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's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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