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Summary:

It’s no surprise that Microsoft’s Surface RT isn’t a hit. The Windows RT platform as a whole isn’t faring much better. But it wouldn’t take too many changes to turn an updated Surface RT product into a potential winner.

Microsoft Surface RT

It’s no longer surprising that Microsoft’s Surface RT isn’t the sales hit the company had hoped for. Last month, Microsoft dropped the product’s price by $100 and took a $900 million inventory write-down. Last week, research firm IDC shared its tablet shipment data for the quarter but Microsoft was nowhere to be seen in the top 5.

Should the company throw in the towel on Surface RT or can a refreshed model turn sales around?

I started thinking about this very question after installing the Windows 8.1 beta on a Surface RT a few weeks ago. And I’m reminded of it again when reading that IDC estimates only 200,000 Windows RT devices shipped last month.

Surface RT units only make up a portion of that number as there are still a few vendors shipping Windows RT computers: Dell, Acer and Asus come to mind although Asus said earlier this month it will no longer do so, joining Samsung, HP and others that have left or will be leaving Windows RT behind. Asus VivoTab Smart Tablet Microsoft announced on Wednesday that Windows 8.1 begins rolling out worldwide on October 18. That’s good news for existing Surface RT owners, because based on my experience so far, the software update improves the Surface RT user experience. There are some tweaks, fixes and performance improvements, and it includes Outlook for Windows RT, which has worked very well in my limited testing.

An update to Windows 8.1 alone won’t turn Surface RT sales around

Microsoft hasn’t officially announced a follow-up to its Surface RT hardware, but if it does, it could help boost sales. I actually like the form factor and build quality of the current Surface RT: It’s lightweight, offers great battery life and has a good keyboard option. Overall, it can feel sluggish, however, and let’s face it: There are faster chips available to Microsoft now then when it first launched the Surface RT last year.

The device doesn’t need an overhaul on the outside, in my opinion, but on the inside. If Microsoft can find a way to put a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip inside the device and drop the price of its base 32 GB model to $299, the product would be far more compelling to consumers. Upgrading the display to full HD from 1366 x 768 would be a nice stretch goal, but if it means raising the price above that $299 mark, I’d skip it.

What else could Microsoft do? Kill. The. Desktop.

I get that the Desktop is a staple of Windows, but I think it does more harm than good. From a user experience standpoint, it’s completely jarring to me in the touch-friendly and fresh new Metro mode to jump back to 1995 with a desktop environment that’s really just a placeholder for Microsoft Office and Internet Explorer. Microsoft should find a way to build a Metro-style version of Office for what I’ll call Surface RT 2.0.

Iconia W3 in Desktop mode

Getting rid of the desktop could also help with perception. Without a Desktop ever appearing, some people might stop asking the question: “What old Windows apps can I install on Surface RT?” Microsoft might not consider breaking free of the Windows legacy a good thing from a branding perspective, but if it wants to create a “new” version of Windows, it would help to cut ties to the old ones.

Where’s the value?

Perhaps the biggest reason the Surface RT has failed is a simple one: Microsoft hasn’t convinced enough people the product is a good value. A key reason for that is the similarly priced full Windows 8 tablets powered by Intel Atom chips. I noted this in January after testing one of these devices: Why buy “half” of Windows 8 when you can get the whole thing?

With these competing devices offering all of the same functionality as the Surface RT plus Windows legacy support and comparable battery life, why buy the Surface RT? The inclusion of Office in Microsoft’s product is nice and often touted as a value-add but there’s something wrong in that line of thought.

If people just have to have tablets with Microsoft Office, why is it that many other tablets that cost more are far outselling the Surface RT? It’s because more people don’t need Office on a tablet than those that do; meaning: It’s only a value-add for a small part of the potential tablet audience.

Windows RT Office

Also not helping the value proposition is that some well known apps available on other platforms aren’t yet available on Surface RT. That’s changing a little for the better as Foursquare, Rhapsody, Flipboard and Facebook will support the platform.

Windows RT still isn’t the first platform choice for tablet developers but the app selection is getting better. I think the Surface RT has bigger problems to address than apps, however.

Again, after using Windows 8.1 on Surface RT, I think Microsoft has a compelling product for a specific audience — but only if it’s priced right and the performance level is raised to compete with other devices on the market.

  1. While I agree with your thoughts, the RT platform is still a “Real Turd”… even with the enhancements you’ve suggested. I just can’t land on a legitimate use case that couldn’t be better (or at least equally) served by an Android / Apple tablet or a full blown Windows appliance. The RT devices are losers; lets let them die.

