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.