October just doesn’t seem to be Microsoft’s month, straight off the back of the botched Surface RT 8.1 update, Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro, the devices that were supposed to transform the ailing software giant/nascent consumer electronics firm’s fortunes in the mobile device space have been released to largely tepid reviews disappointed with their “more of the same” approach.
The devices themselves
Following Microsoft’s lavish and rather embarrassing series of midnight launch parties, their retention of the older Surface pricing model for its previous tablet devices has come in for a renewed storm of criticism from tech blogs. To give some background, Surface 2 Pro prices start at $900 and the Surface 2, the successor to the widely maligned, dead in the water Surface RT device, going for $450. Analysts were quick to point out that the price point alone when it was announced some months ago was prohibitively expensive to the mass market, essentially precluding it from challenging Apple or Google on market share by default.
Microsoft’s approach to price however may be given a little more credit here than is normally awarded: As with the Xbox One, there seems to be a desire on the part of their upper management to avoid any sort of loss-leading approach to product pricing, or at least minimize it as much as possible given that the Microsoft app store generates nowhere near enough revenue to cover such costs. In this light, perhaps Microsoft’s approach isn’t as foolhardy as one would first think.
The continuity in pricing structure also extends to continuity in design decision. As Eric Limer at Gizmodo observed:
The most noteworthy element of the design this time around, though, is that nearly everything has stayed the same. The Surface Pro 2 isn’t quite a carbon copy, but it’s close in a way that exudes either extreme confidence or a lack of inspiration. Given how much Microsoft has riding on Surface, it’s probably safer to assume the former.
This was to be expected. A re-design would have been an expensive and pointless endeavour on Microsoft’s part. The Surface may not carry significant visual brand recognition as of yet, but building it from the ground up again is unlikely to have made it any more recognizable.
Technically speaking, one of the main areas of complaint has been the rather lacklustre battery life, which in spite of improvements still manages to lag well behind Apple’s iPad 4 and the recently released Google Nexus 7. This is especially bizarre in the case of the Surface 2, which, as opposed to the Intel Haswell architecture of the Surface Pro 2, runs ARM-based architecture, generally recognized as being an energy-efficient chip designed specifically for mobile use. A series of AnandTech comparisons also highlight Surface tablets of all types being outperformed by iOS and Android devices that should theoretically require much more energy. Neil McAllister at The Register summarises this recurrent Surface problem below:
So what’s happening to make battery life under Windows so lackluster? The simple answer is that nobody seems to know. None of the hardware makers AnandTech spoke to could provide a satisfactory answer – or, for that matter, a Windows box that offered battery life comparable to a machine running OS X.
If there’s one area where Surface tablets shine however, it’s the Metro UI. Justified though the criticism of its tile-led approach on desktops and laptops was, when applied to tablets it’s always a welcome breath of fresh air from the standard iOS and Android user-interfaces, which make very little use of the extra real estate a tablet affords to differentiate tablet interfaces from their smartphone Android and iOS equivalents.
Similarly, that it comes out of the box as a hybrid device with an attachable keyboard is something to be lauded, until haptic interfaces become a reality, typing on touchscreens is always going to be a frustrating affair. Certainly, if tablets are to supersede laptops as mobile workstations in addition to superseding them as media players, more out-of-the-box hybrid devices will be needed.
An uphill battle
In spite of battery life related issues, it has to be said that the Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro are both fine devices on paper, particularly with the Surface Pro 2 employing Haswell i5 and i7 processors and as mentioned above, Metro is the most utilitarian and beautiful example of an OS GUI designed with tablets in mind. Surface Pro 2 is indeed “more of the same”, but as a piece of hardware that isn’t actually a problem. It’s more the continuity of price point that’s the issue.
Broadly speaking you can’t help but feel that Microsoft’s ineptness is less in the product and more in their brand identity and their marketing. Microsoft is perceived by nearly everyone as a necessary evil in the office and as such they have a problem with perceived quality relative to Apple. Apple has spent the better part of the last 13 years building a brand image of themselves as the premier boutique consumer electronics firm for design and build quality. This is a problem when you want to compete and produce a boutique product yourself. You can’t charge boutique prices when your competitor is perceived as the true boutique product maker. People simply won’t buy your products at the same price (let alone a significantly higher one, as Surface Pro 2 is).
To put it simply, Microsoft has three whole decades of bad vibes to fight against and the reception to the new Surface shipment today is the best illustration of that. To counter this they need time and perhaps, as with their entry into the console business, an understanding that the first attempt will be one that entails necessary and heavy losses. At the moment they simply don’t have a public perception as a hardware company, merely a software company doing hardware when expedient.