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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I think that at this point Microsoft's top priority in the tablet market is competing with Apple, not playing nice with partners. The partners had and will continue to have the desktop/laptop market. I think that Microsoft believes that in order to successfully compete with the iPad they have to play by Apple's rules, i.e. control the entire value chain. For example, as you wrote:

"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"

I assume Microsoft, or someone else, will create a hardened keyboard/cover that will enable you to use Surface like a real laptop. But if that's your primary need then you should probably get an Ultrabook.



"If you're using a keyboard, why do you have a tablet? Just get a thin laptop, like an Ultrabook."

You don't always need a keyboard and unlike this tablet, an Ulatrabook is terrible to hold in your hands, so while it is true that the keyboard with this device has some limitations that mean it won't replace laptops, it is certainly a form-factor that allows new ways of working that neither an iPad nor Ultrabook allow today on their own.

You also don't have to use the keyboard attachment. If you want a plain tablet then just don't use the keyboard.

"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."

While technically all that is probably true, it gives a misleading impression of what information is out there. For example has quite a few of the specs listed.

"limited x86 hardware required if this thing"

That seems to go against the specs that are available which say that the tablet will have an Ivy Bridge CPU. Even the slowest Ivy Bridge CPUs are decent performers.

I think it will be very interesting to see how these go in the market and for the OEMs, sure they won't like it, but sometimes a little extra competition is needed to push things forward and it seems that there's plenty of market space for them to look at filling even without directly competing with this device, e.g. real keyboard like the ASUS Transformer, high-resolution retina-like display, a cheaper, lighter, smaller Intel Medfield x86 tablet to more directly compete with ARM to name a few.


I expect the keyboard is an optional accessory such as the many you can buy with an iPad.

Microsoft have become obsessed with tablets. Seems like they will do anything to get one to market...even screw up one of their beiggest revenue streams.


Brian, i enjoyed reading this article simply because you are playing devil's advocate and you give a different perspective on the product. That being said, however, i think you are a bit harsh on Microsoft. I think Microsoft's major problem is in how they present their products, for instance, had they presented the tablet without the keyboard and a regular cover, maybe your reaction would have been different. iPads have keyboards too and they are popular but because they are not part of the core sale of the product they are are an accessory.

I will give you this, that keyboard is annoying, simply because it does not fold, so what do i do with it on a plane for example? it will always be in the way, smarter thing maybe would have been to use a foldable keyboard that turned into a stand?

I also don't think that Android will be the refuge for partners, Google also bought Motorola Mobile so odds are they will build their own. i strongly believe that we are in an era where closed stacks are in fashion, the only way for MS to control features, quality etc... is to uild their own, like Apple, like Blackberry before them, like Amazon and like google soon enough. Partners will simply have to evolve or innovate, it is what it is.

I can use the same argument and say Windows Server 2012 RDS has A LOT of features that compete directly with Citrix and they have been a loyal partner for ages....

One last thing, while Microsoft definitely has a price advantage versus the OEM, the software is not free to them, there is cost involved, albeit it will be significantly cheaper as an internal cost rather than the 85$ they are charging OEMs



Don't get me wrong—having the keyboard option for into the tablet is great. I like that a lot. What I don't like is that they're trying to position this as a laptop replacement.. that's a stretch to me. And especially if the pro one is going to be in the Ultrabook price range.

I also don't think RDS is the same analogy because RDS is a base on which partners can build. These surface tablets are Microsoft saying, "Screw you, we're doing it instead of you." (Instead of "with" you.)


Sure it is, if that base starts to incorporate partner features then they are screwing the partner. the constant here is Windows, in one case Microsoft is adopting features from software partners, in another case Microsoft is adopting hardware which would otherwise be partner hardware


There's also the possibility that Microsoft is somehow not happy with vendors' tablet implementations.  There have been occasions when Microsoft released their own hardware just to make a point or set a bar or because venders simply refuse to add certain features.

I kind of remember a brief time when Microsoft came out with their own home routers.  They didn't want to take over the router market, they were annoyed router venders didn't want to add dynamic port allocation tech so they released their own hardware.  It wasn't just MS but also other software makers who wanted an easier way for routers to auto-configure themselves according to what app wanted to talk through it.  Once the hardware vendors relented Microsoft stopped selling routers.


