Microsoft Surface Pro Storage Snafu: Does It Matter? - InformationWeek

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Microsoft Surface Pro Storage Snafu: Does It Matter?

Windows 8 takes up about 70% of the 64-GB Surface Pro's storage. Will this factor into the tablet's BYOD potential?

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For fans of ironic timing, Tuesday's tech new couldn't have been more perfect. Apple debuted a 128-GB iPad in the morning, ostensibly in response to the imminent release of Microsoft's Surface Pro, which will go on sale in 64-GB and 128-GB varieties on Feb. 9. Within hours, Apple's evident intent to compete on storage took a turn, as, almost on cue, reports began circulating that Windows 8 will occupy 45 GB on the Surface Pro's drive, leaving the device's usable storage capacity far short of advertised specs.

This isn't the first time Microsoft has had to deal with this sort of negative press. A lawsuit was filed late last year, for example, when a customer found that the company's 32-GB Surface RT tablet offered only 16 GB of usable space. In the most recent case, Microsoft representatives have been quick to point out that additional memory can easily be added via Surface Pro's microSDXC card slot and USB 3.0 port, and that SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud service, provides additional options.

From a certain vantage, the 128-GB iPad is actually more limiting; though iOS occupies only a little more than 3% of the device's capacity, users who fill the onboard solid-state drive (SSD) will be forced to delete content, offload files to the cloud or perhaps even purchase a new device. Still, if storage concerns are plaguing iPads, sales certainly haven't indicated as much. Despite taking heat from investors, Apple sold a record 23 million of the devices last quarter. That volume far outpaces the sub-1 million tally Microsoft achieved with Surface RT, a number that was less than half what it had hoped.

[ What about Microsoft's new productivity suite? Is it worth it? See MS Office 2013 Upgrade: 4 Points to Consider. ]

It would be overly simplistic, of course, to reduce Tuesday's news to an iPad-versus-Surface debate. Storage is only one of many features differentiating the two options, and the tablet game has filled out with competing models from Samsung and others. Even so, the Windows 8 footprint -- which leaves a relatively healthy 83 GB free on the $999 128-GB Surface Pro model but accounts for around 70% of capacity on the $899 64-GB version -- speaks to the many unknowns confronting tablet and PC makers as they vie for position in an increasingly saturated BYOD market.

Will prospective Surface Pro buyers be dissuaded by the storage concerns? Will enterprise users be compelled by the iPad's superior, and less expensive, out-of-box capacity, or will they prefer Surface Pro's ability to run Windows 8 Pro? Are users ready to begin harnessing the cloud en masse? With non-Microsoft devices now common in business environments, is Surface Pro's ability to tie into legacy management tools meaningful? Are both the iPad and Surface Pro poised to lose ground to cheaper options?

The answers to these questions could vary from one user to the next. Microsoft met with hundreds of business customers while designing Surface Pro, which will ship in an initial volume of 1 million units. Many features, such as the tablet's included stylus and IT-friendly hooks, are a result of this enterprise emphasis. But users will still have to buy a costly external keyboard separately, and it's unclear, given slow Ultrabook sales, whether a full-blown Windows 8 experience will appeal to more than a niche of power users. Enterprise-minded features are attractive, no doubt, but in the BYOD age, consumer-minded features count for a lot too.

There are clearly markets for both the iPad and the Surface Pro, and Microsoft's newest offering will likely inspire loyalty among those with specific needs. But the device is as much about growing an ecosystem as it is about hardware, and it's unclear how much Surface Pro buyers will help Redmond in this regard. Some analysts have not only praised the high margins Apple will enjoy with the 128 GB iPad model but also predicted that the device will avoid cannibalizing sales of the less expensive options. It remains to be seen how widely Surface Pro will revitalize Windows 8, promote services such as SkyDrive, and avoid cutting into Ultrabook sales.

In an email, ABI Research analyst Jeff Orr echoed questions about whether Surface Pro can become a widely used BYOD favorite. He observed that some of the Surface Pro buzz has reflected IT desires more than consumer decision-making but noted that Microsoft will have to compete with Windows 8 OEMs that arguably "have distribution and sales channels best-suited for reaching enterprise audiences," leaving Redmond to take "more of a consumer angle with retail."

"The question remains if BYOD will take hold for tablets and if consumers will buy Windows 8 Pro-based tablets in anticipation of using them in the workplace," Orr wrote.

As for the storage question, Orr said larger memory options "make sense" for enterprise tablets but are less important for consumer apps. He said ABI expects more tablets to migrate toward 128-GB offerings in the near future.

On the topic of Surface Pro, Orr wrote that Microsoft could risk misrepresenting the product if it doesn't refine its messaging around both storage and the user experience in general. "The story of, 'It's Windows. Everybody has it and loves it' just doesn't float anymore," he asserted. "The market has evolved and is willing to adapt to other methods."

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
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2/1/2013 | 10:57:27 PM
re: Microsoft Surface Pro Storage Snafu: Does It Matter?
It'll be interesting to see how Surface Pro gets received and used. I can appreciate the viewpoint that says it's ludicrous to clog up 70% of the SSD with the OS, and that SD Cards are cumbersome additional steps that make the device more difficult than it should be. But if I also think about whether I'd enjoy using one, carrying an SD card or a flash drive doesn't seem like THAT big a deal. Inconvenient, sure, but not a deal-breaker. It makes me think of Canon DSLRs a little, which often look uninspired on paper but generally handle better than other options in practice. I'm not saying Surface Pro will end up similarly, with the device fitting a need so well that users overlook its lesser characteristics. In fact, I think it's more likely that a group of people is going to remain dismayed by the storage issue regardless. But I think Surface Pro can gain fans in certain quarters, and it'll be interesting to see how many.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
2/1/2013 | 10:47:04 PM
re: Microsoft Surface Pro Storage Snafu: Does It Matter?
Thanks for the comment, GAProgrammer. You bring up a good point that probably should have been emphasized somewhere in the article: the Surface Pro has a built-in customer base because it snugly fits a certain, important segment's needs. As a corporate-owned device distributed to employees, it will see a lot of use. But I think Orr has a point in the article about Microsoft's retails intentions, which suggest the company has bigger (i.e. BYOD) aspirations. The million-unit initial shipment shows that Microsoft isn't betting the farm on consumer appeal, but I think they hope it becomes more than an IT favorite. We'll see, though.

Good call with the cannibalization comment. It would have been more accurate to say analysts expect minimal cannibalization. Given the high SSD margins they'll be enjoying alongside whatever cannibalization occurs, I suspect Apple will be happy however it shakes down.

Michael Endler
InformationWeek Associate Editor
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
2/1/2013 | 10:07:49 PM
re: Microsoft Surface Pro Storage Snafu: Does It Matter?
Thanks for the comment, Leo. I think "snafu" is defensible (this definition, for example, seems to fit many reactions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L...,

Diction aside, you're right: Microsoft was no doubt aware of the storage situation when they designed the Surface Pro. If MS had marketed the capacity a bit more transparently, I don't think there'd be any discussion. As many people (and the article) have pointed out, iPads can be just as limiting in terms of storage. Storage capacity will be a big deal for some, but for others, I don't think the issue is usable space, per se, so much as the vibe Microsoft has given off in its marketing.

I like the Surface RT and have little doubt that the Surface Pro will be a capable device. But I think Microsoft needs to manage its messaging. Given the Surface RT lawsuit, this storage mess was pretty foreseeable.
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