Foley on Microsoft

What Will It Take for Microsoft's Surface to Sell?

Mary Jo Foley argues that if Microsoft's table is to start flying off the shelves, a serious price cut and the addition of differing models that the public actually wants are needed.

Microsoft Surface tablet/PC devices -- the first Microsoft-made computers -- haven't taken the world by storm.

Is this simply another example of Microsoft's propensity of taking three tries to get something right, and we're only on attempt No. 1? Or are there specific technology, pricing, marketing and distribution changes the 'Softies need to make to turn the Surface devices from curious to compelling?

Expanding Surface distribution channels and slashing prices are the most obvious ways Microsoft could try to spike sales. But adding more-compelling and less-compromised Surface models to the lineup might also give the budding Microsoft hardware line a boost.

Though Microsoft officials have kept Surface sales data under wraps, most third-party estimates have pegged sales of the first member of the Surface family, the Surface RT, at anywhere between 500,000 and 1 million units. The Surface Pro only went on sale on Feb. 9, so sales data isn't in yet.

Microsoft officials maintain they tested the Surface devices (both RT and Pro) with potential customers before launching these products. But it just doesn't feel like Microsoft got the products into enough hands -- or took into account feedback from those who tested prototypes.

Surface RT devices have decent battery life (eight to 10 hours) and a very light and portable form factor. But they run almost exclusively Metro-style -- or, as Microsoft now calls them, Windows Store -- apps, of which there are only a few I've found interesting. The Surface RT devices are tablets with keyboards, making them look like PCs. Surface Pro devices have only four to five hours of battery life because they rely on Intel Core i5 processors. They're PCs that can be used as heavy and bulky tablets.

I wonder if Microsoft might have more success with the next generation of Surface devices by moving away from the hybrid concept. Why not make a tablet that's optimized to be a really great tablet? The Surface RT was almost there, but lack of good integrated first-party apps (other than Office RT, which is a nice freebie, but not a must-have for many) and not-so-great performance made some leery of the device.

I'd love to see Microsoft make a dedicated PC, perhaps an Ultrabook, as well. I like the Type cover (the one with real, tactile keys) for the Surface, but there's nothing quite like a real PC with a full, permanently attached keyboard for typing on laps. The viewing angle enforced by Surface kickstands is good enough for many tasks performed when the Surface is parked on a desk or table. But I still prefer the ability to choose an angle using a hinge. We all know tablets are growing at the expense of the PC, according to numerous market reports. But if Microsoft could make a clamshell-style PC that was truly thin, light and had 10-plus-hour battery life, I bet I wouldn't be the only one interested.

Another potential Surface form factor Microsoft has yet to add into the pipeline is the "mini." There seems to be some softening in Redmond's stance that Windows 8 and Windows RT didn't belong on mini-tablets, or basically any device with a screen smaller than 10.6 inches (the size of the Surface devices). The Microsoft stance has been that tablets are PCs, thus they must be able to do all consumption and creation tasks that "real" PCs can do.

But, more recently, there's been a new "let's see what users want" response by Microsoft management when asked about smaller screen sizes, making me hopeful we could see a mini-Surface, after all. There already have been rumors of an Xbox Surface, supposedly some kind of entertainment-optimized tablet. Maybe this device is closer to reality than we previously thought.

On the peripherals side of the Surface family, Microsoft shouldn't shy away from docks and a greater selection of improved mice. Digitizing pens (like the one provided for free with Surface Pro) are important to users in some fields. But there's still nothing like a mouse for navigating complex documents and apps -- especially when the company's own Office suite still isn't entirely touch-optimized.

Other than pricing and distribution, what do you think Microsoft should do from a product standpoint to get more customers willing to buy Surface devices?

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She has a new book out, Microsoft 2.0 (John Wiley & Sons, May 2008), about what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.

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Reader Comments:

Sun, Feb 2, 2014

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Mon, Jan 20, 2014

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Sun, Jan 19, 2014

Your thniking matches mine - great minds think alike!

Fri, Mar 22, 2013 Dan Pennsylvania

It seems those who are against a mini Surface have taken their stance because they are trying to be productive on it, and I agree. But let's face facts. The Surface RT was never intended to make us productive. It's a consumption device, and as such I think a mini form factor would be great. Here is my take on the entire thing (for what it's worth): First, make a mini-Surface as well as a Surface RT for even less than they cost now and bill them as consumer devices for email and gaming, etc. Have the Surface Pro run full Windows 8 and include the keyboard for the same price as it is now. Give ALL form factors user replaceable batteries (why in God's name is every manufacturer not doing this now?). And finally, speed adoption with worldwide distribution via 3rd party vendors and not just the Microsoft Stores since there are simply too few of them. All of that, I think, would finally make Surface an iPad killer. But in typical Microsoft fashion, they've managed to take what would have been a great idea and underwhelm everyone by not paying enough attention to the little details.

Tue, Mar 19, 2013 dos

Most reviews and articles I have seen related to Surface Pro sales all claim the sales to be dismay, and compare the 400K unit in a month to 22 million of iPad in a quarter (which is about 7-8 million a month). All reviews have failed to take into account that, (1) Surface Pro is only sold in USA, there is a lot of demand all over the world that has not been met (2) You can hardly find Surface Pro anywhere, which means they have all sold out. The actual demand is more than 400K in a month. Many articles also jump to the conclusion that Microsoft and PC will be dead in a few years. Not taking into account that, for example, the presence of this website is not running on iPad, Mac, or Chromebook. Or the salary most people receive every month, is computed on a Windows platform and route through the bank via many different kinds of PC hardware. The way things are going, Apple iPad market is going to implode soon as incremental upgrade just could not bring anything exciting anymore. For those of you who believe otherwise, should go buy Apple stock now and put your belief to test. And then we shall see who has the last laugh.

