Microsoft the OEM

I’ve started blogging at CITEworld.  I’ll keep blogging here as well, so watch this space :-)

 

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Surface Pro 3: It’s all about the form factor

Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 3 has received a large amount of good press, and the occasional negative (usually liking the hardware but disliking Windows 8.1).  But today’s piece on The Motley Fool warranted a response.  The problem with the article is that the author appears not to get “it”.  When it comes to form factor, Microsoft’s Surface line is about being a Tablet and a Notebook while detachables like ASUS’ T100 and the new T300 Chi are about being a Tablet or a Notebook.

Anyone who has ever owned any Surface variant prizes the fact that you carry it around as a tablet and then, whenever you need a keyboard, you just use the cover.  You never have to think “should I take just the tablet or the tablet plus keyboard dock with me today”.  You don’t pay a noticeable weight or thickness penalty with the Touch Cover, and with the Type Cover it is still so minimal as to not alter the usage pattern.  You can use the device while in motion, with the keyboard cover folded out-of-the-way, which is the ultimate test of if a device belongs in the mobile category or not.  In other words, Microsoft has targeted and achieved a unique balance that is lacking from other devices.  It is a balance that is unique across not only all Windows 8.x devices but across iOS and Android devices as well.

With detachables the device can’t be used as a tablet while the tablet is attached to the keyboard dock.  It can’t (any more than a traditional notebook) be used while in motion while attached to the keyboard dock.  No matter how thin and light the tablet itself is, when attached to the keyboard dock it is the weight and thickness of an Ultrabook-style notebook.  And most importantly, when you do want to use the device as a tablet you need to have somewhere to put the keyboard dock, because it can’t stay attached to the tablet.  Once detached you have no way to prop up the tablet, severely limiting the scenarios in which it can be used.  With a detachable you are always stuck making the decision “do I want to carry a notebook with me today or a tablet”.  If the latter, you leave the keyboard dock at home, in your office, or in your briefcase.  And probably slip the tablet into some kind of case, both for protection and for a stand mechanism.

If you do take a detachables’ tablet and keyboard dock with you then don’t be fooled into thinking you are carrying around a tablet plus a keyboard, you are carrying around a notebook.  As you are walking through the mall, or around the factory floor, or standing waiting to get on the airplane, or sitting in a coffee shop at a table barely big enough to hold your latte cup you aren’t going to pull the tablet off the keyboard dock so you can use it as a tablet.  Why not?  Because what are you going to do with the keyboard dock?  When detached it is a boat anchor searching for bottom.

This is not to say that detachables don’t have a place.  They are perfect if you 98% need a notebook but want a tablet option.  You can leave the keyboard dock in your office and take only the tablet to a meeting for pen-based note taking (if it supports a pen), for example.  Or leave the dock at home when you go on vacation and treat it as a traditional tablet primarily for content consumption.  But detachables will never match the balance that Microsoft has gone after with the Surface family.

So now we have a situation where the Surface Pro 3 (SP3) will be compared with various detachables (and other 2-in-1s), with the ASUS T300 Chi being the most interesting contender so far.  Of course the SP3 is available in a little over a week while the T300 is months away.  The T300 had the option to use Intel’s upcoming Broadwell processor, and in particular the new Core M, while the SP3 is “stuck” using the current generation Haswell processors (probably so they could make the back to school shopping season).  Is that really such a bad thing?

We don’t know the relative performance of the Core M vs. Core i3/i5/i7 within the Broadwell lineup.  Or how the Broadwell Core M compares to the Haswell Core i5, for example.  Yes it will use less power and generate less heat, but if you are looking for performance which will be the better option?  The Core M allows for a fanless design, though Intel demonstrated you can get better performance with a fan (in their case, by having the keyboard dock include the fan and actively cool the processor in the tablet).  So most likely a SP3 with Haswell Core i5 (never mind the i7) blows the pants off a detached T300 with the Broadwell Core M.  Now circle back to my form factor discussion.  With the SP3 you are always carrying around a full-powered device, not necessarily so with the detachables.

Or how about thickness and weight of the pure tablet portion of these devices?  Yes some of the difference between the SP3 and T300 can probably be attributed to the SP3′s active cooling system.  But of course the SP3 comes with a built-in kickstand while the tablet portion of the T300 does not.  I will bet that most of the difference in thickness and weight can be attributed to that very unique, and generally beloved as a differentiator, kickstand.  It makes the SP3, even without a cover, far more useful as a content consumption device (e.g., watching a movie on an airplane) than a detachables’ detached tablet.

There are numerous other differences of course.  For example, the SP3 is featuring a new generation of Pen-based input and Microsoft is clearly aiming to add more inking features to its software.  The T300 Chi appears not to support any form of active digitizer pen.  These differences all add up to the SP3 and T300 Chi being aimed at very different, if significantly overlapping, usage scenarios.

