Microsoft’s Tablet: Danger, Steve Balmer, Danger

There's potentially a lot to like in the Microsoft Surface tablet. It might very well be the business-oritented tablet I've been seeking. But this ain't no slam dunk.

Look, I've not said anything nice about Microsoft in ages, so let me start with something nice here: the Microsoft Surface (this link has crashed as of this writing, but it did work last night; see also the press release) tablet has potential. It also has a boatload of problems, and it's way too early to predict how well this series of products will do in the marketplace. Tablets are hot, and Microsoft needs to play here, but flawed strategy may once again limit their success.

There are issues both with what we know about the products announced, and especially with the overall marketing. I like the openness of the products; Apple, whose Mac products I use to run my business, drives me absolutely nuts with the closed nature of the iPad, the strange apps, no file system, and, well, I've covered all that before. I don't consider the iPad a serious general-purpose business tool, although it can function adequately for casual users, those who primarily consume rather than create content, and in vertical applications. It is regardless slick, which is what one would expect from the best marketing company on the planet.

Microsoft, however, is clearly not the best marketing company, or even in the Top 100, judging from the history and once again from this curious announcement. More on that in a moment, but I do want to praise Microsoft here for innovative design (the kickstand, which, to be fair, has been done before, most recently on the HTC Evo One handset and various aftermarket cases, and the typing covers, which, to be fair, have also been done on the iPad, most notably in assorted products from Logitech) and especially for all the ports, something Apple just hates. Couple these with a "real" OS, if Windows 8 in fact turns out to be one, and an included version of Office, and we just might have here the proverbial business tablet I've been seeking.

But we also might not. Consider the following:

This was one funky announcement. The location was kept secret until almost the last minute, really irritating given LA traffic. The time? 9:30 PM eastern. Dumb. Everyone seemed to know what would be announced regardless. We got incomplete specs (screen resolution? Really, they can't say?), numerous unanswered questions, and an inadequate number of demo units for the press. There was no pricing announced, and only vague hints at availability. The product name, Surface, re-uses that of a previous product (no surprise at this gaff; remember all of the "Explorer" products?). Surface might be a good name for the overall architecture, but why not call the product "Windlet" or some such to remind everyone of its fundamental advantage - a "real" OS?

But, along these lines, there are two different architectures with two different OSes, a big mistake that will confuse many. And the biggest problem is the very high probability of channel and/or business strategy conflict. Microsoft is keeping a key OS direction for itself and telling potential OEMs, the PC partners that make Microsoft successful, to look elsewhere. Wow! This is truly stupid. Suppose you're Dell or HP or Lenovo, and now you have no viable tablet strategy (or, if Microsoft allows them to compete with Windows 8 on their tablets, fragmentation and channel conflict). Years ago I suggested that these guys should form something akin to the Open Software Foundation and do a new OS to free themselves from Microsoft's tyranny. Such a direction today would be much easier today given the variety of great open-source OSes available (Ubuntu, Mint, and others) based on Linux. Maybe we could finally kick buggy, slow, complex Windows altogether, which is conceivable if additional effort is put into an office suite like LibreOffice. Regardless, we could see further fragmentation of the PC (including, now, tablets) marketplace, and that's something Microsoft would be foolish to encourage. And yet they do just that. Wow, again.

It's not even clear that Microsoft will be able to market what amounts to a PC on its own. Remember Kin and Zune? Flops. Microsoft should stick to what it sort-of knows, software that enables the rest of the food chain to sell up a storm. Hey, maybe they can pull this off, but history cautions otherwise.

And, perhaps the strangest of all, a much-larger-than-lifesize photo of the Surface has been painted on the façade of the soon-to-be-opened Microsoft store here at Prudential Center in Boston for some time (I'm in town for Mobile Connect, as I noted last time). If this was supposed to be some kind of exciting, cool announcement, most of the drama was off already. Again, Microsoft's marketing has historically been terrible, and we have no exception here. Given all of the questions above and the broad range of potential problems they represent, we can't be sure that Microsoft won't muck it up once again.  But I kind of hope they won't - again, we need a real business tablet, and Surface, despite all of the above, just might be it.

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