Shame on Microsoft for Leaving Surface Pro Customers in the Dark
Microsoft's PC/tablet hybrid has a serious battery issue -- an issue Microsoft refuses to acknowledge.
When Microsoft came out with its first batch of Surface tablets a few years ago, the company took a bath on them. It didn't help that they were conceived around the unpopular Windows 8 and the now-defunct Windows RT and that the prospects for the OS were in question. After Microsoft wrote off $900 million on its money-losing Surface business, the deathwatch was on. But the Intel-based Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 showed a glimmer of hope, and Microsoft finally delivered a solid hit with the Surface Pro 3. After that watershed release, the Surface division is now an important business that brings in more than $1 billion revenue per quarter. Yet Microsoft isn't showing much appreciation toward the customers who helped put its Surface business on solid footing.
After the Surface Pro 3 had been in the marketplace more than a year, owners began noticing an alarming problem. In March 2016, Microsoft's support lines began lighting up with complaints about a steady drop in battery capacity. Surface Pro 3 devices that should have had a useful battery life of five or more hours were going dead in 20 or 30 minutes and refusing to charge fully. The timing of the issue was unfortunate, as many models that had been purchased in 2014 were no longer covered by the original one-year warranty.
A single thread on Microsoft's Surface support forums eventually reached well over 100 pages, with dozens of users exchanging details about the problem, including their ineffectual interactions with support technicians, and narrowing the issue down to batteries manufactured by Simplo. (Batteries manufactured by LGC were apparently not affected.)
Microsoft remained silent for months, offering a boilerplate response from a PR spokesperson followed by a, "We're looking into it," response from a support engineer at the end of July. But the Microsoft executive in charge of the Surface division, Panos Panay, didn't say a word until the middle of August, when he confirmed via Twitter that a software patch would be arriving days later.
That episode was, unfortunately, a replay of an earlier snafu from the Surface team. Early buyers of the Surface Pro 4 in late-2015 struggled with performance and reliability problems for months with only vague acknowledgment of the issues from Microsoft's executive suite. The only people in Redmond I spoke to about the issues insisted that our conversations be off the record. Perhaps they were worried any criticism would reflect badly on Intel, whose Skylake processors were also blamed for problems with PCs from other vendors. But customers heard next to nothing.
And the silent treatment in response to anything even remotely controversial wasn't limited to the hardware group. Microsoft officials dodged responding to criticisms of the overly aggressive "Get Windows 10" campaign and to the drip-drip-drip of complaints about Windows 10 privacy policies.
Why the consistently timid response? Part of the reason might be the corporate equivalent of the Miranda rule: As several generations of Microsoft executives will testify, anything you say can and will be held against you -- by antitrust officials, publicity-happy state regulators and a clickbait-driven tech press.
Unfortunately, what you don't say will also be held against you, by customers and potential customers. I've heard from disillusioned Surface Pro 3 owners who are simultaneously grateful that their issue was finally fixed and angry that their complaints went unanswered for so long.
Microsoft certainly knows how to communicate. On the nuts and bolts of product design and implementation, the company is incredibly forthcoming in its communications, with an overwhelming number of blogs and Knowledge Base articles documenting even the tiniest of details.
So when messaging around controversial topics is consistently weak, the only possible reason is that someone in a leadership role wants it that way. At the slightest sign of controversy, an army of lawyers and PR executives swarm around One Microsoft Way, with every one apparently having veto power over the simplest acknowledgment of a possible problem.
Ultimately, breaking that culture of crisis management by fear takes leadership from the top. Satya, are you listening?
Ed Bott is a Microsoft MVP and an award-winning tech journalist who has covered Microsoft for 25 years. He's written numerous books on Windows and Office, including the best-selling "Inside Out" series from Microsoft Press. Bott delivers outspoken advice on a wide range of technology topics at his ZDNet blog, "The Ed Bott Report."