Microsoft’s Surface Pro Works Like a Tablet and a PC; has Drawbacks of Both

David Pogue reviews the Surface Pro over at The NYT — this is the full-blown Windows 8 version of Microsoft’s tablet. (Yes, that one.) Things start to look a bit dubious when “TileWorld” (the Metro UI) is brought up:

(Since Microsoft refuses to give this environment a name, let’s go with TileWorld.)

TileWorld has been jarringly stapled to the regular Windows desktop underneath it. You wind up with two Web browsers, two control panels, two Mail programs, two completely different looks.

That doesn’t sound particularly user-friendly. Battery doesn’t fare much better — emphasis mine:

Microsoft says the Pro will get about half the battery life of the non-Pro Surface, which would mean about 4.5 hours. I say, you’ll get 4.5 if you’re lucky; I barely got 3.5 hours from a charge.


Guess that’s why there aren’t many other two-pound, half-inch-thick laptops with Intel i5 processors.

I guess so.

Microsoft and Dell, Sitting in a Tree…

Some interesting information about Microsoft’s involvement in Dell’s plans to go private have surfaced (pardon the pun). Peter Bright at Ars has the story:

According to one of the people involved, "under one scenario being discussed, Dell would agree to use Microsoft's Windows software to power the vast majority of its devices."

Given that this is how Dell already operates, it appears that Microsoft may be trying to prevent any radical reorganization or departure from the PC market. A desire to substantially alter the way the company does business, including breaking its dependency on PC sales, is believed to underpin Dell's desire to go private in the first place.

Looks like the rumours were partly accurate.

The Surface Isn’t Rosy

Microsoft’s been in the news a little recently. Here’s my take.

This analyst roundup suggests sales for the Surface RT in the last quarter were somewhere between 230,000 and 1,000,000. No matter how you look at it, those numbers aren’t great. For comparison, Nokia sold 4.4 million high-end Lumia smartphones in the same time. (Apple sold 23 million iPads.)

What might be even more worrying than the-not-very-impressive numbers is that Microsoft didn’t announce any numbers themselves. Those Surface figures quoted above — between 230,000 and 1,000,000 — are pure analyst speculation. The numbers from both Nokia and Apple were reported directly from the respective companies. Officially. Not so with Microsoft. Not giving away sales figures for such an important and new product gives the impression Microsoft isn’t proud of them. Imagine if Apple released a new product then didn’t mention how many units were shipped during their next earnings call. There would be chaos.

How many times do I have to say it: The Microsoft Surface is a turd.

At least I figured out why the Surface RT exists. It’s more to protect Microsoft’s margins than to delight their customers. I still need to figure out why the Surface Pro exists.

My fear is that even if the Surface gets updated frequently and well, all customers who’ve bought one so far will be left out in the cold. Their Surfaces will be obsolete faster than they’d like.

And nobody wants that.

Unfortunately, today brings even more bad news for Microsoft: the 64GB Surface Pro will only have 23GB free storage space. Marco hits the nail on the head:

If your computer’s “1 TB” hard drive has 50 GB of preinstalled software and unusable space, you still have 95% of its space for user storage, which is hard to complain about. But advertising a “64 GB” Surface Pro that only has 35% of its space available to the user is a very different story.

Here’s a quick comparison of mobile device advertised storage space versus actual available space:

  • The 64GB Surface Pro has 23GB free space. That's 35%.
  • The 32GB Surface RT has 16GB free space. That’s 50%.
  • My 64GB iPad has 57.1GB free space. That's 89%.
  • My 16GB iPhone 5 has 13.4GB free. That's 83%.

It's worth noting that the space taken up with preinstalled software is generally fixed, so the smaller the device’s storage, the lower the average percentage of free space available will be. Even though that’s the case, compare the difference between a 16GB iPhone’s percentage — 83% — and the 64GB Surface Pro’s — 35%.

This is a problem.

So, this is what I think matters. First, Microsoft can (and hopefully will) make swift and meaningful updates to the Surface products, both hardware and software. These may very well make the devices more attractive to new customers. This is a good thing. However, the downside is that the more software improves, the higher system requirements this software will have. This will shorten the life of current Surfaces. If a customer purchases a Surface today, only to have Microsoft release huge software updates a few months from now which cause the device to run at a snail’s pace (or, worse, updates which the current device doesn’t even support), is the customer likely to stick around in Microsoft’s ecosystem?

The more optimistic take on the Surface is that Microsoft has a ton of money to blow and will keep beating the horse until it does what they want. The more pessimistic take is that the Surface-horse stumbled out of the gate and is only going to continue to fall down as time goes on.

