Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Will Microsoft Surface Sink?

In the wake of complaints that Microsoft didn’t give their hardware partners sufficient notice of their Surface announcement, it seems Ballmer thinks he can get close to Apple’s success by copying the jerk side of the Jobs persona. Nice try, but there was more to Jobs than that. There’s also the perfectionism, the sense of style and the ability to get the best out of people.

Absent all that, why announce a product with so little detail? The biggest effect this is likely to have is chilling prospects of aggressive hardware development for Windows 8. Anyone partway through a design will be strongly tempted to go Android instead, with the threat of such a big player invading their space. An example of this effect: Intel’s IA64 (Itanium). IA64 never delivered in a big way, yet it essentially killed off development of future generation MIPS processors for the high performance market, and killed both the HP PA-RISC processor and the Alpha (by then also owned by HP, but for practical purposes killed by Compaq, who bought DEC and drank the Itanium Kool-Aid).

I don’t understand why the media have been so conned into reporting this as the product that will knock down the iPad. That story has been done so often it’s become ridiculous. The only thing Microsoft adds to the game is some hardware innovation that no one really wants. We have at this stage no data on some rather fundamental details like when it will ship, performance, battery life and what communications it supports besides WiFi. To add an edge to the bizarreness of the whole thing, the case is made with a technology called “VapourMg”. You can just imagine the jokes that will provoke around Microsoft announcing vapourware.

The big thing missing here is how Microsoft will tackle Apple’s massive lead in free and low-cost apps targeting this market. And also Apple’s massive lead in a customer base in hundreds of millions who’ve entrusted their credit card details to a 1-click order process. The x86 version will run standard Windows software and dropping the price on those will be a huge risk when Microsoft and partners are dependent on a much higher pricing model on desktops, and the cheaper model with an ARM processor will require recompiles at very least, and it will look very odd if Microsoft has two very similar looking options with radically different pricing policies on apps. The most likely scenario is that the two will have completely different software models, adding confusion to the market. It’s not just a matter of choosing based on speed and screen resolution; if trading up to the faster model means replacing all your software, the two devices might as well be different brands.

What they still don’t get about the Jobs story is the big breakthroughs happen when you don’t listen to your customers. Arrogant though that sounds, customers used to an old paradigm aren’t the best people to ask about game-changing ideas. I bet this thing was designed based on focus groups who said, “If only we could get a tablet that worked just like a desktop machine.” Guess what? The same people in those focus groups won’t buy one, any more than people in 1900, asked what an automobile should be like, and who said it should have a horse manure scoop, would buy one for that feature.

Tablets with keyboards have been done, and failed. Doing the keyboard better in some way (thinner, sort of possible to ignore because it’s a semi-rigid dust cover you can presumably fold out of the way) doesn’t fix that. I don’t see the value of a keyboard without tactile feedback (if they’ve achieved that with something a few mm thick, that would be a real first, and no one has mentioned that). It means you have to keep looking to type, negating the value of separating it from the touch screen.

Microsoft is trying to find a reason to use Windows in this new form factor, and it doesn’t add up. If Microsoft wants to get into hardware, they would do better making an Android tablet and adding value, as others like Samsung and Amazon have done. There really are only two operating system kernels in wide use (if you don’t count embedded systems where the market is highly fragmented): variants on UNIX (including Linux and Apple’s OS X and iOS), and variants on Windows. Maintaining your own kernel without some significant value you can add is nuts. The cost is huge for no perceptible benefit. Apple discovered that only after nearly going broke (I told them to use a UNIX kernel with a Mac outer layer in the late 1980s: there are times when they should listen).

Another missing detail: how well will it work away from a rigid surface (aka desktop)? If Microsoft have invented a notebook computer you can’t use on your lap top, that would be an interesting first.

In the meantime of course the rest of the field won’t stand still. Apple, Samsung and the rest of the Android crew have time to think up other ways to add value.

I’ve been wrong before but not as often as the journalists who’ve reported yet another iPad killer. Time will tell.

1 comment:

John Ostrowick said...

hear hear. What's the point of a flimsy, floppy laptop?