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The Apple-ization of Microsoft's New Surface

The Apple-ization of Microsoft's New Surface

Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is close to cool, but it's been packaged by stupidity. With the Surface Pro 3 and its Surface Pro Type Cover accessory, Microsoft is pulling the technology equivalent of selling a blanket as a replacement for a sleeping bag but then offering zippers as an add-on accessory. Seriously, I cannot believe that highly paid adults in the tech world are this stupid.

By Chris Maxcer
05/22/14 7:10 AM PT

Microsoft is positioning its new Surface Pro 3 tablet as a laptop replacement device -- instead of competing head-to-head with the Apple iPad. However, the Surface Pro 3 naturally invites comparisons to both the MacBook Air and the iPad Air. Plus, Microsoft has had plenty of time to smooth the rough edges from Windows 8 and build a more competitive mobile device... . So what's great -- or overblown -- about the Surface Pro 3? And can it really be a laptop replacement?

As an Apple-oriented tech user, I must admit I like the Windows 8 tiled, touch and swipe Start screen interface. It's innovative, and it is a much better app launching system than Apple's Mac OS X Launchpad, which has limited functionality and makes a guy like me feel like I'm stuck in a jaunty cartoon. Still, once you get beyond the Windows 8 Start screen, you're still using a PC with PC apps in a Windows world. No getting around that. Can innovative hardware make the difference?

Surface Pro 3

As I started delving into Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 announcement and checking out the new hardware specs, my initial thought was that Microsoft has created a lighter device that boasts a bigger screen, better battery life, a better trackpad on the keyboard cover, an improved kickstand, and a cool Surface Pen (previously known as a dorky stylus). The processor specs are solid enough to bridge the gap between powerful tablet and working PC. And -- there's more -- the Surface Docking Station accessory is capable of supporting a huge 4K external display.

Technically, it all seems interesting and useful. Yet something is still wrong. Very wrong. Let's tease it out.

Tablet as True Laptop Replacement?

Microsoft seems to understand that it is in no position to offer a discrete tablet that can compete with the popularity of the svelte iPad Air, Apple ecosystem -- or even the Android tablets available now. But can it play in the workhorse business world of the laptop in a post-PC era? You bet. That, at least, seems like a possible way to win.

Most every working professional I know has a love-hate relationship with their iPad. They often want the multitasking and work power of a MacBook/PC, but they like the touch interface of the iPad. The only answer in Appleland is to buy both a MacBook (or PC) and an iPad. There is no middle ground. There is no nuance.

This is moderately annoying for Apple users but not enough to get in the way of loyalty, because Apple is super clear. If you want a laptop, buy a MacBook. If you want a tablet, buy an iPad. Clarity. If you want both, then buy both. And that, apparently, is what that 96 percent of iPad owners do -- they have both a Mac/PC and an iPad.

It's what I do. Right now, there is no way that I could get through even 50 percent of my workday with just an iPad -- but is there truly a best of both worlds? Microsoft says there is. Microsoft says I could use a Surface Pro 3 and get everything I need in one unit. This is an awesome, tantalizing promise.

And then Microsoft shoots itself in the foot.

To be flexible and manage costs, the keyboard cover is a separate US$130 accessory. Microsoft doesn't understand consumers. Marketing the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement but selling the keyboard cover separately pokes a hole in its ability to actually make sales, never mind create a profitable Surface division.

A laptop replacement must include a real keyboard. The thought process of understanding the add-on, compared to the message of the Surface Pro 3 -- buy the Surface Pro 3 for professional work -- leads to too much thinking around the product, which will guarantee a lackluster rate of adoption.

With the Surface Pro 3 and its Surface Pro Type Cover accessory, Microsoft is pulling the technology equivalent of selling a blanket as a replacement for a sleeping bag but then offering zippers as an add-on accessory.

Seriously, I cannot believe that highly paid adults in the tech world are this stupid. Do they not see how the simplicity of the iPad product line led to massive consumer adoption, which also led to massive business use adoption?

Instead, Microsoft's core message is reduced to everything. This is no kind of core message. The core message it tried to convey -- the Surface Pro 3 is finally the one device you can use to rule your world, to Get It Done -- should have been supported by a package that includes the keyboard cover. Anyone who wants a single device that can replace their laptop sure as heck wants a keyboard as part of the whole tidy package.

Making it separate invites doubt. Instead of justifying the actual purchase price of the package in their minds, buyers are caught up in a game of math, which also invites a game of comparison. Meaning suddenly the thought process shifts to wondering if there is a better device out there -- a better way. Why not buy the Lenovo Yoga 2 13-incher laptop/tablet hybrid instead? That's really all-in-one. Maybe I don't need to replace the laptop at all... .

Mental Gymnastics

The rule is, don't make your customers think too hard about the logistics of how a device fits their world. Show them how. Simply. Easily. It is what it is. And then they buy.

The vast majority of the tech buying public -- and businesses -- have moved into much simpler buying decisions.

How Microsoft Should Have Done It

There would be three options at most, leading with the "laptop replacement" model that makes the most sense:

  • Surface Pro 30 -- Intel i5 with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB storage -- and a keyboard cover!
  • Surface Pro 3000 -- Intel i7 with 8 GB RAM, 256 GB of storage, with a keyboard cover AND the docking station
  • Surface Pro 3 -- Intel i3 with 4 GB RAM and 64 GB of storage

See how simple this is? Microsoft can still offer nuances by letting customers upgrade components in each of these options during the buying process (which is what Apple does, by the way, which lets discerning power users still get things like extra RAM or a faster processor). Or they could even remove the cover or the docking station, which flips the whole buying process into a positive spin -- getting a better deal by opting out of a component.

Suddenly the customer feels good about not getting an accessory rather than being pissed off because it's a tacked-on extra of as-yet-unproven value.

More to the point, simply by having two hard-core professional grade inclusive options, suddenly the low-end tablet-only Surface Pro 3 would seem like a steal of a deal -- a way to get all the goodness of the Surface Pro 30, 300, or jaw-dropping "3000" powerhouse without all the extra things a tablet-focused person might really want. Buyers could still add the Surface Pro Type Cover later if they wanted to. Or the docking station, if they fell in love with a huge monitor.

Suddenly, the buying process is exciting. Understandable. Fun again. All it takes are some incredibly simple packaging tactics -- basic, tidy tactics like the ones Apple has been using for years on its ride to global domination.

Instead of plopping a MacBook Air on a measuring scale at the launch event, Microsoft would have been better served by understanding customer psychology and buying behavior -- and then having the corporate will to package and sell it right. The thing is, even from the perspective of an Apple fan, the device itself really isn't bad.


TechNewsWorld columnist Chris Maxcer has been writing about the tech industry since the birth of the email newsletter, and he still remembers the clacking Mac keyboards from high school -- Apple's seed-planting strategy at work. While he enjoys elegant gear and sublime tech, there's something to be said for turning it all off -- or most of it -- to go outside. To catch him, take a "firstnamelastname" guess at WickedCoolBite.com. You can also connect with him on Google+.


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