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Why Microsoft hasn’t made a good enough case for Surface RT

Microsoft took enough Surface with Windows RT pre-orders to sell out of one model — the lowest priced model is currently back-ordered for three weeks — but is it a hit? It’s far too early to say, given that few have had hands-on time with the product of course. And I can’t say I’m impressed by a “pre-order sellout” for a brand new product and platform without knowing how many units were produced. Still, it’s likely a good day for Microsoft as there is clearly a market for Surface tablets.

However, I’m starting to wonder who fits in that market.

I thought long and hard about this, mainly because I often buy new gadgets on the first day they are available. Sometimes I even import them early from other countries at a premium price to get my gadget fix. But after thinking it through, I opted not to buy a Surface RT tablet at this point. Why? Because Microsoft hasn’t demonstrated why I should.

Maybe the message is lost on me and not you

Let me step back a second by saying this logic definitely applies to me; it may or may not apply to you. And I’m not suggesting it’s a bad product by any means; that would be premature and irresponsible. I’m simply looking at the message that Microsoft is providing and the timing of the product in today’s market as it applies to competitors and Microsoft’s future. Also, one disclosure: I earned the Microsoft MVP award in Tablet PCs — from Microsoft itself — for several years, starting in 2006. I’ve been a Microsoft Tablet PC fan in the past and had high hopes for the platform, but times have changed.

So what is the message about Windows RT and this new tablet? On the surface — no pun intended — the message I hear is that Microsoft has a consumer-friendly touchscreen tablet that’s priced in the same range as other great devices; namely the iPad. I see some potential issues here. First is the cost. As I noted earlier this week because I don’t see a huge value-add for Windows, I would have liked to see the device priced about $50 to $100 less. I’d pay the same or a premium if there was a reason to. A majority of readers agreed on the cost, at least those who participated in our poll: 58.8 percent said the product was priced too high.

Note that I called this a consumer-friendly tablet. Why? Because in three months, Microsoft will have the Surface Pro running Windows 8, not the Windows RT version on the currently available slate. Surface Pro is more likely to attract enterprises and such because it’s a full-powered machine with no Windows software limitations. And that gets me back to Windows RT; specifically why I don’t think Microsoft has made a good enough case for widespread success.

It’s tough to start a new mobile platform now

Essentially, Windows RT is a brand new mobile platform and IT will face the same challenges as any other new mobile platform. Think of BlackBerry 10(s rimm), which arrives early next year. Look back at Palm’s webOS(s hpq) system that never built up momentum. Microsoft’s own Windows Phone platform faces the same struggle, even now. For the moment, iOS(s aapl) and Android(s goog) are the platforms that dominate the mobile space due to widespread adoption and thriving ecosystems with vast amounts of apps, media and services. Remember that Windows RT doesn’t run legacy Windows apps — even though some Microsoft Store reps aren’t explaining this well. If it did, this would be less of a problem.

lots of tabletsComing back to my own decision-making process then, what has Microsoft done to convince me to drop iOS or Android tablets for a Surface RT tablet? Not much, at least not yet. I’ll want to hear more about the app story, just as I did for Android; I didn’t adopt Google’s platform for months after launch until I saw the app market start to thrive, for example. Microsoft Office is one differentiator, of course, but if that’s coming to iOS and Android next year, that advantage quickly goes away for most. And to be honest, Office isn’t enough for me personally to make a switch. Come to think of it, nothing Microsoft has said yet is enough for me to make the move.

Again, I’m not trying to condemn a product I haven’t used; I’m simply looking at the message being sent in comparison to what’s been available for two or more years. And I’ll be attending a Microsoft press event next week where I should get some hands-on time with a Surface RT tablet. Maybe I’ll change my mind, but I’ll surely be asking one key question to Microsoft reps there: What’s the compelling reason for me — or anyone else, for that matter — to choose a Surface RT tablet over a competing iOS or Android slate?