Comparing the Surface Pro 3 and a detachable makes no sense outside of a discussion of the usage scenarios and which form factor is most appropriate for those specific scenarios.  Microsoft is going for a unique form factor with the Surface Pro 3, one that says we compromised the tablet a little and we compromise the notebook a little and have this one device that can be both at the same time.  Detachables are a device class that let you have a notebook or a tablet, but not at the same time.  That’s a much bigger compromise than what Microsoft has done with the SP3, though probably a good compromise for many people.

It looks to me like the T300 Chi is quite an accomplishment and that ASUS remains one of the most innovative OEMs out there.  I will likely be recommending it to many people based on their own needs.  But comparing the T300 Chi to the SP3 is more about gaining press attention then accurately positioning one as better than the other.  And using the T300 Chi as a justification for why Microsoft should not be in the hardware business just proves that financial writers don’t get it.

Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments

The Missing Mini

No one was more disappointed by last week’s no-show of a Microsoft 8″ class Surface device than I was.  At the same time launching such a device at that particular event would have been a disaster, as I’ll get to in moment.  And the fact that Microsoft was willing to pull it from a launch event at which it was expected to be the star attraction is the best indicator yet of the care that Satya Nadella is putting into Microsoft decision-making.  A lot of Microsoft watchers have noticed this, with Matt Rosoff and Paul Thurrott offering up particularly good commentary.  I wanted to dig a little deeper on what could have been a disastrous launch.

As I discussed in my piece on what Microsoft needs to do for the Surface family to succeed, a so-called Surface Mini has to be a productivity-oriented tablet.  But launching a productivity-oriented tablet last week presented a catch-22 situation.  The software to really make such a device shine, particularly Office “Gemini” hasn’t been announced yet.  So no matter how cool the Surface Mini hardware may be, it would have offered little useful differentiation from OEM Windows 8.1 tablets let alone non-Windows competitors.  It would have come across has a case of another Microsoft near miss, strategically and on execution.

Of course Microsoft could have, and might have under the previous leadership, addressed that by launching Office “Gemini” at last week’s Surface event.  That would have been a disastrous blunder.  Office “Gemini” is something that all producers of Windows tablets desperately look forward to as a prerequisite to their success.  Tying its launch to the Surface family would have been a slap in the face to the OEMs at the very time Microsoft is trying to reinvigorate their commitment to Windows.

Hence the catch-22, a Surface Mini can’t succeed without new software and new software can’t be introduced at a Surface Mini launch event.  So while there may be other reasons that the Mini was pulled from last week’s launch, breaking the catch-22 seems like the most likely cause.

The right way to go about a Surface Mini launch, or any hardware launch that requires new (generally available) software, is to launch the software first and then launch the hardware.  Take a look at the Windows Phone 8.1 launch.  They launched the OS and as part of that they introduced new WP OEMs, briefly showed off some of their hardware, and had then OEM Nokia do an introduction of new Lumia family members. The real Nokia Lumia launch came at a separate event later in the day.  Note that had another OEM had something new that was ready to launch they likely would have offered them stage time for a brief device introduction as well.

Office “Gemini” will most likely be introduced at a large Information Worker/productivity software event later this year.  And once that is done then Microsoft can launch a Surface Mini.  The launches might occur concurrently with something akin to what happened with Windows Phone 8.1  and the Lumia introductions or, if Microsoft is taking advantage of the announcement delay to revise the Surface Mini hardware, at a later point.  But I am picturing a Office “Gemini” launch where Microsoft asks a OEM CEO on stage, perhaps Michael Dell to introduce the next generation Dell Venue 8 Pro (something that has appeared in leaked roadmaps as being readied for later this year) as a great Office “Gemini” tablet, and then does the same with Stephen Elop and the Surface Mini.  The formal Surface Mini launch would then occur at another time (on that day or soon thereafter).  That would be an awesome way to introduce both Office “Gemini” and the next generation of Windows tablets.

How you message and launch products is one of the arts that deteriorated at Microsoft over the previous decade, and its clear that Satya Nadella is putting a renewed emphasis on thinking these things through.  That was also evident in the launch of Office for iPad.  Historically that would have happened as part of a bigger Information Worker event, perhaps with Office “Gemini”, that detracted both from the messaging that Microsoft is serious about non-Windows devices and the “Mobile First, Cloud First” philosophy that Satya is promoting.

Think about how launching Office for iPad and Office “Gemini” for Windows concurrently would have looked, based on the evidence that Office “Gemini” is a far more extensive offering that Office for iPad.  The reaction would have been how Office for iPad was a brain-dead version of Office “Gemini” for Windows!  By launching Office for iPad separately, and earlier, the reaction was around how rich the applications were, how well done the touch interface was, and how Microsoft had (surprisingly) not short-changed iPad users.  It was “Microsoft gets it”.  The reaction to Office for iPad was WOW! and the reaction to Office “Gemini” will (likely) be OMG!  And then the Surface Mini will be “I WANT”.  Whereas the same exact products launched carelessly could all fall flat on their faces and continue sending a message to users that “Microsoft doesn’t get it”.

