A Sad Tale of a Microsoft Surface RT Customer

| John Martellaro's Blog

Recently I was in my local Staples when my wife and I bumped into a family trying to solve a problem. There was a mother, a father and their college bound daughter. The issue was the Surface RT tablet the father had recently bought for his daughter.

The discussion they were having was right next to us, so we couldn't help inquiring about what was going on. It turns out that the price was right for that Surface RT, but in the end, it wasn't able to run the X86 binaries, her classic Windows apps that the daughter had on her Windows notebook computer.

They were wrestling with what to do. A brand new Surface Pro 2 was way outside of their budget and the daughter's notebook computer was getting very old -- a principle reason for buying the Surface RT in the first place.

Surface RT.  Image credit: Microsoft

So they were in the notebook section, agonizing about possibly buying a new Windows notebook that they could afford to send the daughter to college with instead of the Surface RT. My wife and I had a brief conversation with the father. They could sell the RT on Craig's list and buy a new Surface Pro. (Too expensive). Switch to an iPad. (Nope. Tied to the Windows ecosphere.) Take it to the Microsoft store at Park Meadows Mall in Lone Tree, CO, in search of a trade-in or special deal. (Maybe.)

When we left, they we're still wrestling with a course of action that would fit their budget and allow the daughter to run her Windows apps.

Tech Complexity is Not Your Dad's Friend

Right away, I thought about how complexity is the devious manufacturer's friend. Complexity, clever price points, and the right kind of advertising can convince the uninformed buyer that the solution is painless and inexpensive -- when it really isn't.

We see that all the time, and here's a great example.

I've seen this discussion before in other contexts, and what happens is that complex offerings almost always lead to buyer's remorse. No matter which solution is chosen, a better one always seems to come to light -- after a purchase is made. That's a primary reason why Apple keeps its product line fairly simple. There is seldom buyer's remorse.

Any kind of good solution to this family's problem is going to cost serious money. Worse, it will drag them down the rabbit hole of a dying breed -- another Windows PC notebook -- as their daughter goes off to new, demanding adventures in college.

With lots to do and not wanting to be nosy strangers, my wife and I kept the interruption short, wished them good luck and went on our way. When we left, they were still pondering what to do.

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I doubt that family will ever trust MS again.


The other issue this points to is “ecosystem lock-in.” I do what I can to keep myself out of this situation by using services from multiple vendors and choosing technology that best suits my needs, but many people do not have the interest or technical fortitude to swim against the stream. Single vendor solutions are more convenient, but over time they reduce your options.

Jim Murphy

what apps where they wanting to run? I have a surface rt and you can install all sorts of apps from the Microsoft store. Plus it comes with office. I think the sales person did not know what the hell they had. the only thing currently that I find slightly annoying is google will not build a rt version of chrome. Other than that I LOVE that I can not get infected on the surface rt. So I use it to browse all the crazy sites out there.  I do all my stock trading, reading in kindle, and watching my hulu on the rt. I am a Linux admin however the surface rt is my tablet I use. Microsoft did get it right on this one.


When I was initially thinking of purchasing a Microsoft Surface, I kept coming back to the same thing, if I want a portable device with great battery life, a keyboard, and the ability to run all the 32 bit windows programs I want, then why am I spending $900 for a Surface Pro when I can get a Samsung S3 laptop for $250? The next question is do I really need a tablet?


Shawn Cicoria

Take a look at the Asus transformer.  Runs all x86.


John Martellaro

Mr. Murphy. The daughter had x86 apps that run on her Windows notebook computer, not apps bought from the MS store.  Those x86 apps on her notebook (not Office) won’t run on the Surface RT’s ARM processor.  Beyond that, we didn’t inquire about which apps in detail.


Buy a PC notebook, available at any given WalMart or Best Buy. They’re typically more than adequate for running desktop software, often new for around $400… they’d just have to give up on getting the latest trendy touch-whatever doodads for a little while. Problem solved.


Four things a university student needs:

A laptop or dt computer. (Cheap notebook is good enough.) It is still the best input device for writing papers, making and printing reports and to do research expediently.
A voice recorder to catch lectures to review. Frees one to absorb and ponder the lecture.
A scratch pad and pencil for brief notes, points, reminders, doodles, graphs, etc.
Time! to put the three together and make final notes and observations, conclusions and notes for further research.