52 Responses to “Why Microsoft hasn’t made a good enough case for Surface RT”

  1. Especially Apple and Google have a strong fanbase, I see clearly reading the article here and the comments who is on which side. It is like Democrats and Republicans, which is to say there is no reasoning on a logical level once someone has made up their mind that xyz tablet is better than another one.

    Microsoft has its faults, the biggest one is not the features of their software or the Surface tablets but showing and telling people about their products. Apple has great advertising, Google is playing a cheap volume play (the Walmart of computers), while Microsoft is stuck in the middle trying to do it all. For those who appreciate having it all (features, functionality and options) will find the Surface and the software that comes with it a confortable transition from the the Windows desktop world. For those that have made up their minds based on Apple’s brand influence or Google’s low price Wallmart approach, I have nothing to say.

  2. I can’t see why anyone would want this tablet with the limited apps and high price and a new OS. Not to mention that they don’t even include 3G/4G capability even if you were willing to pay for it. The Ipad 3 is a better product, especially since Office will be available for it and Android soon.

  3. Alfred Soyemi

    So, When the original iPad and Android Tab first shwoed up, you got the compelling reasons from APPLE and GOOGLE? Please share them with me and where you posted that article.
    Now, if you attended the earlier introduction of Surface which is still on youtube, kindle refresh my memory on what you heard in those announcement that shows no reason (in your own case, a compelling one.)

  4. One of the downsides of Microsoft’s OS monopoly is that they don’t seem to understand that a company needs to justify the existence of a new product. For the most part, the argument for every MS product has been “Because we’re Microsoft! What are you going to do, stop using computers?”

    Surface RT could turn out to be the one of the best products in MS’s history, but I suspect we’re going to see a lot returns of these pre-ordered units, no matter how good it is. MS has–intentionally, I think–created confusion about this product and its OS, and that confusion may well come back to bite them on the ass. They’ve come up with two similar-looking tablets with the Surface name utilizing similar-looking but incompatible OS’s with the Windows name. People have been hearing about, and maybe even using, previews of Windows 8 for months, but MS is going to hold off on releasing the Surface that uses Windows 8 in favor of the one that uses Windows RT. They’ve filled the air with sloganeering about “no compromises,” and accordingly haven’t made much of an effort to alert everyone that Surface RT does feature some compromises–like your existing Windows software won’t work with a Surface RT, you’re going to be stuck in a walled garden for apps, just like with iOS, except this garden is much emptier.

  5. At my workplace, most of the managers have IBM laptops they take home or on business trips. So the Director of Finance the Surface and she was hooked. The RT version might not sell well, but the Pro will speak to a lot of offices that what to be more modern and up to date. And since it’s Microsoft, they’ll be more inclined to do, because their already invested. Hell my office just upgraded to Win 7 from XP….everyone is complaining about not know where anything is, so they’ll never miss a beat learning the new format for 8

  6. RT is a necessary evil IMO, MS has no choice but to have a competing “dumb” item. The ipad and the incredible revolution it brought with it made a lot of people realize they could bring their “computers” with them, but the ipad was really a consumption device although it could be stretched into many computer like functions to its credit. So we have this huge huge base of consumers who have these “dumb” computers, ipads and android devices. They still haven’t quite let go of their laptops or desktops yet.

    Now MS is finally seeing it’s dream come true of true windows tablets, something which it dropped the ball on. But they can’t only release the WinPro tablets with full Windows 8 on them for a couple of reasons. 1) the technology isn’t there yet, 3 hours of battery life just isn’t going to cut it for the ivy bridge units. The cloverfield units are more interesting if they can get decent battery life, but it remains to be seen if the cpu can keep up with “real” windows programs, based on the Atom processor in this generations netbooks I’d guess probably not, but lets see. 2) Consumers are now used to having a computer for $499, it’s not a real computer, but it’s real enough to do email, video, internet, and some PC like functions. Do these people own laptops? If so will they sell their laptop and ipad for a surface Pro? Yes I think so, the ones who wont are the ones who only own ipads.

