Ten questions Microsoft Surface must answer
Microsoft's splashy entrance into the tablet world has set the marketplace abuzz with expectation and speculation, but cold hard facts are still thin on the ground. Precious few technical details of the Surface products are available, and the come-to-market strategy is anyone's guess.
The Microsoft Surface offers more questions than answers. Here are 10 questions Microsoft will have to answer, and answer well, if the Surface is to stand a chance in a very competitive market.
1) Will anyone buy it?
This is the big question, of course. In Microsoft's favour: Windows's extensive installed base, and a solid value proposition for enterprise IT operations looking for tight integration with other Windows products. On the downside: the hugely popular and dominant iPad and rapidly expanding Android userbase. The circumstances were different, but RIM discovered the hard way just how challenging introducing a third player into the tablet market can be, with the ill-fated PlayBook.
2) What about SA?
Most relevant to us in SA will be the local pricing and availability, but the reach of background services will also be in question. It took years for Microsoft to extend the Xbox Live network to this country, and many media services remain unavailable on any platform - Hulu, Netflix, Pandora and the like, diluting the value proposition of every tablet on the local market.
3) How much will it cost?
Microsoft's pricing for the Surface range, competing against both traditional tablets and ultrabooks, will be a major factor in its success or failure. Apple's iron grip on its supply chain means it has kept the iPad price down despite high-end components. Other OEMs have struggled to compete on price, and only Amazon's Kindle Fire delivered a cost-price Android tablet which managed to scoop up significant market share.
4) Will users like Metro?
Many questions remain unanswered about Metro and the Windows 8 interface. Designed for touch interfaces, it should be a no-brainer for tablets, but the Intel Surface model is a full-blown PC capable of running Windows applications, and there are open questions about Windows 8's appeal.
5) Will the entertainment ecosystem work?
Microsoft has some key consumer advantages over its competitors in the consumer space - strong penetration in the console gaming market, with the Xbox 360 and all its incumbent services and products, and the media centre capabilities built into Windows. Surface tablets could dovetail into that mix, extending the media desktop, streaming media, functioning as an extended games controller or any of dozens of other possibilities. Microsoft's entertainment whole could exceed the sum of its parts if it gets the mix right, rolling out a red carpet for Surface directly into many consumers' living rooms. Some of that will rely on Microsoft's own development, but a lot will hinge on getting the media services on board. The bad news is that even if Microsoft signs them all up at launch, South Africans probably won't benefit.
6) Can it win over enterprise IT managers?
Microsoft's big edge here is unquestionably the ability to deliver deep integration between Windows 8 and Windows server infrastructures, plugging into Sharepoint, Exchange, and Office 365. Management tools will be an important factor, and if Microsoft can win the hearts of the IT department as well as wooing the users with a sexy product, Surface will have a major boost into the marketplace. The 'bring your own device' trend sweeping through many corporate environments may render this question moot, unless Microsoft can produce a truly compelling package for enterprises.
7) Will the OEMs get on board?
Microsoft's decision to build its own tablet could be seen as a slap in the face for OEMs planning Windows 8 tablets of their own, and raises the question of whether Microsoft will launch its own smartphone range (possibly by acquiring Nokia). Will the OEMs come to the party, knowing they'll be competing with their principal partner? It may not matter - Google's entrance into the handset market with its own Droid smartphone didn't deter the OEM community from getting solidly behind the Android platform.
8) How will Surface perform?
Performance questions loom big, and were pointedly avoided at the Surface launch. No details of processor speeds or RAM were revealed. The Nvidia ARM-based model running Windows RT will likely be tuned to run well as a tablet, but the Intel Core i5 model running Windows 8 Pro is trickier. That model will be capable of running full-blown Windows apps, and users will expect desktop-equivalent performance. That immediately raises numerous further questions. Will the device have the hardware capable to deliver that performance? How will that affect the price? And can a desktop processor, running desktop applications, be cooled effectively in such a thin enclosure? The safe money's on “hot surface” headlines.
9) Where are the apps?
Apple's head start in app availability gave it months of lead time over Android, first on smartphones then on tablets. Today most popular apps are available in the Apple iTunes store and the Google Play store, though developers still reportedly see better revenues from Apple versions. Microsoft has a mountain to climb before its Metro App Store will be able to go toe-to-toe with its competitors in either format.
10) Is Microsoft in it for the long haul?
Microsoft has shown willingness to stick doggedly behind a product line when it is strategically valuable or shows long-term potential. In the consumer space, that'd be the Xbox and Windows on mobile phones. On the other hand, the defunct Zune range sets a precedent for Microsoft to take on Apple headfirst, only to retreat with its tail between its legs and a product line on the slab. If Surface is not an immediate success, Microsoft's endurance will be tested again.