So I’m disappointed the Surface Mini wasn’t introduced last week.  But my disappointment is tempered by the fact that Microsoft is getting back to being masterful about how it brings products to market.  Oh sure it will continue to make mistakes, as all companies do.  But the days of Microsoft shooting itself in the foot (or often more like blowing its foot completely off) before its even out of the starting gate appear to be over.

And I still want my Surface Mini.

Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Windows | Tagged , , , | 23 Comments

Is there a point of diminishing return on improving fuel economy?

Ok, I know this is mostly an information technology blog (although when I started it my intent was to cover technology in general) but I want to talk about automotive technology right now.  As I do with IT topics I like to look at things with a bit of an economic slant.  Not a deep detailed analysis, but the kind of back-of-the-envelope analysis that can be used as a gut check on products, markets, etc.  And it turns out that the current relentless push for better fuel economy is a perfect place to do this.

To begin with I’m not going to address any environmental issues here for a very practical reason.  The overwhelming majority of car buyers do not actually buy based on the environmental impact of the vehicle they choose.  It is a secondary driver of their behavior, not a primary driver.

I have friends, family and acquaintances who are incredibly vocal about the problem of Global Warming/Climate Change, but if you look at what they drive they are not attempting to dramatically minimize their own contribution to this equation.  People’s real buying behavior is to first decide on a class of vehicle that meets their needs, then they narrow the choices down to those they can afford, then decide what subset of those they like, and only as part of that process do they really start to consider things like environmental impact.  And they mostly do that (in the U.S.) through the economics of Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Miles-Per-Gallon (MPG) ratings.  So the better the EPA rating the less fuel consumed (and paid for) and the less carbon emitted.   No matter your position on Global Warming/Climate Change you win if you use less energy.  Everyone wins actually, even the energy companies.  Although an argument for that position is not in the scope of this blog.

A discussion of the EPA’s benchmark methodology, and EPA MPG ratings are indeed a metric derived from a benchmark, is in scope for this blog and at some point I’ll write about it in the context of benchmarking in general.  But not today.  Today we focus on MPG economics.

By 2025 the U.S. is supposed to have a Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) of 54.5 MPG.  That is a rather artificial metric used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  I’ve seen articles claiming this will equate to an average EPA sticker of 36 MPG and others claiming low 40s.  Different benchmarks.  Moreover, these are averages based on assumed mix of vehicles sold in 2025.  If buyers go for more midsize and smaller cars than planned then the U.S. fleet will beat these averages.  If they go for more large trucks, vehicle makers will have trouble meeting the CAFE goal.  Well maybe not.  The 2015 Ford F-150 looks like it will be close to meeting the 2025 30 MPG goal  for Large Trucks, making one wonder where they can get to in 10 years.

If we take government mandates out of this equation we see a trend emerging out in the real world.  The very popular midsize segment (e.g., Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Honda Accord, etc.) is already bumping up against the 50 EPA MPG rating in their Hybrid guises.  And hitting over 100 MPGe (a benchmark variant to take into account energy from the power grid) in their plug-in Hybrid variants.  And that is with 11 years, or basically two new vehicle generations, yet to come before midsize cars are estimated to average 53.8 EPA MPG.  You can have a 50 MPG class car today, and every year they become more common.

A few recent events in my life had me start wondering if there is a diminishing return on continuing to push improvements to fuel economy.  One of those events is that I’ve been driving one of the near 50 EPA MPG cars for the last six months.  Another is that we’ve been helping a friend look for a new house.  A third is I’ve had some family members make moves recently.  The first made me realize I hardly think about buying gasoline, or the expense of gasoline, any more.  The latter two made me think of scenarios.  The result was a thought experiment on if most car buyers will care about going beyond the 50 EPA MPG mark.

Let’s take two scenarios.  The first is someone living in an urban residential neighborhood.  They have a one-way commute of 5 miles or less.  The second is someone living in the suburbs.  They have a one-way commute of 25 miles or less.  Now obviously there are numerous other scenarios, but if we take the oft-repeated claim that the vast majority of drivers average less than 40 miles per day than our round-trip numbers of 10 (urban) or 50 (suburban) take in nearly the entire non-rural population of the U.S.  So these two scenarios seem worthy of analysis.

Let’s start with our Urban Dweller (UD).  UD has a commute of 50 miles per week, and with our 50 MPG car thus uses one gallon of gas.  Here in Colorado you can currently find regular gasoline for under $3.50 per gallon, but in some other areas of the country it is approaching $4.00.  For our analysis we’ll assume the price of a gallon of regular gasoline is $4.  So how much does UD spend on gasoline to get to and from work?  $4 per week.  That doesn’t sound like much.