I think what will actually happen is somewhere in between these strained metaphors. It’s just not roses.

Why the Microsoft Surface Exists

Not sure why I haven’t linked to this before now, but Horace Dediu (who is still biting his nails, for those keeping track) has written a fascinating article explaining how the Surface fits into Microsoft’s plan for the future.

In short, tablets are where the growth is happening in larger-than-phone computing — and Microsoft has little presence there. In traditional PC sales, Microsoft receives around $50 for a license of Windows, and $67 for a license of Office.

The surface, with its Apple-esque 30%+ margins, is a way for Microsoft to keep revenue and profit high, without manufacturers like Asus and Dell paying $50 a pop for a Windows license… Manufacturers who could easily switch to making hardware for Android — which lacks this hefty fee. Sometimes, Google will even pay manufacturers to use Android.

It seems that Android is doing more harm to Microsoft than I originally realised — Google might be going after third party device manufacturers. Smart.

Was Steven Sinofsky Compromising Microsoft?

MG Siegler writes some smart things about Steven Sinofsky's departure from Microsoft:

Sinofsky was the driving force behind the “no compromise” approach to Windows 8. I believe that approach is at the heart of the ultimate problem with the OS. As two separate halves, Windows 8 and Metro seem fine. As a whole, the OS seems like a schizophrenic mess. Microsoft should have copied the Apple approach with OS X/iOS, keeping them separate and slowly merging them over time by taking the best of both.

If Microsoft now starts to move Windows into a more iOS/OS X-esque, touch/keyboard and mouse optimised route, I think my biggest concerns with the software will disappear. I firmly believe that the “no compromise” approach to Windows 8 harmed the software significantly. Trying to glue together software designed to be interacted with a keyboard and mouse to software designed for touch, and attempting to make both work was a huge mistake.

If Sinofsky was the man responsible for this “no compromise” approach to Windows 8, perhaps his departure will result in more compromises and therefore better design. This may give Microsoft a chance to make headway in the tablet space.

I believe Microsoft could ship a Metro-only version of the Surface, without Office (or a desktop) and optimise it for touch. This is what they should have done all along with the Surface for Windows RT. The Surface Pro should be the only version with a desktop-mode — and only for running legacy applications. Microsoft should have created Office for Metro.

Microsoft shipping a real alternative to the iPad would be good for everyone: a monopoly is rarely a good thing, and Apple operates well under pressure from competitors.

32GB Microsoft Surface only has 16GB of usable space

Windows recovery tools take up 5 GB and Windows RT, Office and built in apps take up another 8 GB.

I can't help but feel that when so much space is being used by built-in software, the whole device must feel sluggish and bloated. Judging from some reports, this is an accurate assumption.

Interestingly, 32 GB iPads have 28 GB of usable space. They also don't feel sluggish. Perhaps the slimness of iOS may account for at least part of this?

Considering Microsoft is a software company, this turn of events surprises me. I'd expect the software coming out of Microsoft to be great, and the hardware to be questionable. But it's the other way around.

Acer "delays" Windows RT tablets because Microsoft released its own hardware

Microsoft has taken a major leap of faith and decided to manufacture its own hardware, the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT1. Now the Surface is out, it seems Microsoft's traditional hardware partners — in this case Acer — are questioning whether it's worth making devices for Windows RT.

If Microsoft is making its own hardware, isn't it more likely to try and push those devices at stores (and obviously online), rather than those made by partners?

Of course, Microsoft wins whether a customer buys a Surface or an Acer-branded tablet running Windows RT: but how many people will buy a Surface instead of a device made by one of Microsoft's hardware partners? That's the question these companies will be asking themselves, and it seems Acer has made its choice clear:

"Originally we had a very aggressive plan to come out very early next year but because of Surface, our R&D development doesn't stop, but we are much more cautious," Acer President Jim Wong told Reuters on Tuesday.

1: Catchy.

The difference between Apple and Microsoft in two sentences

Marco recently visited a Microsoft Store and played with the new Surface. I wish there was a Microsoft Store I could visit nearby, because I know exactly what he means about Microsoft operating in “an alternate universe” and would love to judge it for myself. I want to play with a Surface and Type Cover to really get a feel for the hardware, too. Finding out if my expectations are accurate would be enlightening.

Marco's entire piece is worth a read, but what stood out to me was the way in which he neatly characterised the differences between Apple and Microsoft, with regards to their views on products and control:

Apple’s products say, “You can’t do that because we think it would suck.”

Microsoft’s products say, “We’ll let you try to do anything on anything if you really want to, even if it sucks.”

Apple has the balls to say no. Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes they take shit for it and sometimes they're plain wrong. But not often. Remember Flash?