    Dan

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    1. Fair point, Dan. And TBH, my needs are also better served with a different tablet. But folks that are light office users that still want a tablet might appreciate an improved Surface RT over a new laptop. Maybe there’s not many of them left? ;)

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      1. This is the first cogent defense I’ve read of getting rid of the desktop mode on the Surface, but I have to agree with Dan that this is a tough road, even if some of your suggestions were put into action. Once you take care of the hardware issues, and the more baseline OS stuff, I’m not sure if it will do anything to expand the appeal of the Surface…maybe this all comes down to price

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        1. No one has taken into consideration that a lot of businesses white software which is critical to them and their software has prerequisites and the prerequisites have prerequisites. None of which runs on RT. So no matter if Microsoft follows all of Kevin’s advice, unless RT can run legacy code, businesses are not going to buy it. As a matter of fact, I would not be surprised if a lot of businesses are planning a switch to Linux as Microsoft is no longer acting in a conservative manner.

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          1. I agree with you John, but I don’t see businesses as the audience for Windows RT.

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          2. You know it’s crazy, but there are regular Windows 8 tablets being made. No one is pointing an RT gun at companies’ heads.

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            1. Pointing a gun? A little extreme these days are we?

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    2. Dan, I don’t see your point at all. It is exactly the expanded usability of the Surface RT that led me to purchase one six months ago and has made my mobile computing all the richer since. The built-in kickstand and keyboard work very well for text entry, even on my lap. The inclusion of MS Office means I can open work docs and make changes on the go. The ability to print easily has been a life-saver for me when I was away from the office and needed a paper copy. The built-in Internet browser is full-featured and runs all the website I go to with ease. I don’t even need half that apps that people complain about because it website that the app connects to runs just fine without the app. I do not see how an Android or iPad tablet can accomplish these and other capabilities. In fact, to turn the tablets around, I would love to hear just what you think Android and iPad tablets can do better than Surface RT. Split screens? Live tiles? Do tell.

      I realize that you and many others have declared the Surface RT a “fail” and are expecting an obituary notice any time now, but those who own and use Surface RTs know otherwise. I am completely underwhelmed by how many who have never even used a Surface RT have been so effective in dissuading the masses away from such a useful and remarkable product. If the Surface RT dies it will be because you and others will have killed it by spreading your unfair and completely subjective dislike of the product to brainwash the entire marketplace.

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      1. I agree. I’ve posted this on other sites w/ no response. What killer apps are running on iPad or android that prevent people from buying surface RT? I have android tablets (nexus, Samsung) and like them but my surface rt is easier w/ a number of functions. Drag and drop from network, connecting remotely, streaming media from NAS. The majority of owners seem to really like the surface over android or iPad.

        I suspect the tablet market is driven very much by non tech people that just email or surf the web. Not many are using tablets for productivity. A colleague saw me working on the surface and is contemplating buying an iPad – not even considering the surface. She asked if it could email and play videos like an iPad – a majority in the market for tablets don’t seem know anything about technology. This group is shying away from surface RT given all the negative articles from the tech journalists and windows 8 haters. I’ve not needed a laptop since getting my surface. It has longer battery life and is more portable.

        Microsoft was a victim of poor timing, confused customers, bad pricing. I think the surface is a pretty good product and my most used tablet now. Let’s give it a chance – competition is a good thing.

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        1. The iPad is fast and stable and easy to use. The RT is none of these. Its wonky at best. I’ve said this before and I will say it again:

          There is a MS shaped HOLE IN THE WALL where they went chasing after Apples’ business model, meanwhile consumers are still buying Apple products and the Enterprise Customers, the core of Microsoft’s business, is left scratching its head.

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          1. Jeroen Berkelder Saturday, September 14, 2013

            The Surface RT being unstable, not fast and not easy to use? What are you talking about? I have been using the tablet for a few months now, and I have yet to experience stuttering animations or lag in any way, and applications load rather quick, so I don’t understand where you got the ‘not fast’ part from. And the OS not being stable? Once again, I don’t understand how you came up with that. Applications run fine, nothing crashes or freezes. Everything works just like its supposed to, so unstable how exactly? And the interface is rather easy to use in my opinion. No more gigantic mess of tiny icons all smushed together. Instead there is a nice, sleek looking and organized interface in which I can easily find the app I need. Sure, there may be a slight learning curve, but that shouldn’t be too surprising since its a new interface. Before I got the Surface RT, I always used android, and I don’t notice any difference in the RT being more difficult to use than an android device, so I wonder if you have actually used an RT and if so, for how long.

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      2. Both you and Greg are damn right. I owned iPad 2, iPad mini, Samsung Galaxy 10.1, and now Galaxy Note 10.1 and MS Surface RT.
        I tried to get rid of RT and still can’t. Because non other than RT can do right productivity things. The only thing I can blame is that it lacks PDF and video codec support.
        The only flaw I found in RT is that it lack apps. But for that I think we should give time.
        For me I am waiting for VLC and some really cool PDF Annotation apps. If those 2 apps join the Store, my Surface RT is complete.
        And of course I am going to buy whatever they called, the next generation RT 2.

