The imminent arrival of Windows 8.1 will make the company's new tablet computing devices more usable. But Microsoft's hardware updates won't radically change the money-losing Surface proposition in a market that fails to see keyboards and me-too apps as a major differentiator.
Its Not Pretty Beneath the Surface
This morning, Microsoft launches its second-generation tablet devices. There's no livestream, but most key details have leaked with similar styling, new Haswell and Tegra processors, updated Windows 8.1 and a new kickstand (whoo!) for broadly similar prices to the original models. So far, so dull, despite the original's pretty styling, and unless Microsoft pulls something stellar out of the bag, it could soon get a lot worse.
Users don't need to be reminded, but the PC big boys still seem deaf to the concept that computing in all areas continues to rapidly evolve. Even cheap smartphones and tablets are now working devices, not just for communications or content consumption. Against this backdrop, we have Microsoft launching its upgraded computer/tablet Surface 2 (formerly RT) and Surface Pro 2 Windows 8.1 devices, with the same hefty Windows ecosystem proposition aimed at both consumers and business users in its slick, and often empty, Microsoft Stores.
Compare its approach to Tesco (a U.K. supermarket) that has launched its own tablet, the Hudl, a mid-level 7-inch Android tablet for £120 ($190). While its profit margins will be thin, potentially millions of buyers will be seeing them next to the weekly shopping as a handy second- or third-screen across thousands of outlets. Those users will find Tesco's own services installed, and can easily graduate to apps and other services.
With Kindle Fire HD pulling the same trick at Amazon's online store, and endless Android options, plus the iPad range (and if Apple can sell 9 million new iPhones in three days imagine what the upcoming iPad refresh will do), how is Microsoft supposed to compete, despite its keyboard and Office apps differentiation?
Surface 2 and Pro 2 Feature List
The event has just concluded , here's what's new. Shown off was the new two-position kickstand which improves usability. The first new accessory is the Surface Power Cover that comes with a built-in 30wh battery offering more than double the life of the original. There's also Type Cover 2 which is thinner and backlit to make it better and easier to use.
Next up is a Surface Docking Station, that links the device to a big screen or two, adds USB 3.0 ports, audio, wired networking and power. Another useful accessory, but Microsoft has to get people to buy the Surface before they will want these.
To that end the Surface Pro 2 will retail from $899 in a range of memory/storage configurations. It offers an improved color display, Dolby speakers, the much-touted Haswell CPU for improved (and cooler) performance, also aiding better battery life. Microsoft is really pushing this a high-end device, claiming it is more powerful than most laptops out there.
Then there's the Surface 2 for $449, which also has an improved CPU, a 1080p full HD display, better cameras and is thinner and lighter. However when a rep makes comments like "We've added a Surface logo, you want people to know you're using a Surface" and "We've revamped it so you can see the true magnesium coming out." you know they're struggling for things to say.
Sure, these devices are fast, attractive and and have the full power of Windows plus cloud services like SkyDrive behind them, but while they might snag some notebook replacement sales, if demand proved weak beforehand, where is it supposed to come from this time?
Business or Leisure?
Last week we saw BlackBerry finally give into the inevitable, along with the indifference of the consumer market, to focus all its remaining efforts on the enterprise. Will Microsoft be forced to follow suit, with the low interest in the original Surface RT device and a similar fate likely for Surface 2? Will it give up on consumers and focus on executives who can afford such luxuries and are already entrenched in the Microsoft way?
Many years late to the tablet party, Microsoft still has plenty of clout and can turn things around with smaller, leaner devices. Trying to buy old iPads to get folk to try Surface might turn some heads, but most Apple users seem to be of the opinion that you can pry their iPads from their cold, dead hands.
Also, the $7 billion acquisition of Nokia means a new line of traditional Windows tablets could be on the way, which are likely to further undermine the concept of Surface. Having already written $1 billion off on the project, anyone hoping for a dramatic rise in success for these latest devices helps to create a new definition for the word 'optimist.'
Finally, with Steve Ballmer still dropping hints about Office coming to iPad and Android, the real USP for a Windows tablet could vanish at any moment, and will rapid adoption of other cloud productivity apps anyway, how much longer will that selling point hold?
In answer to the article question, Microsoft has gotten rid of the RT brand, but there's lots of work still to do. Pre-orders start now, with the devices going on-sale on 22 October.
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