I love my iPad and it would be a fifth device I would want to have so I didn’t have to lug my laptop about to possibly lose or drop.

But for sure the young want to fit in and slick ‘n shiny is the magpie’s weakness.

Many out looking for advice are not really in the position to be open to advice. Many decisions in life are not made under ideal circumstances. Paramount to the young girl’s life of learning is equipment that works as needed. That costs money, but peanuts really, compared to the full cost of university life. But there are no assurances. A friend got his daughter a MacBook for this very reason. With friends over for a bbq, she dropped it into the swimming pool. (Rationality is not a guaranteed strength of youth.) Sadly, all the mental connectors across that threshold to maturity comes around the time university is completed. May be the reason that most crimes are committed by youths between the ages of 14 and 27; also the age the heroic soldier is most willing to take the gravest chances.



I doubt that family will ever trust MS again.

I think it highly probable that this family will blame themselves and their own lack of foresight and tech savvy, rather than marketing chicanery, if they fail to make MS’s solutions work for their daughter.

I’ve encountered this family more than once, and on more than one occasion, spoken to this father or mother in the form of colleagues in search of Windows-centric solutions in the workplace. Too often, the sentiment they’ve expressed is that, ‘There is something wrong with me in that I cannot make these solutions work to produce my desired result’. Implicit in that thinking is, ‘I know there’s nothing wrong with this platform and its support systems, so clearly, the fault lies with me’. This is the power of dominance, market or otherwise, leaving the individual feeling small and inadequate.

Admittedly, this does not describe everyone, but it does capture a non-tech savvy subpopulation of consumers. I also believe that this is a dwindling population. While they mightn’t adopt new options at the first suggestion (in my experience, non-tech savvy users are nearly paralysed by their fear of change, viewing it as a near-insurmountable challenge), over time and with repeated suggestion accompanied by patient exposition, I have seen many friends and colleagues expand their options, some even switching altogether to the Apple platform.


When that solution works (‘buy a PC notebook…’) it does so brilliantly. However, I have had a minority but substantial fraction of friends and relatives who have taken that approach come back with continued tales of woe related to poor device performance, limited longevity, security compromises or hidden costs related to hardware/software enhancements needed for targeted tasks. If you are tech proficient, better still, an IT professional like geoduck, you can convert the most low-end PC into a power tool. For too many others, such a device can be a louse-laden bed of blood-sucking misery.

Ken Humphrey

I’m currently not sure about Microsoft’s operating system but still feel for most people pc’s are the way to go.  Mainly because of the eco system more people use Microsoft products in business and school. If you need to write a paper you can send it through email and it will need to be compatible with what your class or business is using.  I think this might change with more people using google and other open source products. 

When comes to tablets I currently feel that Apple has the edge because ease of use and the app store.  Also the tablets have great resell.  If you bought the Surface or Android tablet your not going get much for them.  I have been very happy with my iPad 3 but don’t it is necessary to get a new one every couple of years.  Android is fine most things as in browsing the net or email and their app store is getting better also.


Platform lock-in is probably a false dilemma for someone going off to college. As others have noted, there are options for word processors on tablets, including the Surface RT. 

What x86 binaries might she need? If it’s her favorite game, she won’t have that much time to play it anyway and new games are easy to acquire. (I’ve left behind many games, and even when I install emulators so I can still play them I find that I don’t.) If it’s some random utility, there is probably a replacement. If it’s something expensive like Adobe Photo Shop, the tablet or cheap laptop isn’t going to run that very well anyway so better use a simpler replacement.

It could be based on expected future need, depending on the major. There may be software tools that only work on a single platform. In my major (computer science), and ones with which I am familiar, that is extremely rare and there are usually open source solutions that mimic the platform-restricted one.

As for needing Word, that’s only true if you need track changes. I always saved documents in RTF if they needed to be editable or PDF to print them out. Nobody could tell that I was using TextEdit on a Mac instead of MS Word on Windows.

One professor in grad school forced me to make slides in PowerPoint, but the reason was that he was going to steal my slides and use them in presenting his (my) research later. He didn’t want to be bothered with converting. Dual-boot FTW.

