Much Ado About the MS Surface is Puzzling

There has been a lot of jumping on the Microsoft Surface bandwagon. One has to wonder why, in this very technical era, why there is so much wish fulfillment.

I’ve been vastly amused by the analysis of the business prospects of the Microsoft Surface, a product we don’t really know a lot about, whose price hasn’t been announced and which is not yet shipping.

One might look into the product, strip away the hype and size up its prospects. On the other hand, when a new product comes out, there is also an immediate temptation to tap into the curiosity about the product and then embellish that need with a lot of unfounded speculation, indeed, misplaced and irrational enthusiasm.

MS Surface

Image Credit: Microsoft

No doubt there are websites that want to cash in on a perceived distaste for Apple. Perhaps there’s a thread of desire to see Apple get its comeuppance. Perhaps there are Microsoft fans of old who fear for the company in the Post-PC era and desperately want to see the company make a comeback.

Been There, Done That

There was a time when we had high hopes for the Hewlett Packard TouchPad. The hidden assumption was the H-P had the technical talent, engineering resources, technical leadership and manufacturing experience to execute a competing tablet. And H-P had Jon Rubinstein, a virtual icon when he was at Apple. What could go wrong?

What led us astray at the time was that we assumed that H-P had the same ability as Apple to execute on all fronts: OS, hardware, manufacturing and marketing.

Then came the Amazon Kindle Fire. We (and by we I mean Bryan Chaffin) correctly estimated that a tablet without backend infrastructure fails. If it can’t provide music, video, shopping, books and a vast app library, a tablet by itself is a doorstop. But Amazon couldn’t compete with Apple’s manufacturing juggernaut and technology base. Amazon could only compete on price, and so the very limited Fire relegated itself to a small part of the tablet market.

Surface Effects

Today, we’re looking at a new horse in the race, the Microsoft Surface. Looking at the specs, what little we have, nicely summarized by Bryan Chaffin, we see a product that isn’t well defined. That makes it really hard to construct an objective analysis of its prospects.

We can probably assume that it will leverage Microsoft’s current rights for content that are delivered on the Xbox. We can probably assume that Microsoft has done its homework and catered to the business community, checked the IT boxes and catered to its legacy Windows product.

The real question, however, is that Microsoft has bet the farm on the idea that a tablet is simply a portable PC. It’s a notebook in function, but disguised as a tablet. For 28 months, Apple has demonstrated that the tablet is a new animal, a new life form on the computer tree of evolution.

Ten years from now, when we trace the development of personal computing and draw those ancestry charts, the family tree of devices, we’ll likely see that customers embraced Apple’s vision of a tablet as a new breed of product that’s used in many new ways. Tim Cook himself expressed that vision when, in the last Apple earnings call, he voiced no interest in convergence, the infamous toaster-fridge. For Microsoft to force the convergence of a tablet and Windows for the sake of turf protection is an approach that goes strongly against the grain of two plus years of Apple experience, earning billions and converting customers. Natural evolution is a good bet, and for Microsoft to go against that is a major, risky bet.

iPad 3 RetinaA new breed of product, laser sharp focus by Apple

Image Credit: Apple

Questions have been raised about the profit margin stolen by Microsoft by not having to pay OEM licence fees for Windows 8. Question have been raised about Microsoft greatly upsetting its OEM partners, placing that product in its flagship stores. Questions have been raised about whether there is a large enough market to support the Surface, as Microsoft envisions it. More questions can be raised about Microsoft’s capacity to execute on the same level as Apple. As Bryan Chaffin wrote, so concisely, “If Microsoft is right, they will sew up the market for toaster-fridges.

Predictions About Predictions

I think you’ll see a lot of predictions. Analysts who get paid to project market share don’t typically use thousand node supercomputers with a million lines of simulation code to assess the market forces. The best they can do is look at history and surmise that Microsoft’s Surface will have a certain appeal and it will, most assuredly, gain market share against Apple’s iPad. Warm fuzzies will abound. But remember, Apple fought brilliantly against Windows with OS X for a decade and could only grab single digit market share of an already entrenched market. Asian companies fought valiantly against the iPod and could never gain a serious foothold. And then there was the Zune.

This is why Apple is embracing the iPad as a brand new product category. Sales and customer preference bear that out. The notion of the Post-PC era can’t be negated by a single Microsoft presentation.

The optimistic prediction that Microsoft can grab much more against Apple’s iPad will be comforting to many, but it has no technical basis, based on simulations, analysis, sales data or previous experience.

I’ll be very interested to see how this product evolves. But it’s going to take a year’s worth of sales data before we can determine if Microsoft’s big bet has paid off. Until then, all the giddy articles about the Surface seem to be either hit-mongering, wish fulfillment or both.