You can’t fault Microsoft Corp. for creating hype around the launch of its second-generation of tablet hardware since entering the market one year ago.
A Toronto-based unveiling event put the tablets and accessories on display alongside trained demonstrators at a downtown club. Blue lights shone through smokey air and DJs spun tracks while invited media milled about, poking at the new hardware. A contest was held by Microsoft Canada’s social media accounts to give away tickets to a deadmau5 concert that would immediately follow the media demo. The electronic music artist came out to give an intimate Q&A session for the assembled VIP crowd.
Demonstrated with various accessories, the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 look good. The unique built-in kickstand is improved to snap out to two different positions and feels sturdy, giving that satisfying click sound when its locked in place. The tablets are responsive to touch gestures and support a new Bing-powered universal search feature that instantly creates a specific content portal for any query that is gorgeous to look at and goes well beyond Google’s “10 blue links” experience. Loaded with Windows 8.1, the pains felt by many who missed the Start Menu will be soothed – it’s back in the bottom-left hand corner and you can boot directly into the classic desktop mode on the Surface Pro 2.
But look beyond the hype and its apparent a few hangovers remain from the first generation of Surface. We know Microsoft had to take a $900 million write-down on unsold Surface RT devices. It’s less clear how the Surface Pro is selling, but that device came out only months after the Surface RT hit the market. According to at least one partner who is selling the tablets, only a smattering have been sold for testing purposes – no mass deployment deals on it yet.
Here’s why the Surface’s second coming may not herald a golden age for Microsoft’s tablet business:
Limited Channel Program
Perhaps one of the more likely hurdles facing good sales numbers for the first Surface was Microsoft’s insistence on selling it directly. Using it as a lure to bring customers into its new retail store locations, Microsoft kept the tablet away from partners and retail shelves. It was a questionable move for a company known for providing the operating system, not the device.
With the Surface 2, it seems Microsoft has learned its lesson, or at least in part. It has created a channel program that will see five large partners in Canada selling the device. In November, Microsoft will be putting its tablets into the consumer retail space by opening dedicated Microsoft hardware sections within certain Best Buy locations. That will go a long way to putting the tablet in front of more holiday shoppers and through the channel, more businesses looking for a mobility solution.
Still, Microsoft hasn’t opened the floodgates on Surface 2 distribution by allowing for a wider channel program in Canada yet. Why not let the smaller guys sell the tablets too? The Redmond-based firm should know by now exclusivity isn’t a game that adds up to profits in the technology market.
Lack of Windows Store apps
The Windows Store just has a dearth of apps compared to other app stores accessible via Google Android and Apple iOS tablets. The apps that are there often feel rushed and lack a good user experience, or take a long time to load. The success of Windows 8 and Surface tablets is directly tied to this virtual storefront and it’s looking pretty bare.
You can talk about numbers – 100,000 apps in Windows Store compared to the 1 million in Google Play or 900,000 in the App Store – but the weakness goes beyond the quantity of apps. Major absences that are most painfully felt in the Windows 8.1 RT experience, where users have only the Windows Store to rely on for software, include:
- Any other Web browser besides Internet Explorer 10
- YouTube (although third-party YouTube options are available)
- Social media apps for Google+, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Path, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine are still absent. As are more advanced social media management clients HootSuite and TweetDeck
- Windows Store versions of cloud storage apps like Dropbox, Evernote, etc. don’t offer locally-stored copies of your files, requiring constant connectivity to access your files
Size and price
The Surface 2 with Windows 8.1 RT hits the right mark starting at $449 for the 32 GB version. That’s competitive with other tablets with a similar screen size and storage, and noticeably undercuts Apple’s iPad. The body is also a bit slimmed down and weighs just a smidgen less than the previous generation Surface RT. Coming in both black and silver colours is a nice touch.
But the Surface Pro 2 starting at $899 for a 64 GB model seems like a harder pill to swallow. The fact it’s the same chassis as the first generation Surface Pro doesn’t help – the size and weight hasn’t changed. Granted Microsoft has already pulled off an engineering feat in packing laptop hardware specs into a tablet-sized form factor, but it’d be nice to see it improved just a bit over last year’s model.
Amazingly you can spend as much as $1,799 on the Surface Pro 2 when the model packing a 512 GB SSD is eventually available. You have to wonder what sort of market that model will find, if any.