to understand all this, and the majority of the sales staff selling the gear aren't either. A third group will be people who want a new computer and don't like the Win 8 OS look as they want what they're familiar with when replacing their old Win 98, Win 2000, or Win XP computer at home. When they get upset enough with the Win 8 OS they won't want ANYTHING in the house with Win 8 on it. Sure, I don't expect these groups to be that huge, but they will be vocal about their dislike and you have to wonder how well that will go over with the overall sales situation of the systems.

gak
gak

"Jumping aboard an entirely new platform" sounds possible. "Jumping aboard the third entirely new platform" sounds less possible, as well as "Jumping aboard an entirely new closed platform".

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

enterprise operating system but meant only for consumer operations and was not designed to allow for the entering and collection of data input. In one of the other threads a developer mentions the official MS response on data input for an app at an application development conference MS sponsored.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

the Surface is a purely consumer only device and not designed for enterprise or productivity use at all, neither is Win 8. The big problem is MS are also trying to push this OS and device into the enterprise for use as that's their traditional base, but it's meant for retail consumers only. One big problem between Win 8 and Android will be the fact that like all versions of Windows since Win 95, Microsoft are NOT making it fully compatible with all the industry standards while the Androids are being made that way, so there will continue to be the problem with interaction with peripheral hardware.

eaglewolf
eaglewolf

You're entirely correct - and I expect I'll get a few 'minus' checks for agreeing with you! But part of this, too, is apparently Microsoft's intention that we not only purchase a Surface, but a new desktop and phone to go with it. Only then can we fully synch as Microsoft dreams we will.

greggfowler
greggfowler

Hmm, Windows 8 will do everything Windows 7 will. Is Windows 7 not Enterprise ready? Now Windows 8 RT is most certainly not and enterprise OS, but it is not meant to be.

Deadly Ernest
Deadly Ernest

The MS website says they start at US$499.00 yet when you check further you find that's the BARE tablet in the 32 GB variety. A soft keyboard for it is another US$100.00 or the harder keyboard is another US$129.00, and the 64 GB version is another US$100.00 - so a 64 GB Surface RT with soft keyboard is US$699.00 - and the Pro is said to be a few hundred dollars more when it's released. So that should come out around thousand dollar mark by the time you get a keyboard etc with it. And you don't get the proper connectivity unless you have the Surface Pro. Now the phones and desktop, need a touch screen for the desktop to get the most out of Win 8, so you'd be up to about two or three grand for a good desktop, a few hundred for the phone. Probably need to spend around four grand US to get all that connectivity using Win 8. Then you'll probably have to replace everything again in 5 years time for the new versions. gave you an up vote to counter the turkey who down vote anything Win 8 negative