I don't think this is much of a blow to hardware vendors.  Hardware vendors aren't going to pay much attention to this because for them the money is in server computing.  Why do you think IBM sold their EUC division and HP considered selling off PSG (under Leo)?  Plus the hardware vendors fail miserably at making tablets: Failed projects include: HP Slate/Touchpad, Blackberry Playbook, and I'm sure there are more.  Sure there is Acer and Samsung, but they don't sell like hotcakes.

As far as the knock at this being a competitor for a laptop, I disagree.  This device is whatever you want it to be - a tablet or a laptop.  It depends on what kind of user you are.  If you are an extreme power user then obviously this may not be for you as a laptop but fine for tablet while a regular task worker this may be the laptop replacement for them.  Not sure why you are so fussy about this.

I'm surprised you're not writing more about the fact that Steve Balmer at the beginning said they are "embracing mobility" at Microsoft.  Hah!  Sure shows it by the way their VDA licensing works.


"This device is whatever you want it to be "

Now that is the Holy Grail.  I want one!


@Zojo, see above re: Homer Car. The laws of physics do not allow me to have a device that is fast, light, and has a long battery life. Sure, Ivy Bridge is fast, but when I'm doing hard core desktop-type things, I want the quad-core full power Ivy Bridge, not the ULV portable version. And if they put the "full" Ivy Bridge in a tablet, then it's only going to have 2 hours of battery life.. unless they put in a 200wh battery, which means I have a 3lb device... You see? When I'm running around, I want thin, light, and long battery.. I don't mind if I have as much hard core speed.

That's why I keep going back to wanting two devices.. a single hybrid is the worst of both worlds.

And to be clear, the Surface with WinRT could be a great tablet. The removable keyboard is nice. Love it! But the Pro version as one device to replace laptop and tablet? Nope.


What is wrong with Microsoft "priming the pump" as they say? Let them come out with the first rendition, get people warmed up to this type of device, then let the Lenovo, Dell, HPs of the world come up with one even better. Microsoft already has partner machines in their signature series store, I'm sure they would welcome a new tablet from Dell or HP there or in their retail stores any day. Also, if the Windows8 tablet flops, then its Microsoft's risk. Imagine how happy HP would be if Microsoft came out with the flopped touch pad before them and they could have exited the market before they even started. This could actually be a good thing for partners!  


Why would vendors want to build this tablet? There is no app-store market (nothing already written is compatible, remember?), confusing feature set (is this a tablet, or desktop?), and they're competing against MS and at an immediate disadvantage at licensing costs. Plus, we have the Kin and Zune lingering in recent history as failed devices, is the Surface going to be one? Does anyone think this device can beat the Transformer Prime's sales numbers of 82,000 devices in 3 months? I doubt it, strongly. And that's the best-selling android device with TONS of apps behind it. You really want me to buy a device from a company with a history of failed devices, with a non-existant app store, with no real use for it? errr besides taking Office to my non-office?


@Brian: "when I'm doing hard core desktop-type things, I want the quad-core full power Ivy Bridge, not the ULV portable version"

"That's why I keep going back to wanting two devices.. a single hybrid is the worst of both worlds."

Fine if that's what you want, but by asking for a quad-core full power Ivy Bridge you're dismissing the entire Ultrabook and MacBook Air range. If you want a larger more powerful laptop such as the MacBook Pro or quad-core Windows laptops then that's great, but what has that really got to do with the Surface Tablet? The x86 Surface looks like it will be roughly equivalent to an Ulatrabook in specs and price, but a smaller form factor.

There's plenty of people who are happy with Ultrabook type speed as their primary device and don't need anything faster.

If you do want two devices then as you mention the ARM Surface Tablet or an Intel Medfield-based tablet from another vendor would perhaps be more your style and price range.


I don't think it is going to hurt the MS partners.


Does anybody have users at their company who have asked about this or care? Crickets from end users so far at my place, geek email distributions lists lighting up but nobody running out to replace their iPads even on that list.


I wonder why Microsoft even bothered to do announcement in the summer and have nothing on store shelves until later in the Fall.

When Apple announces a product, it is out on sale in a matter of days.

I think there are lots of excitement for Windows 8 right now but if MS & their partners don't deliver products right away.  Google and Apple will easily counter with their next gen offering at the same time MS releases Win8 RT.

It's a failed strategy that MS has been playing catch up from behind with the smartphone, Zune, and tablet.  They should concentrate with winning the smartphone market 1st before getting involved with the tablet.  

Windows tablets have been around forever and gotten no attention, I don't think Win8 will do much against iPad and Android because like the HP Touchpad, nobody wants to take a risk with something that's unknown and no ecosystem.