Microsoft's Surface Tablet: 5 confusing issues that people aren't discussing

I guess we have to talk about Microsoft's Surface tablet. There are literally thousands of other articles describing what it is.

I guess we have to talk about Microsoft's Surface tablet. There are literally thousands of other articles describing what it is. (BW, NYT, Engadget) So instead of re-hashing that, let's get right into the real conversation that's missing from the big news sites.

First, this is obviously a blow to their hardware partners. I wonder how long ago they learned about it? If you're a hardware partner, imagine that you have to pay $80-85 for an OEM license of Windows while Microsoft gets it for free. (Even if they do some funny money internal transfer to play "fair," come on, it's not a level playing field.) Microsoft can also sell these at a loss (like they did for the Xbox for years) since they can make money with apps and content from the Windows store. You've got to think that other device makers, especially those planning ARM tablets, are now taking another look at Android. Actually this might be the biggest gift to the Android tablet market yet!

In BusinessWeek, Ashlee Vance wrote, "In an interview afterward, Ballmer said Microsoft’s PC partners had been made aware of its plans. When asked to describe how they felt about Microsoft’s moves, Ballmer responded that he had used very precise language on stage and would not go beyond that. (He said nothing on stage that I recall as to how they felt.)"

Nick Wingfield, writing for the NY Times, wrote, "With its new tablet, Microsoft will effectively be competing directly with its biggest customers. When asked whether Surface would damage those ties, Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft’s Windows division, gently pushed a reporter in the direction of a stand of Surface tablets and said, "Go learn something.'"

Second, as if Microsoft screwing their hardware partners wasn't enough, they also announced that they're only going to sell these things through the Microsoft online store and at Microsoft retail stores. (In other news, apparently Microsoft has retail stores.) So they're screwing the retailers too. Man.. what a great day to be a Microsoft partner!

Third, this tablet is still really far away. Microsoft would not confirm which processors will be in them, how much RAM they'll have, what the battery life will be, what the price will be, when they'll be released, what GPUs they'll have, or what the screen resolution will be. And they wouldn't let anyone at the press event actually try one of those rubber keyboard cover things while hooked up to a working tablet. Maybe they realized that actually making their own products only to kill them later (Zune, Kin, etc.) is kind of expensive, so they've streamlined the process and now they just announce new products which they can kill before they actually waste any money building up unsold inventory?

Fourth, Microsoft is walking a weird line between "laptop" and "tablet" with these things. I thought the world had kind of agreed that tablets and laptops serve two different purposes, and that tablets won't replace laptops outright, and that that's okay? (They do different things, have different needs, etc.) Apparently not though, because as Ryan Nakashima wrote for the AP, "CEO Steve Ballmer said Surface will be an entertainment device 'without compromising the productivity that PCs are uniquely known for.'"

But that's just weird for so many reasons. First, it's not really a laptop because you can't use it in your lap. (Yeah, that rubber keyboard and flip out stand is cool, but how are you going to type in this thing in the airport, on the couch, or in bed?) If you're using a keyboard, why do you have a tablet? Just get a thin laptop, like an Ultrabook. (Because hey, Ballmer did confirm that the "Surface Pro," the real Windows 8 x86 Surface tablet, will be priced like an Ultrabook.) But then that comes with a stylus too, which you can use in addition to the keyboard, trackpad, or multitouch screen...

Homer Car

Wait, why do I need a stylus? Oh, because Office 15 hasn't been converted to Metro and Windows 8 can't handle smooth zooming on the limited x86 hardware required if this thing is going to run more than 90 minutes of battery life. Right. So yeah, what the heck.. give me a stylus too!

This is quickly approaching "master of none" category where the best elements of a tablet are cross-bred with the best elements of a laptop to create a monster no one wants. (Again, I present the Homer Car.)

Let's jump back to the non-Pro "regular" Surface tablet that is thinner, lighter, cheaper, and the head-on competitor to the iPad. With 50+ million iPads in the world, why would someone want a Windows RT tablet? Microsoft believes it's because they'll get the "real" Microsoft Office experience. (Remember even though Windows RT has "Windows" in the name, it can't run x86-based Windows apps, so it's essentially starting from zero when it comes to the number of available apps in the world.) So Microsoft thinks that "real Office" will draw people to Windows RT—but will it? Will all the macros and plug-ins that make us need "real Office" work in the locked down ARM-version of Office that's built-in to Windows RT? What about our VPN clients and other things we need to get onto our "real" networks to do "real" work? Heck, if we can't have all that, can't we just buy an iPad with QuickOffice? (Availably today for $399, BTW.)

Speaking of Windows RT, is it weird that Microsoft is branding both the ARM and x86 tablets with the same "Surface" brand ("Surface" and "Surface Pro")? Remember the software is not inter-compatible, so just imagine the customer confusion that's going to be? (Though if they're not selling these things at Best Buy, I guess they can avoid that.)

This is all just off the top of my head now... what am I missing?

(By the way, Jack wanted to call this article, "Ballmer to partners: Your tablet will be almost as good as ours but will cost $80 more.")

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