Government // Mobile & Wireless
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6/19/2012
11:09 AM
Fritz Nelson
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Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy

Surface looks to be an intriguing tablet in the short term, but harmful to Microsoft's fragile partner ecosystem. Consider these five possible motivations driving Microsoft.

Microsoft Surface
Microsoft Surface
About two years ago, shortly after Apple's original iPad arrived, I found myself in Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's office, taking notes on the new tablet, which I propped up on an attachable keyboard. Ballmer strutted in, took one look at my contraption, and said: "If you work hard enough, you can make anything into a PC."

Precious.

And on a Monday night in Los Angeles, sitting 20 feet away from Ballmer as he stood on stage to introduce Surface, a tablet manufactured by Microsoft, running a version of Windows 8 designed for a tablet user experience, with a built-in kickstand and a magnetic cover that doubled as a keyboard, making the entire contraption look like a PC…a voice tempted me.

But I refrained.

During the past two years, I have stood firm in my belief that Microsoft has been making compelling moves, from its acquisition of Skype to its evolution of Azure and its investment in Nokia, even as critics disparaged the company as the industry's has-been, even in the face of dismal mobile market share numbers.

I have sung the praises of Windows Phone 7--since the beginning, really. I've been excited about Windows 8--not only the functionality, but also the possibility and promise of a seamless experience from the desktop to the tablet to the smartphone. As Microsoft's Windows president, Steve Sinofsky, said about Surface on Monday night: "A tablet that's a great PC; a PC that's a great tablet."

And Surface seems like a very good tablet. It's exciting that Microsoft is launching it with Windows 8. But even if Microsoft has, as Ballmer pointed out, a long hardware history (mouse, keyboard) and some success (Xbox, Kinect), Surface represents a distinct change in strategy. It may give the company's fledgling operating system a boost out of the gate, but it may also do irreparable damage to a partner ecosystem Microsoft has taken great care to build and nurture.

What little I saw and touched, if ever so briefly, seemed competitive, inviting, even if Microsoft responded stoically to repeated requests for details. The Windows 8 RT Surface tablet carries an Nvidia chip--quad core, one hopes, but Microsoft wouldn't say. The Windows 8 Pro Surface tablet uses Intel's Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor--maybe dual core, maybe quad core.

Both models have 10.6-inch ClearType displays, and they've been designed for wide-viewing mode (16x9). But Microsoft wouldn't reveal the screen's resolution, nor what it meant that the Windows 8 Pro Surface is "Full HD." Microsoft VP Michael Angiulo said it meant: "A combination of a very specific pixel geometry, render, and an optical bonding process, that together create the effect that your eye can't distinguish between the individual pixels at normal viewing distances." I see.

Nothing on battery life, nothing on camera resolution, nothing on memory capacity.

But isn't it likely that the Surface tablets will be comparable, specification-wise, to other tablets? The connectivity options are solid--both include 2x2 MIMO antennas for extra strength Wi-Fi, and the Pro version includes pen input. Both are thin and light, according to the published specs. The Windows 8 RT Surface is about the size of the current-generation iPad, and although it felt just as light when I held it, it sure seemed more thick than 9.3 mm. I'll have to measure the Surface and the iPad side-by-side when I get the chance.

Microsoft said the price of the Windows 8 RT Surface will be comparable to the price of other consumer tablets, while the price of the beefier (and heftier) Windows 8 Pro Surface will rival the price of Ultrabooks.

Microsoft, of course, doesn't want anybody to think these are your standard tablets. Company executives went out of their way to lavish praise on the engineering quality of the Surface, an annoying and mandatory industry habit that's starting to sound like carnival barking. Sinofsky bragged that "it feels natural in your hands," that it's the first PC to be made from magnesium, that its "liquid metal is formed into an ultra-rigid, ultra-light frame." He said that it's "airy" and "finely balanced" and that the case is made from a "physical vapor deposition process." Fancy.

Angiulo talked about the tablet's vent, describing what he called perimeter venting, for uniform distribution of air, which somehow makes the device comfortable to hold.

Panos Panay, a member of the Microsoft Surface design team, gave us more, saying that the design goal was to make the hardware "fade into the background." He talked of seamless, perfectly formed lines and case mold thresholds. Talking about the built-in kickstand, he said with some drama: "We knew that if we did not get the kickstand perfect, this device would not work. We could not take any chances." Talking about the custom hinges on the kickstand, he said: "They were spec'd to feel and sound like a high-end car door."

