Surface tension

26 June 2012 at 7:01 pm Leave a comment

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Microsoft’s whizzy new Surface slates — unveiled June 18 at a high-profile Apple-style announcement event in Hollywood — have triggered wildly disparate reactions across the technology world, with some pundits calling them a revolutionary bridge between full-fledged PCs and tablets, and others declaring their hybrid format an evolutionary dead-end.

Our own take falls in the latter category. We believe Surface may sell well out of the gate to Apple refuseniks and users who believe a keyboard can make large-scale text entry on a tablet more viable. But ultimately, we don’t believe this is a serious competitor to the iPad — or, longer term, a rival for Android-based tablets. The future of Surface is likely as a niche player for enterprise environments; if it has any sustained life in the consumer space, it will be due primarily to massive investment on Microsoft’s part.

The problem is not that Surface is not innovative. It’s that it’s innovative in the wrong direction. Surface’s keyboard is beautiful, sleek and smart — and anchored in the 1980s. Microsoft’s stubborn addition of stylus input to the Surface reinforces this point. The primary thing that Surface offers is compatibility with legacy interfaces.

Only disruptive innovation can create new revenue streams. Innovation that’s focused on preserving the past can only cannibalize the existing installed base. Even in the enterprise, Surface adoption won’t come at the expense of the iPad — it’ll be purchased as a lightweight substitute for Windows laptops.

Meanwhile, over in Cupertino, Apple has asserted that it is “doubling down” on its voice-based, natural-language Siri intelligent agent. Voice recognition opens up a range of alternative use cases for iPads — e.g., hands-free or multitasking control. That’s the kind of disruptive interface that Microsoft proved it could deliver with Kinect, for big screens and large areas.

The jury is still out on the future of interfaces for small screens and enclosed spaces — that is, the mobile computing interface. But we know one thing it’s not going to spring from: Better versions of old and increasingly outmoded technology.

Below the fold, we’ve taken a look at the spectrum of reactions from analysts across the web.

The picture of the Surface at the top of this post is from dotTech, and is used with thanks.

Surface fans

To err is human, but design is divine: Jesus Diaz, Gizmodo
“After yesterday’s Surface event — assuming they don’t fumble the execution—Gates’ children may have found the weapon to stop the heirs of Jobs and turn the tide. … That weapon is Microsoft Surface. And it is beautiful. Beautiful and functional and simple and honest. Surface just bumped the MacBook Air and the iPad to the back seat.”

It’s the keyboard, stupid: Mat Honan, Gizmodo
“The killer (or be killed) feature of that new Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is its keyboard. The tablet itself is a wonderful device. It’s got a great body and a (seemingly) fast processor. But input is everything.”

Microsoft cleans up its act: Joshua Topolsky, The Verge
“The announcement of the Surface shows that Microsoft is ready to make a break with its history — a history of hardware partnerships which relied on companies like Dell, HP, or Acer to actually bring its products to market. That may burn partners in the short term, but it could also give Microsoft something it desperately needs: a clear story.”

Microsoft throws down the gauntlet—at their own partners: Ashlee Vance, Business Week
“It sounds like Microsoft giving them a wake-up call: You can make something different and sexy with a bit of effort, guys.”

Legacy plus futureproofing equals success: Don Sears, Fortune Tech
“If everything goes according to Microsoft’s plan, this tablet will have morphed into a laptop. A fully functioning operating system that works with cloud applications and legacy enterprise software, and Windows-based smart phones that synchronize should perk the ears of CIOs. ”

And the Surface critics

The price is not right: Jay Yarow, Business Insider
“Surface…will start at $600. Why pay a premium for an inferior product? The iPad 2 costs $400, and it’s great. The new iPad is $500 at entry level and it’s really great. The Kindle Fire costs $200, and it’s adequate. Microsoft isn’t going to win the high-end battle, and it’s not fighting the low end.”

Even the demo failed: Eric Mack, CNET News
“Steve Jobs’ constant claim that his products ‘just work’ has held up to scrutiny for the most part over the years, whereas Microsoft is more likely to be associated with a blue screen of death. In typical fashion, an epic fail during the Surface demo earlier this week has since gone viral.”

Microsoft doesn’t have the, er, guts to do this right: Wayne Williams, BetaNews
“Microsoft has always been a bottom-line company, so it’ll doubtless just price Surface somewhere middling — not too expensive and certainly not too cheap — and watch as it sells about as well as all the other tablets that don’t have an Apple-logo etched on them.”

What about the apps?: Matt Asay, The Register
“The long-term choice for developers is driven by user populations, which are predominately everywhere except where the current mobile market is. That is, the BRIC countries and beyond. In those markets, it’s all about Android.”

Ecosystem is everything: Francisco Jeronimo, IDC Research
“Consumers will not buy, and specially not pay a premium price for the Surface until they understand what additional value they can get compared with the iPad and how the device integrates with their PCs, gaming console, Windows Phone, etc. The entire ecosystem is what will make Microsoft proposition attractive, not unlinked pieces of it.”

Surface RT + Surface Pro = Disaster: Sarah Rotman, Forrester Research
“The worst thing that could happen to Microsoft’s Windows RT tablets is Windows 8 on x86. … Consumers aren’t used to thinking about chipsets. Choice is a key tenet of Windows, but too much choice is overwhelming for consumers. Apple gets this, and limits iPad options to connectivity, storage, and black…or white.”

Entry filed under: design, innovation, technology. Tags: , , , .

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