Mon, Mar 18, 2013

SurfaceRT is actually a pretty awesome platform BUT with some critical shortcomings which need to be addressed, and soon. Here are two to start with: 1) VPN capability is less than stellar. For example a L2TP VPN tunnel cannot be established between a client/server when both endpoints are behind NAT devices (this works though with WinXP and Win7). Also there's no way to configure the group name for cisco vpn, 2) Extremely limited USB driver support. For example unless your printer is relatively recent, you can't print to it. Nor can you find a USB gps device that will function, and this seems to be due to the fact that the hw manufacturers are having a hard time figuring out the process they need to go through to get it done (I know, I've tried). 3) No way to communicate between a Windows store app and a Bluetooth or USB device, 4) No way to write a 'desktop' app, only can create Win Store apps.

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 jp hoboken, nj

I wouldn't buy one because I don't believe MS is going to stick with it in the long run. The zune could have benefitted from a major (and I mean MAJOR) overhaul of the device's software. Instead, they abandoned it. I expect some tweaks and re-releases of the Surfacezune, then they'll drop it with nary an annoucement.

Mon, Mar 4, 2013

We had some MS salespeople in our office last week. One pulled out a paper day planner to take notes. The other showed us some pricing by pulling out a laminated sheet of paper with the prices listed on it. Every corporate salesperson at Microsoft should have been equipped with a Surface tablet the day they came out and told to make sure they were used when doing business with their customers. The guy with the paper planner told me he could of had one but but liked paper better. If they don't want to use one then why would I?

Sat, Mar 2, 2013 Kal USA texas

Microsoft should support silverlight on surface. If business users are using silverlight applications at work then this will be a selling point for Microsoft surface over apple and others since users can access their silverlight application on surface. This will really be a distinguishing factor. Microsoft can definitely benefit from it by marketing this fact: iPad does not allow you to access your silverlight LOB Application, surface does! If this happens, I will be the first to dump iPad and switch to surface

Fri, Mar 1, 2013

There is a fundamental fatal flaw to MS Surface Pro. It is unrepairable for all practical purposes since you have to melt the adhesive that holds the display to the metal box to get any access to the internal parts including the battery. I do not want to spent that much money on a computer that after the warrantee expires cannot have even the battery replaced without great difficulty, much less replacing any other component.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Dan Iowa

No one can speak intelligently about the Post-PC era without essentially coming to terms with the fact that they don't want the PC to go away. They just want it to be mobile. Ultimately that means that IPads are really just an feeble attempt to make ITunes an OS-wannabe. Long before the iOS and Android devices we had the ability to download apps, and upload data to data mining cloud vendors. What we see today is the struggle between those who are trying to make the PC more mobile, and those are peddling an idea that the world will just be better because you don't need to store data locally, you don't need the keyboard anyway, you'll feel better with a small screen, and most importantly, the world is much better off if everyone is forced to have an Itunes account in order to purchase an app. Personally, I'm not buying it. The tablet that will win out in the end is the one that can function in every way as what we have come to know as a PC. There is only one reason to buy something less than a PC, and that is because it is cheaper. Otherwise what is the point. You never get more than what you pay for, but there will always be someone willing to sell you less than what you pay for..

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 John

They are doing everything they need to do. They're increasing availability worldwide. They're improving the app store by growing the market. With the Blue updates they're unifying the platform with Windows Phone and hopefully Windows Phone apps. They're going to support smaller screen sizes. The only thing I would suggest is to get the price down further unbundle MS Office and make it an optional upgrade in the Windows Store. I'd also look into making a 5-8" tablet. Would be nice if they would make Surface devices aimed at specific uses like reading or playing games.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Jason UK

When I first heard about the Surface I was convinced I'd get the Pro, however I ended up with the RT and have no regrets (well maybe one). The battery life is fantastic, connectivity superb, and with Office I can do everything I need. My only regret, I'd love an RT with the digitizer and pen. There is nothing I can't do on the tablet that I would want to do - heavy duty tasks like web design I'd want a much bigger screen for. Overall, I think the RT is brilliant but you can get a decent laptop for the same price as an RT with a keyboard and that's the problem. I don't want the bulk of a laptop but most people will compare the two and go for the laptop option.Include the keyboard at the tablet price and it starts to look much more attractive. Bring out an RT with the digitizer would create a much more unique device that would be amazing for note-taking and drawing and would surely win a lot of new fans, and justify a slightly better price.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Marc Wagner Bloomington, IN, USA

I see no value to a Surface Mini. The screen would just be too small to be productive. I do think that there is a disconnect between what people have come to expect in an app store compared to what they have come to expect from a Microsoft App store. Because Microsoft implemented Office 2013 RT, I would assume that Microsoft expects to port a lot of its applications to Windows RT ... but that will take time. A true integration between Windows 8/RT & Windows Phone 8 could go a long way to addressing all of these concerns. Frankly, I love my Surface RT - as a companion device to my Windows 8 notebook but, other than the SkyDrive app, Microsoft has not made any serious attempt to better integrate the Surface RT with Microsoft Web Apps,, and/or Office 365. There is some lost opportunity there!

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 DV Bellevue, WA

I bought a Surface Pro a few days ago and sadly, plan to return it this weekend. MS has managed to create a device that is neither a good tablet or a good laptop, and as a result I can't figure out where I and how I would use it.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 Robert Houston, TX

Personally, I do not want them to shrink it, I don't want to have to put my glasses on to use it. A 14-15 inch model would be nicem just as it is. I won an iPad mini at a company Christmas party. I have no use for it. My daughter plays games on it. That is all it is worth a small game machine. I want a real computer. The mistake with RT was no real data connectivity. Should have included RIA Data Services in the libraries.

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