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      3. Well said. I agree 100 percent!

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    3. But folks that are light office users that still want a tablet…”

      This appears to be Microsoft’s original premise, but it defied reality in 2012 and we have even MORE evidence against it in 2013. The problem is that it’s bass-ackwards: people who want Office really want Office and the good keyboard plus multiple monitors to go with it, and people who want tablets are highly mobile-oriented, and want first-class mobile apps and support.

      Microsoft should have designed RT for people who first and foremost want a tablet, but have neither accepted Apple’s vision and/or capabilities nor the premise that they can figure out how to work a $299 Android tablet. What would make Microsoft the first pick for a tablet user? Perhaps, a kick-butt Office for some people, but they’d probably be much better served by a laptop; why use a tablet? Perhaps, a first-class professional’s tablet, the way that BlackBerry used to be the professional’s mobile phone. I don’t see them selling to private buyers at all but they could be worked into Enterprise shops.

      That could grow through time. If Microsoft is more in a hurry, and/or wanted to aim for footholds with consumers, why not make it a kick=butt XBox gaming platform/controller to connect with a TV? Lots of other consumer apps would be natural extensions. But Microsoft would need a much better retail network and maybe even a separate brand.

      I think your quote highlights what Microsoft was aiming for; it just didn’t realize that market barely exists.

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  2. I’ve said the same thing – drop the price and make Office apps additional for customers. $599 for 128GB model could save the 2nd gen.

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  3. Here is how. Follow the Samesung strategy:

    1. Take an iPad
    2. Clone it
    3. Make it much less useful but sell it cheaper. Don’t forget it must look like an Apple product.
    4. Fool your fans into thinking you invented it and get them to hate Apple and buy Korean… (oh wait, Microsoft isn’t Korean…)

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  4. I’ve had a Surface RT for 6 months and have not used a laptop but once or twice.

    I agree that there is/was some confusion about not running x86 apps and MS did a poor job of not addressing that. If they had/do i think things will improve markedly. The addition of office included is a compelling reason for many to buy including students, if, as then author mentioned, the price was/will be cheaper. I don’t think the inclusion of a desktop mode makes much difference as long as it is clear to people what limitations exist.

    I think many commentators forget about the storm MS created when they launched Surface in terms of the flak they received from Acer and others. I think they were in a really tough spot in terms of pricing the device. I mean to say they probably wanted to price it cheaper but that may have only further inflamed the situation. Just a thought.

    In terms of a wish list for a surface rt 2 here are mine:

    – agreed on better processor
    – much higher res front and back camera
    – digitizer pen support
    – Sim slot

    I am not an apple hater or an android fan boy – I have a nexus – my wife has a lumia 920. I am hoping to see MS make some progress on phone and tablet front just to get some more out of the competition.

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  5. Forgot to mention, I’ve been using 8.1 for sometime now and it really is a huge improvement on 8. They are making progress.

    With respect to the desktop mode, I think I need to clarify my position. It’s a strange one, as a user of windows since the days of 3.1 if it wasn’t included in RT I think I might feel cheated. It must be pure psychological because when I think about what I do in desktop mode, 90% of it is either in explorer or in the office suite and so if the explorer was properly metrofied and the other less frequently used tools were accessible through the settings charm – that area would be hugely convoluted – then all that would remain would be the office suite. I think that would throw me off. Office is so featureful and there are so many layers I think it would be a real challenge to have it so it could be used exclusively with touch. Anyhow, if they could make it such that it would be comfortable with touch and touchpad then I agree that we could do away with the desktop mode.

    I come back to the psychology of it; I would still feel slightly cheated or partially naked without the desktop mode.

    One last thing, I think that a huge percentage of people, if not the majority of people get by with just access to the office suite and a web browser. Most IMing is now done on phone and if enough of these social apps are available, the need for most x86 apps is small and if necessary – with good bandwidth – remote desktop to a VDI could be a solution.

    I mean to say that with relatively few refinements, most discussed in the article and thread, I think RT as a platform would meet the needs of a majority of people. Needs, not percieved wants.

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    1. Good points Bari. :)

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    2. Would you feel cheated if the RT cost $200? If they’re gonna halve the experience on us, they might as well halve the price. Other than Office, I don’t see the need to keep a legacy UI if you can’t install legacy apps.

      Maybe they can take a page from Apple: Use RT as a testbed to add new features to the more expensive and powerful desktop OS.

      There’s alot of potential w/ Windows tablets in my opinion. In fact, I will likely replace my Note 10.1 w/ a Bay Trail Windows tab. I love the Note, but I’d like be able to open up spreadsheets from work without any issues (so far no Office suite on Android has worked for me).

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    3. Something no one is mentioning… With Surface RT you can actually connect to a full PC via Remote Desktop.

