Will Microsoft’s Surface gain any traction with consumers?
Microsoft Tablet PCs have been around for more than a decade, but they started out as cumbersome beasts mostly targeted at business users. It wasn’t until Apple delivered the slick iPad that consumers took notice of tablets — not just because the iPad was cheap and slender but also because the interface was much easier to use than fighting with Windows.
The takeaway lesson from Apple and later Android’s mobile gadgets was that, with a little polish, smartphone operating systems tend to scale up nicely for tablets. Microsoft has a slick mobile OS in Windows Phone 7, soon to be Windows Phone 8. Yet instead of porting this promising OS and its ecosystem to a tablet, Microsoft insists on cramming Windows 8 onto its new Surface tablets.
Tablet PCs slimmed down after the rise of the iPad but, despite Microsoft’s assurances, Windows 7 wasn’t as user-friendly on a tablet as iOS or Android. The fact is that most people come home from work to get away from the Windows PC on their desk. The last thing they want to do is keep fighting with Windows when they’re sitting on the couch.
Now Microsoft promises that Windows 8’s Metro interface will offer a smooth tablet interface, but it remains to be seen if it can win people away from their Apple and Android wundergadgets. When you look at most of the tasks people want to perform on a tablet — such as browse the web, check emails, play games, watch movies and view photos — there’s no reason to mess around with Windows on the couch when Android or iOS will happily do the job.
As if Microsoft wasn’t at enough of a disadvantage, not all of its Surface tablets will be able to run standard Windows applications — which would seem to defeat the entire point of buying a Microsoft tablet. The entry-level Surface tablet will run Windows RT on a low-powered ARM processor, a similar chip to what you’d find in a low-end notebook. Only apps specifically written for Windows RT will run on the Surface, so you won’t be able to tap into the existing wealth of apps for Windows on your desktop or Windows Phone 7 on your mobile.
Instead Microsoft wants to reinvent the wheel. It expects us to commit to yet another platform, even though we’ve already invested heavily in Windows, iOS, Android and Windows Phone 7 apps. If you’ve already got an Apple or Android smartphone, it probably makes sense to buy the same flavour of tablet. But not even Windows Phone 7 users have a good reason to embrace Windows RT on the Surface. It looks like the upcoming Windows Phone 8 handsets will be built on the same code as Windows RT, but Windows Phone 7 handsets can’t be fully upgraded to Windows Phone 8. So Microsoft expects Windows Phone 7 users to throw everything away and start again, while iOS and Android’s app stores go from strength to strength.
It will only be possible to run standard Windows desktop applications on a Microsoft tablet if you opt for the more expensive Surface Pro. This will run a full version of Windows 8 Pro on an Intel Core i5 processor, and cost around the same as an ultrabook.
It seems that Microsoft is working towards cross-compatibility between Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and Windows RT, but for now it’s a mess compared to Apple’s offerings. Even the somewhat fragmented Android market is finally getting its act together, with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich designed to run on both smartphones and tablets (just like iOS). Microsoft die-hards might embrace these new tablets, but for most people Surface could be a case of too little, too late.