For a gut-check do a comparison to mass transit.  A ride on the NYC subway is $2.50, which means a week of round-trip commuting travel is $25.  A 10 trip 2-zone bus/light rail ticket here in Denver is $20.  Now I know that comparing gas costs alone to a mass transit ticket is going to set off an apples to oranges alert in your head.  But I think it’s a valid gut check on variable costs.  If you own a car than most of the costs associated with it are incurred whether you drive it or let it sit in the garage.  The variable costs are mostly those associated with the fuel you use.  For mass transit more of their fixed costs are represented in the ticket price (although a lot of them are captured in taxes paid whether you use mass transit or not).  But for you as a commuter, the ticket price is purely variable costs.  You only pay them when you use the service.  And yes there are other variable costs, like parking, for using your car.  But since those occur regardless of MPG, and vary dramatically by where you work (free at office park vs. $ at downtown office building), I’m going to ignore them.

Let’s do another gut-check.  Colorado minimum wage is $7.78 per hour, so fuel for commuting takes less a little over a half-hour of work per week at the bottom end of income scales.  Colorado median personal income is $868 per week, so for most of us that gallon of gas is a truly irrelevant cost.

What happens if gas hits $5 per gallon?  At 50 MPG it is almost unnoticeable.  What if it hits $8 per gallon?  Obviously for a minimum wage worker every penny is noticeable.  But for a median income worker it’s one less cup of coffee per week in theory, and probably unnoticeable in practice.  And your variable transportation cost is still lower than it is with mass transit.

So let’s switch to our suburbanite (S).  S uses one gallon of gasoline per day, for a weekly fuel cost of $20.  A $1 rise in fuel price takes them to $25, or one less coffee per week.  A doubling of gasoline prices takes them to $40 per week.  While this extra $20 has clear impact on a minimum wage worker, it is also unlikely that you’d commute 50 miles round trip for such a job.  But for a median income worker we are talking about fuel taking another 2% of their income, not insignificant but not devastating either.

What about a mass transit comparison for S?  A LIRR monthly ticket for an approximately 25 mile distance from Penn Station comes to $65 per week.  Denver doesn’t have a commuter rail system, but an RTD Light Rail 4-zone (which does cover many suburbs) monthly ticket works out to $42 per week.  So for S even a doubling of gasoline prices means their variable transportation costs would remain under the cost of using mass transit.

Now let’s try to understand the value of increasing fuel economy.  At 75 MPG UD would save $1.36 per week.  Not enough for even a tall drip coffee at Starbucks.  At 100 MPG UD would save $2.00 per week.  Barely enough for that tall drip coffee.  At 75 MPG S saves $6.80 and at 100 MPG $10.  So a little more noticeable, but still not a significant benefit to their economic wellbeing.  We’re talking in the range of  switching from Tall Lattes to Venti Vanilla Lattes here.  And the problem in all of this is, we’re only looking at variable costs.

Our push to increase fuel mileage is increasing the fixed costs side of the equation.  A 50 City/45 Highway MPG City Honda Accord Hybrid starts at $29,155 while the 124/105 MPGe Honda Accord Plug-In Hybrid starts at $39,780.  There is no conceivable change in variable energy costs (and moreover keep in mind that electricity costs will rise in any catastrophic environment that drives gasoline prices insanely high) that can make up for this increase in fixed costs.

What about other things, like weekend use of the vehicle?  I didn’t cover it here, but everything extrapolates rather cleanly in any case.  Let’s say UD uses another gallon of gas on weekends to visit their parents in the suburbs, run errands, etc.  It doesn’t really impact my entire point.

And what is that point?  There appears to be a diminishing economic return on improving fuel economy beyond 50 MPG.  Note I’m not saying there isn’t some return, just that once the consumer mindset is that spending for gasoline is an insignificant part of their expense structure they will stop caring about further improvements.  Moreover, they will focus even more intensely on fixed costs.

The average age of cars on the road today is over 11 years.  If you own a 50 MPG car today and a decade from now you are offered a 100 MPG car, but at a price way beyond the (inflation adjusted price) of the 50 MPG one you already own, you won’t have economic justification for buying it.  The average age of cars on the road will stretch to 12 years, 14 years, or even more.    To sell cars with MPG beyond 50, they’ll have to improve without increasing fixed costs beyond the improvement in variable costs.

This has implications for all segments of the auto industry.  By 2025 we are going to see non-hybrid gasoline powered midsize cars hitting the 50 EPA MPG mark.  Diesel powered ones will reach that point sooner.  If my economic arguments old true then full hybrids, which have become a significant part of the market, will return to niche status.  And plug-in electrics will have to hit unsubsidized price points that differ little from that of their gasoline-powered cousins to achieve mass market appeal.  Natural Gas will remain mostly a fleet fuel.  And Fuel Cells?  They’ll never get past the curiosity stage.

Is 50 MPG a magic number?  Not exactly.  Government mandates have made it one.  The economic argument I make above could be made with other numbers.  Maybe 40 MPG is the real magic number, maybe 60.  Maybe something else.  I went with 50 because that does represent a sort of speed bump on our current journey, and it’s a round number making back of the envelope calculations easier.  We are there now with hybrids and we’ll be there soon with non-hybrids.  Whatever the exact number, we are approaching the point where consumers are going to feel like fuel costs no longer matter.