    So the RT had to be released to compete in that middle area that Apple created and perfected. The area where your device isn’t good enough to replace your laptop and only costs $499. I don’t think RT will do very well versus Apple’s ecosystem and it’s insane number of apps, but really RT is only a stop gap until users realize that ipads, android and RT devices are not true PCs and while technology catches up and winPro devices have true all day battery life.

  7. I haven’t tried Windows 8 yet but I do have Windows Phone 7 and plan to get one of these. What really sells me on this, besides the aforementioned big points (Office, USB with MS collection of drivers, etc), is the integration and the quality of the experience. Windows Phone 7 just touched on this and I love it. If Windows 8 picks up where Phone 7 left off this is going to be a winner.

    Prime example right down to the home screen:

    Apple gives you a grid of buttons and that is pretty much where the software ideas end. Windows Metro you get data from these apps pushed to you with ever changing updates. These kinds of things happen the whole way through. Its the flow of Metro and the depth of content and thought put into it that quite literally blows the iPad and Android out of the water.

    If you want to turn on, click Netflix, browse a web page, buy something, buy something else, etc. then the iPad is fine. If you want to be able to do all those things and actually accomplish something then you will be left out in the cold with the iPad. Its extremely difficult to quantify through specs and features what makes Metro better, but basically it is the “flow” of the OS that really lends itself to doing much more than what tablets are currently limited to.

    If you have never tried Metro UI for more than a few moments then I can understandably see how you would come to this conclusion. Especially if you used some of the old MS mobile stuff… I am not saying this device is what you need, I am just saying this device redefines what a tablet is and is capable of doing. I guess you need to decide if that is what you want.

  8. It’s like an iPad (check FB, watch YouTube, play casual games) but you can use Word/Excel/PPT. It’s also got a USB slot for your camera! That’s 99% of what normal folks do on computers, trust me.

  9. SeanfromChicago

    WindowsRT is not a great way to push the windows 8 UI. ARM is going to need time to develop and windows users do not like limitations. If they did they’d be running OSX. So I can’t see the reason anyone is going to want to run out and buy a windowsRT. Now I’d buy a x86 “slate”( I don’t like calling these things tablets) if it was around the same price as an iPad. I use iPads to surf the web, write emails, play some games and lastly watch Netflix and HBOgo. That’s about it. It’s not a productive device unless I take into account how less often I open my laptop.

  10. Tino Chan

    Just wan to point out that the Surface is actual not 500, but 600. Without the keyboard, you can not use the “free” MS Office. So you won’t have talking point to beat iPad over.

    The question is it has the same hardware as the $380 Transformer TF300, why does MS charge so much for the platinum case and the stand?

  11. I do agree that Microsoft hasn’t made a good case. But…

    I’ve got 7 tablets and regularly use my Nook and Xoom. They’re ok but clumsy, laggy, and app-deprived. For content-creation they’re awful. With Windows RT I can do most of what I do with a desktop. With Android I can’t.

    With Windows RT you can program the device in C, C#, C++, VB. It’s a developer’s dream – the entire Microsoft Visual Studio ecosystem (or Eclipse/netbeans if you prefer).

    I’ve been using Windows 8 for months on my desktop and laptop. It rocks (although so did Win 7). If windows rt shares the reliability of desktop win8 I’ll consider it a real win. Android crashes, lags, and has few good productivity apps (imho).

    I think you have to give Microsoft real credit. There are things I don’t like about Win8 but for the first time in over 10 years they’ve totally innovated out of the box.

    Their biggest problem is that they don’t suck cash out of an Apple app store to help fund their hardware. I wish it were cheaper but they don’t want to be subsidizing their hardware in the face of all of their OEM partners.