Spooz Biscuits

A lot of misinformation here, a shame you took some random person’s complaints as legitimate before checking them out.
I picked up a Surface RT for my daughter on Black Friday for $199, and she is THRILLED with it.  The thing is solidly built but lightweight, has a built-in stand and optional magnetic touch or type keyboards (we will wait for these to get cheaper, for now she can plug in a USB keyboard to the USB port (!).  There is also a micro SDXC port to add another 64G of storage.  It includes the Microsoft office suite and OneNote for taking notes. 
All the apps SHE needs are available at the Microsoft store, including Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, iHeartRadio, Youtube+, Skype, Fresh Paint, Craigslist, Remote Desktop, Google Search, Flixter, HuluPlus, Adobe photoshop express, ESPN and many more.

As far as X86 goes, my daughter doesn’t play games so she doesn’t need it,  but a tool called Win86Emu can serve as an x86 emulator or software abstraction layer for Windows RT.

So, basically, it looks like the person who gave you that information was, to say the least, misinformed.

John Martellaro

Spooz Biscuits.  There is no misinformation here.  It amazes me that some of the readers callously suggest that the daughter need only repurchase her college-critical apps from the Microsoft online store (not Office) for the Surface RT with out having relayed 1) whether they’re even available and 2) how much money that would entail. 

While I didn’t quiz the family about all the daughter’s apps, the fact that they were shopping for a new PC notebook in that aisle of Staples provides evidence that the family was looking for a solution involving a Windows notebook that would run the daughter’s x86 apps, and they made it clear they were disappointed in the Surface RT’s inability to do so.

That much was clear from the conversation.

Spooz Biscuits

Almost all of those apps are FREE, no purchase neccesary.  Too bad you aren’t more specific about WHICH apps are missing, since that would be MUCH more informative to somebody reading this. Did you try to figure out WHICH “classic windows apps” were missing before you wrote a column about a conversation you overheard from some random clueless person?


Spooz Biscuits: That’s the point.  The conversation was from a “random clueless person.”  That happens to explain a lot of tech purchasing in this country.  Most people do not read tech news, and do not really care.  I assume that they wanted a tablet for their daughter, thought that a MICROSOFT product would work well and have no issues, and they were confused and disappointed that it would not run whatever app they wanted to run.  Are they idiots for not informing themselves well enough, or did the sales person who sold them the device steer them down the wrong path initially?  Should they have been more informed? Probably, yes.  But most people don’t do their due diligence.

Did Mac users buy iPads thinking they could run all of their Mac software, simply because Apple made the iPad?  No.  Now, if Apple had called the iPad the “Macintosh Tablet”, or “the iPad with Macintosh Tablet edition”, I bet that more than a few people would think that the thing could run Mac software. 

Spooz Biscuits

Did it occur to you that they were WRONG in assuming whatever “basic microsoft app” they needed couldn’t run?  I’ve tried to explain how a computer works to my mother in law countless times, but nothing ever sinks in.  Perhaps the person you overheard was equally clueless, and I would also not too much stock in the average Staples employees knowledge of all computers. 

The fact is, the “classic windows apps” (CWA) that most people need are the Office Suite and the desktop file explorer, both of which are included with the Surface RT.  You did not do your homework in pointing out exactly CWAs are missing.  If the point of your post is that most people are clueless, you are adding yourself to that group by not doing some research before writing this.  You still, apparently, have no idea whether there are ANY CWAs missing, let alone the value of such apps to others who might read this.

Isaiah Owings

So they had they bought an IPAD (Any model) would they have been able to run all the applications on their mac book or even pc?

I assume they were told by a non informed sales person that the tablet would run everything when that is not true and a little investigating would have told them that they needed another option.

Kai Lang

wow, this blog is stupid. what even dumber is the customer who bought a rt device and tried to run legacy apps on it. even worse, it took them past the 30 day return policy to even realize it. even worse, this guy told them to try an ipad? lmao yeah right! The store was full of idiots that day. smh

Social Skelly

@John Martellaro

Seriously, do you read your own articles before you hit the publish button on your comments?

“My wife and I had a brief conversation with the father. They could sell the RT on Craig’s list and buy a new Surface Pro. (Too expensive). Switch to an iPad. (Nope. Tied to the Windows ecosphere.)”

The problem was that the daughter couldn’t run x86 programs, and you recommended an iPad?  I get it, the website is called MacObserver, but you could at least attempt to publish with some integrity.  It appears you tried to mislead the customer into purchasing an iPad knowing the problem up front.  How ironic considering the accusations you lay to bare in this article.

Social Skelly

... and then you delete the offending comment instead of addressing it.  The professionalism here is astounding.