Obviously if you can buy a 47 MPG version of the Ford Fusion (i.e., the Hybrid) why does anyone buy the non-hybrid version that does less than half as well in the city and 1/3 worse on the highway?  Currently 88% buy the non-hybrid version.  With a 5 year payback period from the higher fixed cost of the Hybrid most consumers don’t find it a compelling option.

On the other than the Lincoln MKZ variant of the Fusion is priced identically for the hybrid and non-hybrid version.  In the first quarter of 2014 a third of MKZ buyers went for the hybrid.  Why not 100%?  The non-hybrid has more trunk space and better acceleration, but I’d venture skepticism over hybrids is the number one reason.  And perhaps supply limitations.  Lincoln couldn’t supply 100% of its MKZs even if it wanted to, at least not without significant lead time.  So there are plenty of non-hybrids on dealer lots.  But Lincoln has been shifting the production numbers more towards hybrids, and will keep doing so as long as buyers soak them up.

I’ve focused a lot on the mid-size car segment of the market, but even Ford Escape class SUV/Crossovers are expected to approach 50 MPG in 2025.  And with the 2015 F-150 and the 2014 Dodge Ram 1500 EcoDiesel already nearing 30 MPG, my arguments apply over the broad population of “light” vehicles sold in the U.S.

Is there a bottom line here?  Economics drives consumer purchasing behavior, particularly in the long-term.  Yes there are some buyers who will make “poor” economic choices in favor of other priorities, from the philosophic (e.g., environmental concerns) to the esoteric (the Tesla is a really cool car), but they don’t represent the vast majority of buyers.  And because of that I think we are rapidly approaching the point where buyers won’t pay for better fuel economy.

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Will Microsoft get the new Surface(s) right? Part 2

Having done a bit of a post-mortem on the original Surface products and strategy in Part 1, I can now dive into what I think Microsoft needs to do in order to succeed with the Surface family.  The first thing I think Microsoft needs to do is eliminate the confusion around what the Surface brand is all about.  Note this is not just about branding, but rather about creating a clear product strategy and establishing principles that drive the design center for products in the Surface family.

The clear guiding principle for the Surface family should be “Productivity First”.  That is, every member of the product family should have being the best productivity device in its class as its primary design center.  “Productivity First, Entertainment Second” might be a more complete description of the design center.  Using the Content Consumption vs. Content Creation axis I’ve talked about before, Surface devices should always lean more towards Creation than competing devices in the same class.  That may be saying it too mildly as the correct positioning is that they should trounce other devices in the same class at Content Creation.  At the same time they need to be competitive at Content Consumption so that a user need only carry one device in any given class.

I kind of went at that backwards so let me explore this strategically.  Microsoft’s strength is in Productivity software and Content Creation.  It wants to win the consumer, but it can’t do that in a head-on attack on the players who dominate the Content Consumption space.   No Surface will ever be a better overall Content Consumption device than an iPad.   Nor will it ever be as good a portal into Amazon’s content libraries as a Kindle Fire.   Even if Surface is technically superior at Content Consumption, it will never be perceived as such!  And while the iPad and Android devices may achieve success as productivity devices, Microsoft has a clear opportunity to make sure that they are always considered a distant second to Surface in this area.

Notably “Productivity” and “Content Creation” does not imply purely business use, although clearly they allow Microsoft to win big in the Enterprise.  One of  the modest success stories for the original Surface is in education, both in institutional purchases and individual student purchases.  And while Microsoft Office is a large part of the Productivity story, it is not the only story.  Being the best device as a Pilot’s Electronic Flight Bag, or for a Doctor to access Electronic Medical Records, or for a retail employee to provide customer service on the store floor, counts as well.  Nearly all users make some use of all devices for productivity purposes.  The strategy around Surface needs to be to have the best device in class for anyone who values those productivity capabilities above the (perceived) superior entertainment capabilities of competing devices.

With Surface/Surface 2/Surface Pro/Surface Pro 2 Microsoft clearly had the productivity attribute in mind, but that itself is the point.  It was just an attribute.  It was not the unambiguous strategy.  It was not the design center.  It was not at the center of the branding and resulting messaging.  The Surface/Surface 2 don’t have digitizers.  They only had a version of Office Home and Student, which also didn’t include Outlook.  The positioning of the Touch vs. Type Cover (Touch for Surface, Type for Surface Pro) made content creation secondary.  The shipment priority favored the more Content Consumption oriented Surface/Surface 2 over the more Content Creation oriented Surface Pro/Surface Pro 2.  The advertising and other messaging also was overwhelmingly tilted towards the entertainment rather than productivity nature of the devices.

For Microsoft to succeed with Surface going forward “Productivity” must be the way it intends to win, the key driver of its product designs, and the unambiguous meaning behind the brand “Surface”.

