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.