John Martellaro

I deleted a previous comment of mine because it was poorly worded and misunderstood.  At the risk of belaboring, the subject did come up early about just trashing the whole ecosphere of PCs & Windows with an iPad, but the Father quickly insisted that they were dedicated to the Windows solution with some existing X86 apps.

All kinds of things get discussed in a situation like this, as I recount it, and the fact that they come up in discovery shouldn’t be taken as foolish advice, merely exploratory questions.


Spooze, Isaiah, Kai and Social:

Your commentary is an excellent illustration of just the kind of arrogant, self-righteous contempt for the majority of private consumers, non-tech savvy sods that they are, that Windows power users, IT wonks and MS themselves have historically displayed, and which you articulate so well. And this practice of baffling the end user with layered complexity, and then blaming their confusion for any failures in applied MS solutions is precisely how MS and their OEM coterie have found themselves with a dwindling personal consumer marketshare, on the one hand, and a rapidly expanding irrelevance in the post-PC era, on the other.

The majority of MS product end users are out here in low and middle income countries with limited to practically non-existent tech guidance (have you ever read any of the translations of these user manuals in any foreign language? I have, and where the English version is obscure, the translations are inscrutable), and have been made to feel not simply powerless but humiliated in their feeble attempts to string together the disparate and uncoordinated solutions that characterise MS’s tablet/PC Win RT/8 offerings. Such is the disarray of this motley horde of products that even MS-committed IT wonks at two research facilities where I work have forbidden the uptake of any of these products, urging staff to stick with older software (including Windows XP) and not to purchase any of the Surface products, but stay with the 20th Century desktop PC. Meanwhile, back at my university, most faculty members I work with have switched to the OS X/ iOS ecosphere because, by their admission, it is simple and effective at solving their problems. If you were a MS exec, would you be pleased with this outcome?

This leads to another point. Whether or not you agree, this this attitude blaming, indeed ridiculing the struggling customer is not merely insufferably haughty, it’s also wrong from a business perspective. The principle that ‘The product was created in order to serve the customer, and not the customer to serve the product’ should be words emblazoned above the entryways of tech companies world over as a reminder to employees that their objective is to make their products accessible to the least tech savvy of their client base, and not simply the mighty and the high priests of geekdom.

And should those companies wish to make their product a runaway market success, they will marry that principal to its mate, ‘The product, by its design, should solve a problem, rather than be a solution in search of a problem’. Intuitive simplicity that solves a problem will always trump pointless complexity in the consumer space, because people value their time, money and self respect. Without doubt, this principle is appreciated by at least some of the leadership in Redmond, otherwise there would not be this commitment to find new leadership and direction.

Perhaps if there is a change at MS HQ in not only direction but tone towards customers of ordinary but modest capacity, i.e. most people, upon whose goodwill and patronage MS’s non-enterprise consumer success rests, we may yet hope for a softened and sobered, indeed a humbler more respectful tone from the elite corp of MS’s client base. One can hope.

Don Jones

Well, since this is coming from the MAC OBSERVER, no wonder why it’s a lopsided article.  I honestly am a PC person, but received an ipad last year for XMas and sold it 2 weeks ago when my wife bought me the RT that she got on Ebay for $169 over the holidays.  Man, the RT rocks, period.  Sounds as if this young lady received bad advice from the start, period - moving on.  This article is way to lopsided to have any credibility However, it is the MAC observer.  LOL.  I think that Apple products are awesome, but they take advantage of their customers lack of tech savvy by over charging them and they don’t even treat investors right, not to mentioned outsourcing of our jobs so they can have billions in the non-US banks instead of dropping prices to make this stuff more affordable.

Don Jones

Well, since this is coming from the MAC OBSERVER, no wonder why it’s a lopsided article.  I honestly am a PC person, but received an ipad last year for XMas and sold it 2 weeks ago when my wife bought me the RT that she got on Ebay for $169 over the holidays.  Man, the RT rocks, period.  Sounds as if this young lady received bad advice from the start, period - moving on.  This article is way to lopsided to have any credibility However, it is the MAC observer.  LOL.  I think that Apple products are awesome, but they take advantage of their customers lack of tech savvy by over charging them and they don’t even treat investors right, not to mentioned outsourcing of our jobs so they can have billions in the non-US banks instead of dropping prices to make their stuff more affordable.

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