Before moving on I want to be clear, all Surface devices must be competitive (even great) Entertainment/Content Consumption devices as well.  I’m not trying to say Microsoft can ignore this space, because if a user has to carry an 8″ or 10″ class Surface and an iPad or iPad Mini too many will probably just carry the iPad/iPad Mini.  I have to be able to watch movies, read books and magazines, track news and blogs, and play games on my Surface.  I just don’t need to beat Apple, Samsung, Amazon, and Google at it.  But the reason you buy a Surface over a competing device is because you have a productivity need.

What “Productivity” means is going to vary by device class.  For example, in sub-9″ class devices it probably doesn’t mean a keyboard cover (though it could).  That’s a device class where note taking and handwriting as an input mode takes more of a priority.  Microsoft has had a technological lead in this area for a decade, and it’s finally time for them to press that advantage.  An active digitizer as a feature of all members of the Surface family would not be a bad place for Microsoft to start.

In the 10-11″ class devices the keyboard cover is a perfect example of an advantage Microsoft has, and one that would have been of greater benefit had the strategy, positioning, and branding been clearer.  Also the execution.  The much improved Touch Cover 2 is almost in the Unicorn category as it is never actually in stock at Microsoft stores, Best Buy, etc.  The announced Type Power Cover is even worse, it is vaporware.

For larger Surface devices, such as a 12-13″ class device that many have been waiting for, having a 2-in-1 with the design optimized for notebook usage seems right.  Certainly a notebook-oriented design center, even a pure notebook, seems like a winner.  I haven’t said much about this class device, but it is indeed the missing link in a Productivity device family offering.  13″ is about optimal for a truly mobile, primary Content Creation, device.  Any larger and you lose mobility.  Any smaller and you are really talking about a secondary device.  Sure 15″ notebooks and desktops with multiple 23″ monitors are better for Content Creation, but they range from marginally mobile to completely immobile.  Microsoft needs to win in the higher growth rate mobile categories.

Now let’s talk about pricing.  This is something that Microsoft has screwed up badly with Surface to date.  They have to get it right with the upcoming announcement.  As an underdog in the 7-8″ and 10-11″ categories they need to use pricing to drive adoption.  In the 12-13″ or above this is less critical, but they still don’t want to price themselves out of the market.  So let me offer some general guidance and then drill in a bit.  For ARM-based devices Microsoft needs to price very aggressively versus the competition.  For x86-based devices in the 7-8″ or 10-11″ category they need to price slightly aggressively.  For 12-13″ or above devices they need to be competitive, but there is no need to be the price leader.

So let us first talk about ARM.  Microsoft is at a huge disadvantage with ARM-based devices because of two sides of the same coin.  On one side they have a huge gap in Windows Store application availability compared to either Apple or Google.  On the other side they have a huge advantage in Windows-based productivity (and entertainment) applications that they can’t run on ARM.  The net impact is that I think consumer perception of ARM-based Windows RT devices is that they are worth $50-75 less than an otherwise equivalent x86-based device at the 7-8″ class and $100-125 less in the 10-11″ class.  The current state of the Windows Store also makes an ARM-based Windows tablet worth at least that much less than a similar Apple, Samsung, or Google Nexus device.  I’ll call this the Perceived Consumer Value Adjustment (PCVA).

The most productivity oriented 8″ tablet on the market is the Samsung Galaxy Note 8, which has the active S-Pen, with a Suggested Retail Price (SRP) of $399 and a street price of $329.  Another competitor from Samsung is the Galaxy Tab Pro 8.4 which also has a $399 SRP but a $359 street price.  The ASUS VivoTab Note 8 x86-based Windows 8.1 tablet with an active digitizer lists at $329 but is currently selling at the Microsoft Store for $299.  The Lenovo Thinkpad 8, which has a higher resolution screen but no active digitizer, lists at $449 but is already selling for $399.  It too is an x86.  Meanwhile the Apple iPad Mini with Retina Display lists at $399 and can be found for slightly less.  Taken together this suggests a “Surface Mini” that is about 8″ with a Retina-class display and an active digitizer could command an SRP of about $399.  But apply PCVA and an SRP of $329-359 makes more sense.

Given that Surface devices, like Apple devices, have street prices almost identical to their SRP, the $329-359 price range is likely still too high.  The Galaxy Note 8 is old at this point, which accounts for its large discount from SRP.  A refresh would probably leave it with a street price around $359.  If we average the ASUS and Lenovo street prices we also end up around $359.  Apply PCVA to $359 and it suggests that a 8″ ARM-based Surface should have an entry price of $299 or less.  There are many other data points that suggest a $299 price would be a good entry point for this class Surface.  Lower-spec Windows devices in the same class, such as the Dell Venue 8 Pro, are already selling for $249 and occasionally less.  They will be dropping to $199 in the next few months.  The non-retina display iPad Mini sells for $299.  The Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 8″ has a $269 SRP and is selling for $239.  Etc.  So $299 is an aggressive price relative to other high-end and more productivity-oriented tablets, but a high price relative to more modest spec’d and Content Consumption-oriented tablets.

