Microsoft's slippery Surface

Monday 18 February 2013 11.41
Niall Kitson is not too excited about Microsoft's new Surface
Niall Kitson is not too excited about Microsoft's new Surface

Redmond has bet the house on its own range of Windows tablets. Niall Kitson warns might be a case of too much tech, too late.

On St Valentine's Day Irish consumers got their first look at the Surface RT tablet - and Microsoft will be hoping they will be doing a lot more than just trying it on for size. Put simply, Microsoft has bet the house on its ‘new direction' as a software and devices company and the Surface is its flagship product.

Of course, Microsoft has plenty of past experience in devices already but it's not a happy story. Microsoft does steady business peripherals like keyboards, webcams and mice, and in gaming with the Xbox 360, but has never cracked the gadget space with an iconic gamechanger like the iPod.

Possibly its most successful effort to date was the unfortunate Zune media player, which failed to dent iPod sales or find a niche over its six years despite being a well-made piece of kit. Other devices you might remember were the Kin smartphone (pulled after only a few weeks on sale in the US) and the Courier dual-screen ‘booklet PC' (announced in 2008 and killed off before release in 2010).

These flops came in stark contrast to the success of Windows 7, the company's fastest-selling operating system which you will find on 45% of PCs globally. Sure these were expensive failures but they existed as standalone entities. What has changed now is that Microsoft has in Windows 8 developed an operating system optimised for touch devices, then released a series of touch devices to show off its capability.

Where Windows 7 continued Microsoft's tradition of device agnostic software, Windows 8's success will be judged, in part, on the performance of a line of tablet PCs developed specifically to show off what it can do. That's right, the fate of PCs relies on the success of a tablet. It's a circle many OEMs are trying to square with devices like Dell's XPS12, Lenovo's Yoga and Asus' Taichi - laptops that convert into tablets by manipulating the display.

How exactly this new approach has distorted the PC market is hard to gauge but what is undeniable is that it is in freefall. Figures release by analysts GfK reported a decline in traditional desktop PC sales in Ireland for the third quarter of 2012 of 42% over the same period in 2011. All-in-one desktop PCs also fared badly, down 30% and laptops dipped 14%. IDC, another analyst firm, pointed the finger at the recession, Windows 8 hype and the tablet market for depressing PC sales in the first three quarters of 2012 - that there has been no upturn in the market since the arrival of Windows 8 is troubling.

Still, a positive reception for the Surface RT could make Windows 8 a less daunting upgrade and give manufacturers confidence that their difficulties are a combination of a temporary decrease spending power, not a mass migration to cheap tablets running Android and retailing for around €200 (and there are plenty of them).

So is the Surface RT itself anything to get excited about? Having played with one briefly I it's hard to tell. Compared to the iPad and Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, measuring 274.7x172x9.3mm and weighing 767g it's longer and heavier and at 8 hours per charge has inferior battery life. As it runs the less power- and processor- hungry Windows RT you don't get the full Windows 8 experience (you can't run desktop apps on it for a start).

What you do get is what feels like most of a PC operating system on a mobile device - a heavyweight solution to the problem of delivering a compelling mobile computing experience that, most important, doesn't feel like you're using a computer. Unlike iOS and Android, Windows RT feels like software that has been shrank to fit the constraints of a tablet. It's not as simple to use as Windows Phone and its fly-out sidebars are more surprising than useful. As a tablet operating system its features are too well hidden and the learning curve is too steep compared to the more intuitive iOS and Android - it might be unfair to say it’s like bringing a canon to a pistol duel, but I’ll do it anyway.

Is the Surface RT convincing enough to give Microsoft a foothold in the mobile space to compliment the growing acceptance of Windows Phone? In its present form it's doubtful. The Surface RT feels too angular and too bulky to use as a second screen on the sofa. Where it may find a home is in the business space for ‘road warriors', where businesses will need the flexibility of a tablet and the power of a PC to equip its staff. But the Surface RT just isn't fun enough to be anything else.

Microsoft has yet to release sales figure for the Surface RT but some estimates put unit sales as being far below the anticipated 4 million. Better news can be found in the full fat Windows 8 version, the Surface Pro, which sold out on release - although critics have argued that inventory may have been sold out quickly from a deliberate undersupply to see how consumers take to it.

Niall Kitson is editor of TechCentral.ie