    • Great points Mark, and I don’t mean to take credit away from Microsoft for what they’ve done here. As someone who used the old Tablet PCs fairly exclusively for years, Surface is what I had hoped to see arrive someday. Thanks!

  12. The surface will get easier into the corporate ecosystem with office and other apps, something which the iPad hasn’t yet really had success with. This will always be a big differentiation going forward.

  13. I can see a point to the Surface Pro. It can act as a bridge from their legacy offerings. It’s all they really have to offer being so late to the game.

    You’d think they’d lead off with *it* and build some mindshare first.

    But, they lead off with the almost-no-ecosystem device. They price it roughly the same as the market leader. They make the only differentiating feature it has a 100.00+ USD option. They market it with what appears to be a cola commercial. They slap a helmut on their number two guy and he rides it like a skateboard.

    I’m going to be really surprised if this thing doesn’t almost immediately circle the drain.

  14. The corner stone for windows tablet is its ability to create data with help of office and its tools, something that is a total miss from popular iphad. Its not right to think that a huge line indicates future market growth. Given its enormous presence with windows and office market, MS will grab a good share of tablet market much like kindle brethren.

    • If you primarily want to “create data with help of Office and its tools”, why would you (or anyone else with similar needs) want a tablet in the first place? What advantage would the tablet form-factor give you that would not be exceeded by an ultrabook?

      • Johnny Tremaine

        Yep, if you’re *really* into Office and productivity, for a similar price you can buy a low end Windows laptop probably running Windows 8.

        Why buy a Surface tablet running a cut down version of Win8-Kinda-Sorta?

      • Bobby Cannon

        @Kevin C. Tofel – That’s what people claim but I’ve yet to meet one person that is “productive” on an iPad or Android tablet. Sorry but it just doesn’t cut it. I have used the tablet from the BUILD event last year. Granted it’s running full W8 (not RT) but I can do anything I want on my tablet. I’m not restricted to silly “apps”. I can run full Visual Studios and be truly productive. You cannot do these things with other tablets.

      • Kevin, as you can see from the replies so far, you’re out there in the cold. Drop those toys boy, repel the hate, stop whining about a good thing and be realistic.

      • Duskrider

        @Bobby – Kevin is speaking about the WinRT tablet, which is no more or less productive than an Android or iOS device, except it’s version of Office is 90% feature compatible with the desktop version. If you take Android or iOS tablets and couple them with a keyboard and whichever document suite, you are close to the same productivity levels. So, why would I take a chance on a new, immature WinRT tablet and ecosystem when I can get a mature system instead? What’s the compelling reason? Office alone will do it for some people, but not for many, including me.

        Windows 8 tablets are a different story. However, if they are pricey and have crappy battery life, then why not just get an Ultrabook? That will be their primary competition, and it will be stiff competition.

      • @ Kevin,

        You miss the most important product point – the introduction of an ARM based device that can have an entire appsystem created for itself much like iPad did for itself. And you should not include the Android devices here since Android has no tablet marketshare and app development/usage share outside of the limited influence of Amazon tablets that are Amazon specific.

        In short, wait for Microsoft to start slow on the ARM front – both Surface RT and WinRT OEM tablets – while it attempts to ready an army of developers to create a mountain of apps. Microsoft also has //build slated for Oct 29 – Nov 1 if you note it.

        So the most important seling point of Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet will be known not when it is out but when commoditization causes Surface RT/Win RT tablets to be priced at $199 or $299 excluding the keyboard. My prediction is that Surface RT 2/WinRT tablets will start at $199 without the keyboard by middle of next year. That will be the real breaker for iPad’s margins.