Actually I was applying 8″ pricing under the assumption the Surface device was really an 8″ class device.  If it is a 7″ device then it will need to be priced at least $50-100 lower.

Ok, that was a fairly analytic approach to pricing.  But what if Microsoft wanted to flood the market with these devices and really incent developers to create  Windows Store apps?  Then they should price an 8″ ARM device at $249 or a 7″ ARM device at $199.  At that price I’ll not only buy one for myself, I’ll give a few as gifts.

You can apply this same analysis to either the Surface 2 or a replacement, should Microsoft announce one.  A Surface 2 with Touch Cover (or better yet, Touch Cover 2) for $399 would gain traction.  If you replaced the ARM processor with an Atom x86 processor you could charge $449 for the combination with similar results.

And if Microsoft introduces something in the 12-13″ class?  No adjustments necessary.  No unusual pricing necessary.  Just price to the current competitive situation for 13″ Ultrabooks and Macbooks.

I’ve spent so much time on pricing because I think this is critical to the short-term, and thus long-term, success of the Surface family.  Microsoft must use pricing to make itself a force in the market for under 11″ computing devices.  It must use it to make up for both perceived and real shortcomings, both in the general case of the Windows Store having an inferior app selection and the specific case of ARM-based systems not having the ability to run desktop applications.

I want to talk about one more topic which is WWAN (3G/4G/LTE) support.  Microsoft has mostly shied away from including WWAN support in its Surface family.  Yes the Surface 2 belatedly got WWAN support, and then only as a very expensive option.  I won’t purchase any further tablets without LTE support, and I know many others are in the same boat.  Both Apple and Samsung introduce both WiFi-only and WWAN versions of their tablets.  Failure to do so leaves a significant segment of the buying population uninterested in your device.  It also leaves you out of the extensive retail footprint of the carriers, as well as that of  independent mobile-oriented retailers.

Microsoft has to fully commit to WWAN in devices under 11″.  That would obviously be at a premium price above the entry-level pricing exercise I did earlier.  “Mobile First, Cloud First”.  You can’t be mobile without WWAN, so if I don’t see WWAN support in the May 20th announcement then I think Stephen Elop should look at making changes in leadership of the Surface team.

Productivity First.  Fill out the family.  Price to SELL.   And, on a different level, WWAN support.  That’s what I think Microsoft needs to do to get the new Surfaces right.

 

 

 

Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows | Tagged , , , , | 45 Comments

Will Microsoft get the new Surface(s) right? Part 1

It appears that on May 20th Microsoft will announce at least one new member of the Surface family, most likely a Surface Mini (aka 7-8″ class device).  The rumors have heated up suggesting that there will actually be two or more new Surface devices introduced.  Now that would be exciting!

From my perspective this is pretty much the make or break announcement for the Surface line.  The Surface/Surface 2/Surface Pro/Surface Pro 2 generation of devices grew out of Microsoft’s pre-Windows 8 launch thinking.  Yes the 2s are the same generation as the originals, nicely upgraded but still based on the original design center.  Whatever we see on the 20th are the first devices that could have been seriously impacted by what Microsoft learned from the Windows 8 and Surface launch experience.  The first that could have a different design center.  And the first where new CEO Satya Nadella can influence the pricing and positioning (though not the designs themselves).

Part of Microsoft’s problem with the original Surface was its schizophrenic positioning.  Was this a content consumption device positioned against the iPad or a content creation device positioned against the MacBook Air and Ultrabooks?  I discussed positioning in my original “review” of the Surface, which didn’t get to the marketing side of things.  What Microsoft tried to do initially was position the Surface as a content consumption device and the Surface Pro as more of a content creation device.  They missed the mark on both.

The Surface didn’t find acceptance as a content consumption device for two major (and a few modest/minor) reasons.  First, it was considerably overpriced.   Microsoft thought they had a lot of value in the device that consumers didn’t see.  Second, the device had no apps.  By basing the Surface on an ARM processor, thus limiting it to only new Windows Store apps, Microsoft had created a version of the “Which came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” problem for itself.  They could have broken through by pricing the Surface aggressively to drive sales volume that created a pull on app developers.  But they didn’t.  Consumers stayed away.

Where the Surface showed some promise, and did gain traction after last fall’s price drop, was amongst people who needed a Microsoft Office-centric productivity tablet.  Basically something even more into the Content Creation space than Microsoft’s original positioning.  Unfortunately Microsoft was slow to follow-up on that limited success and has kept the Surface 2 priced much too high to build on last fall’s traction with the original Surface.  It has been overpriced by at least $100.  A Surface 2 with the Touch Cover for $399 would be a compelling offering.  But at $530 it is a non-starter.  And the pricing of the LTE model is outrageously non-competitive.

The ARM-based Surface continues to face the problem of a weak app library.  My most recent example is the lack of a Windows Store app for Amazon Instant Video, meaning I can’t take my Amazon content offline.  So on my expensive Surface I couldn’t download my Amazon videos to watch on the airplane, but on my inexpensive x86-based Dell Venue 8 Pro I could (because I could install the desktop Amazon Unbox video app).  I left the Surface at home.

