That plan is the basis for the CEO's recent reorganization of the company. Eventually, Ballmer sees Windows becoming less like a conventional OS, and more like an experience that users carry from device to device, with Microsoft's cloud stitching the pieces together, Bing's intelligence engine making the experience increasingly personal, and some of Microsoft's hardware fitting in among the endpoints.
It's a grand vision, but it requires Windows 8 adoption to pick up. The Surface tablets were supposed to show other OEMs Windows 8's potential -- but so far, potential losses are the only thing the devices have communicated.
This much is certain: Most companies would have folded after a Surface-sized loss, but Microsoft is rich enough to stick to its guns. If it uses its resources well, the next Surface tablets -- and by extension the Modern UI -- could still make a comeback. These seven moves would help.
1. Put Intel's Haswell Processor In Surface Pro
Here's a possible shopper's dilemma: For $1,000, would you rather have a MacBook Air that has a bigger screen, more storage, and 9 hours of battery life; or a Surface Pro with Type Cover that has a smaller (albeit nicer) screen, less storage, terrible battery life, and a tablet app selection limited by the sub-par Windows Store? There are reasons to side with the Pro, but at this price point, it's easy to see why Microsoft's tablet hasn't flown off shelves.
The MacBook Air's gets its great battery life from Intel's Haswell processor. With this chip, the next Surface Pro should offer battery life that's in line with other tablets, a lighter form factor, and -- thanks to Haswell's GPU enhancements -- snappier processing. But Microsoft needs to get moving. With Haswell-equipped Surface competitors, including other Windows 8 tablets, beginning to hit the market, the Surface Pro is starting to look even more non-competitive for its price.
2. Focus On Cost And Build Quality
The next Surface RT is rumored to have a smaller, 7- or 8-inch screen. But the Nexus 7 has already set the bar high in the mini-tablet market, and Apple is reportedly readying a new iPad Mini. Where can Microsoft compete in this crowded market? Cost and build quality. If Microsoft cuts corners, it's going to keep losing money.
The next Surface RT will reportedly use Qualcomm's Snapdragon 800 chip. This is a good start; the Qualcomm chip is much more capable than the current model's Nvidia processor.
But Microsoft can't stop there. The device needs a best-in-class screen, a magnesium alloy chassis -- the whole nine yards. And it needs to cost less than the iPad Mini.
If Microsoft pulls out all the stops, it might still lose money on a per-device basis. But if those losses lead to better adoption, and to making consumers, developers and businesses give a damn about the modern UI, it will be worth it.
3. Invest In Next-Gen Experience
At Build, Microsoft's conference for developers, the company showed off some intriguing Windows 8.1 capabilities -- such as 3D printing with the push of a button, and remotely controlling a Lego-constructed robot. Will these features lead to immediate sales? Probably not, unless 3D printer prices fall very quickly without Apple, Google or Samsung taking notice.
But these Win 8.1 experiences are still unique and that's a start. The Modern UI needs the popular apps that iOS and Android has, but it also needs novel and compelling user experiences that aren't available on other platforms. Simply putting Office on a tablet isn't going far enough. With the next Surface products, Microsoft needs to show that Windows 8.1 can be an appealing and unique experience.
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