        Microsoft is clearly aiming at the enterprise tablet market with the Surface Pro/Win8 Pro OEM tablets. And they will be priced relative to the Ultrabook laptops which should have touchscreens attached in mass production by Oct 2013 which in turn will make them pricier in relation to the Surface Pro/Win8 tablet. So Surface tablets are supposed to be prefered to Ultrabooks for one reason – Ultrabooks do not have touch yet and if they have it, then they are costlier. Witness the low penetration rate of only 10 million Ultrabooks this year since Intel did not reduce its CPU prices and Microsoft did not reduce its software license costs. Expect the same to continue with the final result being the death of the low-cost Intel PC due to touchscreen costs and lack of Ultrabook commoditization by end of 2013 and importantly lack of Microsoft support.

        So the whole exercise of Surface RT is to reduce prices in the consumer tablet market while Microsoft keeps the iPad 2/3/4 etc out of the enterprise market, replacing it with its own Surface Pro/HP/DELL/Lenovo Win8 tablets.

        Essentially Microsoft is happy to have a smaller consumer marketshare but wants to keep the enterprise marketshare divided only among itself and the 3 or 4 other OEMs. No Google Nexus there. No Apple iPad there in the enterprise. Looking at it another way, the very fact that all or most consumer Windows low-end PC purchases will be Surface RT 2/3/etc tablets should create a new profitable consumer hardware division at Microsoft. This is also the reason why Acer is angry with Microsoft. It is their low-end PC lunch that iPad has started to eat and which Microsoft wants to share in though they were partners and still are partners on paper.

  15. My Android tablet is going on Ebay when I get the Surface. As a consumption device, it’s ok. But try to do any content creation and it’s like eating soup with chopsticks. You cannot seriously compare a phone operating system like Android to a PC operating system.
    Heck, even Walt Mossberg likes Win 8 on tablets.

  16. linuxium

    There seems to be a trend in successful tablets resulting from software/hardware integration and fine tuning. Both Apple and Google have created hardware for their software and this is the same case for the Surface. Besides games which maybe considered true apps, most other apps are simply UIs to services offered through a browser. Maybe its a bit too retro going back to using a browser but if the apps aren’t there its not quite the end of the world yet. Whilst it is pricier than I’d hoped for, the built for Windows, included Office and USB port opened my wallet.

    • Shameer Mulji

      This device is not that pricey compared to its competition. It’s true the apps on the app store are not there in quantity or quality YET, but they will come. In the mean time you have Office, Mail, Calendar, Xbox Music & Video, Skype to get you started.

      • Johnny Tremaine

        It also has a ton to do with brand image, as far as how these things will sell.

        If a 20-something or a Soccer Mom is shopping the Best Buy aisles for a tablet, what is the incentive to purchase a Win8 tablet/Surface vs. an iPad?

        The price won’t be much different. If the only differentiators are Office and Xbox Music (formerly Zune), this whole effort is in trouble.

  17. AndroAsc

    Lots of M$ fanboys here
    1. 32GB storage so….? It’s not as if Android tablets or iPads don’t come with this capacity. Besides, many tablets have a microSD slot, so total internal storage is a non-issue.
    2. Which is not a real Office 2013 suite, since it’s not an x86 program
    3. Touch cover you mean? That’s going to flop… it’s more like typing on glass than a real keyboard. MS should have bundled the type cover by default
    4. Lots of Android tablets have microSD slots, nothing new here
    5. Lots of Android tablets have a display out, although I will admit that USB ports are rare, but they do exist on a few Android tablet models.
    6. Erm ok… whatever
    7. Not useful if you don’t need that service. Why should I be forced to get xbox music and pay a higher price? Sure it’s free, but it’s probably factored into the price of the device
    8. All tablets are thin and light, what’s new?
    9. $100 cheaper than an overpriced iPad? Maybe for MS fanboys it’s a good deal. You can get an ASUS Transformer (running Tegra 3) with Dock for $500 btw, and a 10″ Android slate for $300-400.

    • Shameer Mulji

      Actually the Office in Windows RT is real Office but designed to run on ARM. If you compare Office for RT vs Office for x86, you’ll see Office for RT has at least 90% of the functionality of Office for x86. The only difference is, is that it lacks specific features for enterprise / corporate customers. If you’re a home user or student, you won’t notice a difference.