      The first day on my new job, I had no workstation where to work with but –smart of me–, I brought my Surface RT to work so I just connected to the Remote Desktop environment that my company uses and VOILA!

      On my firsst day I was working with SQL Server on RD and with Office RT on my local.

      Some of my colleagues are already thinking on the RT and just today my manager was telling me he will get a Pro for other colleagues.

      When something is good, we need to tell others ;-)

      Btw..still not using RT 8.1

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      1. True enough, but I can do that on a $199 Chromebook too. ;) Still – good point. Thanks!

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        1. Tobias Carlén Friday, September 6, 2013

          Also on iPad, even iphone actually.

          Actually, remote desktop on an ipad3 with a keyboard can run windows in 2048 x 1536 fairly well but squinty small…

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  6. The Surface RT in my mind is one of the best slates ever made. I don’t see why dropping the desktop mode is necessary given the device’s ability to pair with both keyboards and pointing devices – that’s still not something iOS and Android can do. Windows RT is far from a smartphone OS, and that desktop mode becomes a big differentiator when talking about productivity and customization, WITHOUT the overhead of a full desktop OS.

    Many people’s train of thought is that a slate should function only as a slate. But if that’s the case, then I’ve got every reason to hold onto my netbook with it’s far superior connectivity, keyboard, etc. The truth is the Surface RT falls right between a smaller Nexus 7 slate and a full-blown 10 inch netbook, but since netbooks have disappeared off the market, I’d think a redesigned Surface RT could fill that niche that netbooks once served.

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    1. Agreed Luscious, it seems a huge feat that they managed to put the desktop mode into/onto what is a processor commonly used in mobile phones. I personally haven’t experienced too much lag on my device and I agree that for the more sophisticated user the options and customization built into the desktop mode would be missed if removed.

      I think that that what people want is less contrast between the two modes. They are, after all, very different. God knows how much it would cost MS, but if they could metrofy the desktop mode functionality then there would be more uniformity. A learning curve yes but for those, like yourself, who know how to use that functionality, I would assume that with little to no guidance you would know where to find the settings you needed.

      I’m still torn by this. I don’t know if I want the current desktop mode or if I would love prefer a uniform metro environment with the desktop functions built in.

      Probably the latter.

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    2. Luscious, I’ve had an Android tablet for years that I use with a keyboard and mouse, no issues. Asus Transformer.

      I have a keyboard for my iPad and have had it since day one.

      I have a keyboard for my HP Touchpad and have had it since day one.

      For those devices without a mouse: my mouse is on the end of my hand.

      The problem MS faces is one of confidence. As we all know, we now invest in entire ecosystems. That investment comes in the form of money, learning curve and hardware. I, for one, have no faith that MS will be the provider that will keep steady, good quality updates coming, keep good hardware coming in a timely fashion and keeps all of the bits and pieces working correctly together going forward. They are way late to the game and that’s just to play catch-up, let alone move the peanut forward. I won’t invest in their strategy until I see a long-term commitment and success with the plan.

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  7. I honestly don’s see any problems with Surface RT. 500$ for a nicely built ARM laptop (meaning fanless and good battery life) with a detacheable keyboard. Yes, it is essentially a shiny lightweight typewriter slash content consumtion device. So? Did anyone expect anything else?

    Just today I sat on a plane next to a guy with a smartcovered Ipad – same weight, same size, same price that the Surface. I could type normally, he could not. Mind you, I’m not saying that Surface is better – if I, for instance, needed music apps more than office apps, I’d have chosen the Ipad. I’m just saying Surface works for me, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one.

    So, why shitty sales? Look at the marketing. It’s horrible. Basically, all they say about the device is “errrm, well, it has a bright cover that makes a clicky sound”.

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    1. Your experience should be the basis of the next commercial!

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    2. I love people like you – you are grounded in reality. So true.

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  8. new update allows to set pop3 on surface rt now! that’s great!

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  9. First I really like the Surface platform.
    The first mistake that was made was in name, RT ? Should have been Windows Mobile 8 or Surface Mobile 8 etc , then it would have been clearly defined that this is a portable version of Windows and thoses that had the pleasure of windows 5.0 etc would have recognized the differences right away.

    No other tablet IOS or Android handles Excel spread sheets the way this does…I had them both and tried all available apps , they would hang even on a simple search formula.Which i need for pricing quoting with Excel sheet with 6-700 skews and multiple tabs …The Surface Rt does a fine job with this .
    Microsoft flopped by not having the RT version of Outlook right out the gate..This is too important of a software to leave out…
    Anyone remember Windows sync ? No i mean the version where you could plug it in via USB and it worked ? easily to set-up without a internet connection ,Yea that Windows Sync , not everyone wants to use the internet to update their Mobile platform…
    Yes it needs Sim card, enough said on that..

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