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Say Hello to Zune Surface

December 1st, 2012 4 comments

Pricing for the Surface with Windows 8 just came out: $999 for the 128 GB version, but you have to add $120 or $130 for a keyboard. That comes out to $20 or $30 more than a Macbook Air. That is not a good price point to compete with the iPad.

That price is for a gadget that essentially is a Macbook Air with a detachable keyboard and a higher-resolution touchscreen—or, in less charitable terms, it’s a device that can’t figure out if it’s a laptop or a tablet, and does poorly at both.

As a laptop, it is less elegant / more clunky than the Air, though it has virtually identical specs save for the slightly smaller touchscreen with a higher resolution. Oh, and half the battery life.

SurfpadairThey make a big deal about the thickness being 14mm, which is thinner than the Air at its thickest (the Air ranges from 3mm to 17 mm)—but what they fail to mention is that with the keyboard, it’s thicker. The “Touch cover” (a keyboard with little tactile response) is 3 mm, putting the fully-outfitted Surface at 17 mm, or exactly as thick as the thickest part of the Macbook Air—but the Surface is the same thickness all over, making it bulkier the air. Choose the 6mm “Type Cover” for Surface (which most people will prefer), and it becomes much thicker and bulkier than the Air. The weight is “under two pounds,” but again, with the keyboard, that will inflate, probably making it about the same weight as the Macbook Air.

Which means that it’ll be like a blocky, inelegant Ultrabook, but probably too thick to qualify for that slim status.

As a tablet, it’s going to feel worse than an iPad—a lot bigger, heavier, and clunkier. It’s got about 5% more surface area than an iPad (it has a wider aspect ratio), and even without the keyboard is about 50% thicker.

However, the real problem here is that Microsoft is trying to create a new category of device without defining it. The Surface is not a tablet, nor is it a laptop or an “Ultrabook” (Macbook Air imitation). It’s a hybrid. It’s not trying to be anything new, it’s trying to be two older things at once. And that’s not a good idea, because it compares unfavorably to both things it’s trying to outclass in the contexts they both inhabit.

Microsoft is trying to make people think that you get the best of both worlds. The problem is, they’re trying to mash together a car and a bicycle and they’re not getting a motorcycle. They’re getting something more like a small car with bicycle wheels and pedals.

When people get a laptop, they expect the best power, comfort, and convenience with the lowest price tag. The Surface has power, but comfort? With the larger, blockier design? You can’t use the keyboard when you want to use it as a laptop. That sucks. There’s a kickstand, but that works only when you use it on a table, so it’s not really a laptop, but a portable desktop. The keyboard detaches, but is that really convenient? To have to carry that around as well, sticking it on and off? I got Apple’s iPad cover, but rarely use it because it comes off all the time in my bag.

When people get a tablet, they expect something light, thin, and fun to hold. The Surface is not that. It’s too big, too heavy, too blocky. They expect to consume, so all the apps designed for authoring really are not an advantage. Seen as a tablet, with what tablets are used for in mind, the Surface is not a very good one.

When Apple made the iPad, they didn’t think like focus-group- and spec-oriented salespeople giving uninspired orders to engineers. They didn’t just take a whole bunch of features and try to cram them into a case. Apple worked organically. They looked at the concept of a tablet, and carefully considered: how will people use this? How will it be held? If I had this device in my hands, what would be my natural inclination in terms of what I do with it? Apple concluded that, with a hand-held tablet, people would consume but not author so much. So they steered design and implementation towards that idea.

As a result, Apple succeeded brilliantly with the iPad where Microsoft had failed for a decade. It was the same with the Macbook Air; they didn’t just jump on the netbook bandwagon when it rolled around. They didn’t just make a clunky, $300 piece of crap. They waited until they got it just right—and now, the market in netbooks has transformed into the market of Macbook Air wannabes, or Ultrabooks.

The Surface ignores all of this. Microsoft didn’t think organically, they just crammed a whole bunch of stuff into a shell and tried to make it work as well as they could. What you have is a machine with nice specs, but is not designed for anything specific. It works poorly as a small laptop, and not so great as a tablet either. It does not have a niche, except for tech fanboys and people who jump at new devices.

In short, it’s classic Microsoft. Because Microsoft has a huge publicity engine and can lean on the sales side, they will sell a decent number. But it will not be a threat to the iPad, nor to the Macbook Air. I may be proven wrong in a few years, but I do not think so; I think the iPad and the Air will continue to dominate, and the Surface will just be a second-rate device that most people have heard about but don’t see very often. If the device does not become a hit in 3-4 years, Microsoft will quietly put it to sleep.

In short: it’s a Zune. Six years ago, I actually overestimated the Zune, figuring that, despite its crappiness, Microsoft would continue to improve and improve it. Well, they did, for at least a generation or two. But a few months after the Zune came out, the iPhone came out. I pronounced the Zune dead, and was right. Even Microsoft’s persistence and machinery could not save that bad idea from the new interface Apple had created.

I believe it won’t even take a new idea from Apple to kill the Surface; I think the Surface concept is fatally flawed from the start.

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