"You're going to want to hold it, I promise you," Panay said. I don't know about you, but there are some things I want to hold (a basketball, a fork full of lasagna, a stack of Benjamins, the hand of a loved one) and some I don't really need to. Just sayin'.

The kickstand, which is sturdy when in use, hidden when not, is nifty. The Surface covers are creative. They protect and decorate the device, and their underside serves as a keyboard. One version is a multitouch keyboard, with track pad and keys for the Metro user interface. It has no tactile feedback and felt a little antiseptic to me. The other version is a very thin keyboard for touch typists. These covers also have accelerometers, so the Surface knows what mode they're in (keyboard, flipped back, covering the display). Great ideas.

My early read on Surface: long on hype, short on details, but plenty of promise.

However, as intriguing as it is in the short term, it's also confusing, and ultimately a mistake. Not only does the product seem unnecessary in a very crowded field, it seems harmful to Microsoft's fragile ecosystem of partners--on which the company's fortunes have long rested. I can see no transformational gain, where the integrated system approach (see: Apple) outweighs the risk.

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Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/23/2012 | 1:45:16 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
I think the difference between Google and Microsoft is that Google was not upsetting their OEM channel or taking sales from their OEM channel, because it largely didn't exist when Chromebooks and Nexus were released. Microsoft's long suffering OEMs were counting on the big Win8 to restore sales. Now Microsoft is stealing their thunder/sales. Also, in order to sell these tablets to businesses, Microsoft needs to provide some sort of assurance that they are not going to drop the line a year after Win8 is released. If business and, to a much lesser extent, consumers think this is just a promotional, they will wait for the real deal to come out.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/21/2012 | 10:16:59 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
The OEMs can't sit on the slide line much longer. They are losing their client side business to Amazon, Nook and, obviously, Apple. If Microsoft doesn't give them something they can sell in mass with Win8, they will need to start working on their own Linux tablets. I am surprised Red Hat, the enterprise Linux company, has not come out with a tablet OS... Android for the enterprise.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/21/2012 | 10:13:55 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
Agree, the Microsoft OEMs already make basically nothing selling Microsoft PCs. Now Microsoft is going to compete with them in the tablet space. MS is really giving the OEMs no reason not to start making their own Android tablets. It could backfire.
Sam Iam
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Sam Iam,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/21/2012 | 10:10:02 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
Man, who came up with the teal keyboard?

Anyway, I would think that is MS's awareness that if they continue to make no in-roads into mobile or tablet, eventually Apple, Android, yet to be named or some combination will start to overtake their PC dominance. It is clear that the OEM partnership strategy, which I am sure MS would prefer, is not working as MS does not give the OEMs, such as HP or Nokia, enough margin to create an Apple beater or even Apple competitor. The OEMs are not going to lose money investing in new concepts to sell them at 2% commodity margins. If MS wants to be a threat, they are going to have to do the whole thing themselves. About time. I imagine they will wait for Nokia to fall a little lower and then buy the whole thing.
espresso_luvr
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espresso_luvr,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/20/2012 | 9:41:36 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
that is a good point/analogy ... however, the difference here is they are not "seeding" (creating) the windows tablet market -- a fairly crowded, albeit not very successful, field ... it does apply if your point is specifically focused at WINDOWS 8 ... the "delicate" partner ecosystem might be well served if MSFT is willing to make its tablet available as an OEM box that others could source from them(?) -- but i don't believe that their "software daddy" is that benevolent ... just sayin' ...
TreeInMyCube
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TreeInMyCube,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/20/2012 | 9:19:55 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
Is this analogous to Google's efforts with the Chromebooks? Are they seeding the market with *an* implementation, but not *the* implementation? Then, later, one of the HW OEMs puts out a Chromebook to sell. A key difference would be that Google called its Chrombooks "beta" systems .... but then, that's what it called Gmail for awhile, too.

Similarly, Google tried to sell its own smartphone (Nexus One), but couldn't sustain it. It fell to other phone OEMs to dramatically improve and innovate with Android smartphones.

