Microsoft’s Interesting Week

With WWDC winding down in San Francisco and chatter concerning next week’s Google I/O picking up, few would have expected this week to be dominated by Microsoft news. Late Monday evening, after the East Coast had largely gone to sleep, at an event that was oddly so secretive that the press was not made aware of the venue until a few hours prior to start time, Microsoft announced its revamped Surface tablet and I felt somewhat duped. A team of executives got on stage in Los Angeles and put on a scripted show, only I was led to think it was reality. Microsoft faces an uphill battle and while consumers are now talking about the company and Surface, I have little confidence that Microsoft’s ultimate destiny was altered this week.
Surface Event Lacked Direction and Message, but Microsoft Accomplished Goal
At Apple’s iPad unveiling in 2010, Steve carefully crafted his sales pitch to show why the iPad should exist and be worthy of consumer’s precious dollars (pundits still questioned iPad’s purpose for the weeks, months, and years following the event). On Monday, Microsoft lacked a similar sales pitch, instead relying on teleprompters, and hobbling through failed demos, in an attempt to show that the lights were still on in Redmond. Microsoft’s event actually reminded me of HP’s TouchPad event in early 2011, where HP showed a general lack of direction and enthusiasm for the device. Reading off of teleprompters can really kill the passion. It has been four days since the Surface was unveiled, and with more questions than answers, I think Microsoft’s primary goal was accomplished; being mentioned in tablet (and phone) discussions between WWDC and Google I/O.
The Big Question
The Surface discussion can be reduced to one question:  Is the Surface a proof of concept device meant to spur OEMs into action or is the Surface a sign that Microsoft is entering the tablet hardware space in response to changing market dynamics? It is easier for one to assume that Microsoft intends for OEMs to remain in the game, announcing the Surface as a means to drum up support and give OEMs confidence that there is interest for devices running Windows. However, if MSFT is looking to change strategies and develop the entire Surface device alone, I will give Steve Ballmer a pat on the back as that is one daunting move given the sheer difficulty in manufacturing desirable hardware.
The lack of available Surface devices for journalists to play with (unattended) and horrid onstage demos leads to me think that the Surface is very far from a shippable state. While working prototypes are common place in Silicon Valley, it is incorrect to assume mass production is only a few short months away as the task of figuring out how to turn a prototype into a mass-produced product at a particular price point (not discussed by Microsoft) by a specific deadline (also not discussed by Microsoft) may end up being just as difficult as building the original prototype.
Hardware Delicacy
Tablet hardware is tricky.  From my initial iPad 2 review:   “After a few minutes of using iPad 2, I found myself forgetting that I was using iPad 2. My entire thought process was given to the app that I was using.  While iPad looks and feels amazing, the iPad dissolves away when in use, exactly how Apple planned it. Remove the intermediary and let users interact directly with innovation.  I don’t care what is or isn’t inside iPad 2, as long as iPad 2 has the ability to run the highest quality apps possible.”  After 15 months, I am unsure if the iPad’s software or hardware is more intriguing. Apple, a company built on the seamless integration of software and hardware, spent years mastering the art of making iPads. Does Microsoft, a company built on software, have the capabilities of designing and producing an intriguing tablet offering in a few months? While some point to Xbox and Zune as examples of Microsoft’s hardware success, the world is now a different place with substantially higher barriers of entry for hardware makers. HP, a company built on hardware, was forced to manufacture the TouchPad with parts deemed unworthy of the iPad since Apple had procured all available resources through long-term contracts.  Meanwhile, PC OEMs are seeing their sales decline as their designs are falling flat with changing consumer preferences.  I enjoy iPad because the hardware melts away.  Is Microsoft capable of beating Windows OEMs and produce tablet hardware that is truly revolutionary, but still let app interaction resonate? Daunting would be an understatement.
Microsoft faces an uphill battle with tablets, regardless if they intend OEMs to help out or they go it alone. The most likely scenario is that Microsoft will try to have one’s cake and eat it too; bring the Surface to market while keeping OEMs in the loop about broadening the Windows mobile platform. Microsoft will likely face an increasing number of manufacturing difficulties leading to certain things being left out, or altered, in order to stay near competitive prices.  I would look at HP TouchPad and RIMM PlayBook hardware and price points as goals that Microsoft will try to meet, let alone beat (the TouchPad and PlayBook failed in the marketplace). I expect subpar Surface hardware, wrong price points, and limited distribution to become major headwinds for Microsoft. In order to beat iPad 2’s $399 price point, the Surface needs to come in at least $100 lower given Apple’s superior brand – a price I don’t think Microsoft will be able to meet without reporting huge losses. Instead, Microsoft will talk up the increased functionality of Surface (to validate a higher price) and the message will go in one ear and out the other as consumers realize laptops already fill that spot of the market. The Surface’s software, which many have continued to give praise for, will probably be up to Microsoft’s standards, however hardware limitations may spoil the treat, and as the iPad demonstrates (along with every other tablet), hardware cannot be ignored, regardless of how great the software is. Microsoft faces an uphill battle. Arriving at the baseball game in the 4th inning can make winning the game somewhat of a challenge.