  18. subhiandrews


    1. 32 GB storage
    2. Office 2013 suite
    3. Keyboard that doesn’t add bulk – doubles up as a laptop
    4. Expandable storage
    5. HDMI and USB ports
    6. WinRT features like Charms, Live Tiles etc – ease of use
    7. XBOX music
    8. Thin and light.
    9. $100 cheaper than comparable iPad 32GB Wifi

    If these don’t add value, then as you said, you are not in the target market for this device.

  19. subhiandrews

    Value –
    1. Free Office Suite
    2. 32GB storage
    3. XBox Music
    4. A tablet that supports keyboard without bulking up.
    5. expandable storage.
    6. HDMI connectivity
    7. Windows 8 features like Charms and easy sharing, Live Tiles etc.
    Still, These may not mean much to you. In which case, like you said, you are not in the target market for Surface RT.

      • Please point me to a sub 1.5lb 9+ inch Android tablet that has those features at a lower price.
        1. USB ports(which allow for ethernet connectivity, printer support, charging devices)
        2. HDMI out,
        3 Expandable storage

        So for 499 you would rather buy an iPad that doesn’t have those things? I’m not clear on what tablet you would pick from the article. It would be useful for me as a comparative guide to know what tablets would offer a better value for the long term.

      • Simple. Androids/iOS devices are toys used for occasional consumption. They don’t have Office, don’t have Desktop mode, don’t have remote desktop application, don’t have flash, don’t have the revolutionary keyboard which are all essential for both content consumption and content creation! If you don’t think these are good to have things on a tablet, then you are probably not the target customer. There are millions of others who think otherwise and expect tablets to do more than what they do now if they are truly meant to be post-PC devices.

      • Thanks for pointing to some well specced Android tablets. Two of them do meet those hardware needs at a lower price. And they would involve being absorbed into yet another ecosystem. I see your point: if you’re not invested in the MS system, there’s no real push to consider the RT as an option.

        However, it’s a definite value proposition for me as I am invested in XBox music, I do use and consume office documents for work, and I definitely have a need for compatibility going forward.

        • Sure thing; I would have provided links for you, but I was out to dinner and wanted to give you a quick list. :) I agree with you – if you’re invested in the Microsoft ecosystem, then Surface is surely a compelling device. I very much was but clearly, I’m not any longer. And that’s part of my fear; others have moved on from that Microsoft ecosystem as well. As I said though, this doesn’t make Surface a bad product, just not a likely product for me. Thanks!

      • Shameer Mulji

        Free Office suite is huge for many people. That’s something no other tablet offers. It’s the standard in productivity software. Granted iOS has iWork but Keynote is the only compelling software. Pages & Numbers don’t come close to matching the functionality of Word or Excel.

      • @Guest, claiming that a pseudo-keyboard makes a tablet a good device for office work is like claiming that a sidecar makes a motorbike a good primary vehicle for a contractor. Hardware is optimised for specific use-cases (and ‘content-creation’ vs. ‘content-consumption’ are far too general to make any sense), with that optimisation becoming more and more precise as technologies mature. Tablets and smartphones are mostly there for ‘augmentation computing’ – adding an informational layer to tasks you would have previously done computer-free. If you want to engage in dedicated computing – the type of tasks that require you to mostly IGNORE the world outside of the screen, rather than being focused on that world, you’d be much better off with a desktop or large laptop.

        The real competition is between the Surface Pro (with Type Cover) and 11″ ultrabooks (and the MBA). The Surface RT is a weird device mixing incompatible paradigms, rather than a straight Android or iOS competitor. Put otherwise, all of the ‘unique’ features listed for the surface are completely common (and better implemented) in ultraportable PCs. If THAT is the use case that you want your device to address for you, what advantages does the Surface RT offer you?