When consumers evaluate personal electronics purchases, one principle can generally sum up the experience: good, fast, cheap -- pick two. It's a tried and true business formula, a twist on the notion that customers get what they pay for. Microsoft needs to erase that two-out-of-three strategy from its tablet playbook.
With the first wave of Windows 8 tablets, consumer mileage has varied on the "good" and "fast" fronts. "Cheap," though, has rarely been a blip on the radar, least of all for Microsoft's Surface tablets. With both Windows 8.1 (Windows Blue's current nom de jour) and a new spate of devices on the horizon, this needs to change. Redmond needs to rush satisfying tablets to market -- and they can't just be competitively priced. They need to be downright cheap.
Here's the reasoning: The Surface RT, decried though it's been, is actually a pretty nice device. If Microsoft had charged $250 for the tablet and maybe another $50 for the Type Cover, I probably would have bought one at launch, and I suspect I'm not alone. At that price, I'd have been willing to remain patient while Microsoft developed its lackluster app library. Yes, the iPad would have offered more variety and polish, but the Surface RT would still have been a decent media-viewing tablet that, with its watered-down version of Office, would have featured better content-creation tools than anything on iOS. That's enough use to justify a couple hundred dollars.
[ How much does touch matter? Read Windows 8 Doubt: 3 Ways Touch Won't Help. ]
Unfortunately, the Surface RT costs nearly twice as much as I am willing to pay. Ultrabooks and even the Surface Pro -- the most thought-through Windows 8 device to date -- are no better. Newer, faster and more energy-efficient models that run on Intel's next-gen Haswell processor are just around the corner, so why should someone buy an expensive item today when a better, and perhaps less costly, alternative is only a few months away?
Windows 8 and Windows RT have struggled, in other words, due only partly to their UI awkwardness, mediocre apps and various rough edges. Cost has been the other culprit; there's a price beyond which customers simply aren't willing to deal with learning curves, impatience and other frustrations that might be more palatable with cheaper devices. For many consumers, the Windows 8 devices evidently cross that discouraging cost threshold, and the result has stuck Microsoft in a holding pattern of bad press.
Microsoft seemed to assume that Windows 8's dual identities would be an obvious game-changer, and that Windows RT's native Office app would trump the iPad. Had Redmond been correct, the story would be different. People deal with learning curves if the payoff is a premium experience. But it's become clear that most customers have decided Windows 8 asks too much while offering too little.
Asking less of the consumer would not only help Redmond stimulate adoption, but also help address its other lingering problem: apps. Where the user base goes, developers will follow. According to MetroStore Scanner, the Windows Store currently has around 57,000 Metro-style apps, and app submissions, which had been on a downward spiral since launch, but have risen steadily throughout March and April. The progress is nice -- but the libraries of iOS, Android and even BlackBerry 10 put Redmond's catalog to shame.
Microsoft allegedly spent $1.5 billion to promote Windows 8. It's an astronomical sum, enough to fund a typical Hollywood marketing blitz three or four times over. All that money was directed at the consumer market, which, as analysts have recently made clear, has the power to determine whether Microsoft remains a leader or regresses into a role player. Imagine if Microsoft had instead tilted its budgets such that an iPod Touch was more expensive than a Windows RT, and a MacBook Air more costly than a Surface Pro. Imagine if OEMs had been incentivized from the start to produce low-cost models, a process that has, according to unverified reports, only recently unfolded. How many millions of additional users might be in the Live Tiles ecosystem? How many more apps might there be?
But there's not much use at this point in criticizing Microsoft's earlier strategy. Hindsight is 20-20, and Redmond has probably reconsidered a number of previous decisions. The point in bringing up the company's earlier missteps is not to pour salt in the wound, but rather to prescribe appropriate remedies.