High price, lack of consumption apps, and a myriad of more modest consumer disconnects (e.g., the bet on a 16:9 aspect ratio hasn’t paid off, very late delivery of LTE support) doomed the Surface/Surface 2.

The Surface Pro/Surface Pro 2 is more of a success story.  It offers an amazing set of capabilities in a small package.  Unfortunately it is too thick and heavy for use as a primary tablet, and has too small a screen for most people to accept as a primary Content Creation device.  So it is a niche product for those desiring a secondary Content Creation device with good Content Consumption capabilities.  If Microsoft had gotten the thickness and weight down with the Surface Pro 2, and priced it just a little more aggressively, they could have had a smash hit.

Unfortunately Microsoft botched the rollout of both the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2.   In the case of the original Surface Pro they prioritized shipping the Surface first, even though the Surface Pro would have been an instant success and driven Windows Store app development.  By the time the Surface Pro shipped it was tarnished by the poor acceptance of the Surface and poor battery life associated with a dated processor that had already been superseded in Intel’s family.  In the case of the Surface Pro 2 they had availability problems, and then failed to deliver critical accessories, such as its docking station and the power keyboard cover, in a timely fashion.  Thus despite having a solid product, Microsoft simply botched the opportunity.

In Part 2 I’ll discuss a new design center for Surface and suggest what I’m looking for in the next set of products they introduce.

Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows | Tagged , , , , , | 14 Comments

Free Windows (TANSTAAFL)

Some are touting yesterday’s announcement that Microsoft was making Windows (including Windows Phone) free for devices with screens smaller than 9″ as the most impactful news coming out of Build 2014.  While I do think it is important news, I think other changes such as Universal Apps are far more important.  And there is one executive discussion I’d really have liked to sit in on that I’ll talk about near the end.

Current Microsoft profit from Windows Phone and Windows on small screen devices is at best rounding error and at worst represents a loss.  The story on revenue isn’t much better, it is immaterial.  That’s important since it is what matters to investors, and in the long run it is what determines how sustainable a move this is.  Microsoft basically gave up nothing in a “Hail Mary” pass to establish relevance in the software for mobile device market(s).

Some of the software pricing move is related to Microsoft’s evolution to a Devices company so let’s explore Windows Phone first.  With closure of the Nokia Devices acquisition Microsoft will itself be shipping 90%+ of Windows Phone devices.  Today Nokia sells a phone for say $150 and sends Microsoft a check for (say) $15.  Tomorrow Nokia’s sells that same phone for $150 and doesn’t send Microsoft a check.  But since Nokia is now part of Microsoft that $15 still accrues to Microsoft’s finances.  It is, in every sense except a financial reporting one, a neutral financial move by Microsoft.

Microsoft is trying desperately to foster a OEM model for Windows Phone, particularly as it relates to BRIC and developing countries.  In those extreme cost sensitive markets the price of Windows Phone is an issue, while the revenue and profit potential from software for phones alone is immaterial.  Another way to look at this, and it is even possible this is technically how Microsoft’s OEM contracts are structured, is that Microsoft is returning 100% of the price of a Windows Phone license to the OEM as Market Development Funds (MDF).  But even if the contract actually shows a price of zero, in which case Microsoft probably isn’t providing MDF, Microsoft has in effect committed the revenue it might have gained from charging for Windows Phone licenses to marketing.  That’s the correct way of thinking about this.

And the same story applies to smaller screen tablets.  Right now the market for those, aside from the apparent modest success of the Dell Venue 8 Pro, is immaterial to Microsoft’s bottom line.  Microsoft needs to protect its larger form factor Windows revenue stream by taking a very significant share of the smaller form factor tablet market and is willing to “spend” 100% of what it could have taken in on revenue for those Windows licenses to gain that market share.

Why is that market share gain so critical?  Because every iOS or Android device in someone’s hands represents an opportunity for Apple or Google to replace a notebook or desktop as well.  Chromebooks make no sense for me because I am not bought into the Google ecosystem.  The MacBook Air makes no sense to me because I am not bought into the Apple ecosystem.  But if I were a dedicated Android or iOS user I would be, and thus more likely to also become a OS X or Chrome OS user.  So every Windows Phone or Tablet win represents a chance to keep someone in the Microsoft ecosystem and sell them the products for which Microsoft really makes money.

As for the conversation I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for, it’s the one they must have had about setting a precedent.  What happens if Microsoft’s wildest dreams come true and it becomes the top supplier of phone and/or tablet OS software?  Can it raise prices and monetize that success?  This is why I always envisioned the technical pricing details as a 100% kickback in MDF rather than a zero list price.  You can always phase down MDF but raising prices will be like tiptoeing through a dense minefield.  I’m sure Microsoft longs for a day when it must face this problem!

 

Posted in Computer and Internet, Microsoft, Mobile, Windows, Windows Phone | Tagged , | 7 Comments