It might be a bad move, but I'm not sure that it is catastrophic.
ANON1237925156805
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ANON1237925156805,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/20/2012 | 9:15:09 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
I'm not so sure about #4; Apple's historic closed-mindedness may preclude such an arrangement. Nice idea though.

First 3 points make a lot of sense. I don't think that one can overstate the fragility of the OEM chain at this point: Two dud OSes in a row with major security weaknesses have deeply undermined the PC market. Apple and Android haven't helped the picture and the recession made even more people stand pat rather than upgrade or fill in with tablets.

The OEM partners have waited and waited for a winner OS that would allow them to compete the tablet market, the next new thing and importantly less of a commodity market. Now that a capable OS arrives, Microsoft pre-empts them without warning??? Because they didn't produce tablets to expected standards fast enough??? That's hard to fathom.

Microsoft has every right to produce its own tablets and the lower end one in particular has the potential to be winners. But the traditional OEM partners, having been spurned, have the right and maybe the incentive to start dating others--for tablets today and maybe for PCs tomorrow.

Microsoft's limited distribution channel for the Surface is probably intended to send a message to OEMs tthat they are not being pre-empted; that this is just a lob to consumers. Well consumers won't buy without trying and how can they try on the web or in Microsoft's 20 (count 'em) stores?

And the OEMs who can get devices into every distro channel and into the hands of corporate evaluators may just take a pass at this point. Android is a known quantity with quite a cool factor. . .

espresso_luvr
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espresso_luvr,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/20/2012 | 8:04:10 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
one way to assess the potential level/degree of impact caused by MSFT now becoming a hardware vendor/competitor to its OEM partners is to look a the dynamic of what happened to GOOGLE's OEM base for ANDROID when they bought MOTOROLA and became a major player against the other phone cos. ... surely INFOWEEK or other market research firms have some data on that(?) ...

honestly, i would really like to see the whole paradigm be upset by APPLE licensing the updated version of its AQUA GUI and APIs/drivers (SDK) to the LINUX vendors and make LINUX/UNIX a cohesive and real competitor on the desktop (as well as the x/LINUX server market) to WINDOWS ...

when mr. ballmer (MSFT) talks so glibly about hardware and software pushing/pulling one another along, what they really mean is that WINDOWS is such a pig OS (lacking a true kernel architecture) that with every iteration it REQUIRES major processor, disk and memory upgrades just to load it ... in that regard, OSX (BSD/Mach UNIX) and all of the LINUXes are much more reliable, efficient and high performance -- and they DON'T obsolete the HW evertime there is an update(!) ...
jroane
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jroane,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/20/2012 | 3:22:11 PM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
Surface is a STRATEGIC BLUNDER OF HUGE MAGNITUDE! Here's why:
1. Surface inflicts serious injury to already embattled OEMs--the PC OEMs are struggling to make a profit as the PC business is under attack from Apple driven consumerization. OEMs looked to Win8 tablets and ultrabooks to restore profitability. Those hopes are now dashed as MSFT takes one of the most profitable slices.
2. This can't be a move to motivate OEMs to do better against Apple, as MSFT is to blame--the OEMs are singularly dependent on MSFT for a true tablet OS. Last I checked, MSFT still doesn't have one in production (it's June 2012. tic, toc, tic, toc). MSFT is the prom date that took forever to get dressed, and now shows up with another date complaining about how late the awkward threesome is.
3. OEMs will strike back: OEMs have always strived to "hedge their bets" by working with others: Android, Linux, AMD, ARM. The alarms must now be at DEFCON 1 as it's mission critical that OEMs sever the dependency with MSFT, there new competitor.
4. Apple will almost certainly exploit this blunder by forming back-office partnerships with Dell, HP, and IBM to sell Apple based servers. The HW OEMs will bite becuase "my enemies enemy is my friend."

A better alternative would have been for MSFT to specify a minimally acceptable design (similar to what Intel did with Ultrabooks). Then let the OEMs compete to improve it. Simple, leverages, rather than weakens, the power of the ecosystem.
Fill
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Fill,
User Rank: Strategist
6/20/2012 | 5:07:04 AM
re: Microsoft Tablet Surfaces A New Strategy
Is it me or did they convert the laptop to a tablet... and back again? Not yet for sale, no price and only runs Windows RT. This can only end well...
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