Microsoft's Pretty, Prosaic Thing
Jun 21, 2012 5:00 AM PT
The newly announced -- but not yet available anywhere -- Microsoft Surface tablet looks to be quite a cool device. Judging by the outside design, it looks well-made and pleasing. That's a great start. It gets better after a guy like me grudgingly appreciates the built-in, snap-off keyboard covers. This nifty keyboard looks a lot like Apple's magnetic iPad Smart Cover. Plus the Surface has a built-in kickstand, and if there's one thing Apple will never produce, it's a built-in kickstand. Oh well. Apple somehow manages to get away with form over function every now and then.
Better yet is the Windows 8-based interface, which on a tablet doesn't appear to be all that bad. In fact, you have to give props to Microsoft for creating something distinctive and potentially usable rather than copying the iOS grid-of-icons interface strategy. The idea of live, flickable tiles -- I sort of like that. I admit it.
Then there's the burgeoning Microsoft ecosystem that's finally getting some consumer-oriented legs. Sort of. While Microsoft is definitely a smartphone underdog, as well as a tablet underdog, things are starting to come together. Take Microsoft's Xbox 360. The Xbox 360 interface is suddenly a very impressive living room tool. Instead of simply being a hard-core gamer machine designed to irritate parents before turning the dads into "Call of Duty" addicts themselves, Microsoft has been steadily marching toward turning it into an appified platform for more than just games. My Xbox 360 is running apps now too, though I barely noticed it happen until my Amazon Prime Membership (which gives me free streaming movies and TV shows sort of like Netflix) started letting me use the Xbox 360 as a streaming device. I haven't watched "Shark Week" for years until boom, here I am sucked into a show about hammerhead sharks.
Then came Crackle, which is Sony's app-based movie streaming service that lets you watch a library of movies owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment or related companies. I previously only used that on my iPhone every now and then, but now I can create a watch list and stream movies to my HDTV ... without my iPhone or Apple TV. Or share the same watch list.
And the Xbox 360 interface? It's increasingly taking squares and tile navigation elements from Windows 8, etc., and applying them to the Xbox 360 menu system. Sure, some things about it are frustrating and could use some tweaks, but all in all, it's surprisingly good.
So, why does this matter to iPad- and iPhone-using Apple customers?
Not much, actually. In fact, I believe that to Apple users, Microsoft Surface is about as compelling as an empty can of tuna in a brown paper bag.
Very few iOS-using customers will see anything compelling enough about Microsoft Surface -- the RT or Pro version -- to compel them to buy their own unit. Sure, Microsoft has taken pages out of Apple's playbook, but that's no reason to switch teams. If consumers have an iPhone, the natural tablet purchase is an iPad. And there are millions upon millions of iPhone owners. Share the apps, share the ecosystem, keep it simple and awesome. No need to rock the boat at all. So while some Microsoft Surface enthusiasts are already positioning it as an iPad competitor ... well, yellow-lined paper notebooks are more competitive with the iPad right now. Seriously.
Apple Haters Will Love It
If I were an Apple hater, I'd be all over the Microsoft Surface. Of course, I might also be locked into Android, but if there's one thing I've noticed about the Android users I've seen, it's that they don't have the same level of loyalty as Apple users. They might easily switch hardware manufacturers with their smartphone without much hesitation. As for tablets, it's hard to say. There doesn't seem to be enough evidence out there one way or another. Take all those Amazon Kindle Fire owners. It seems to me their affinity is for Amazon, and Android gets barely a thought.
So the point is that the Microsoft Surface has a chance to snag marketshare from PC-focused newbies and Android users. While Microsoft's presentation was pretty good -- even though pretty much no one got to even touch the showpieces -- there was nothing compelling enough to get iPad owners or potential buyers to seriously consider it. The only way you could possibly shake the iOS world into considering it is to offer it up at a dirt-cheap price and slowly drive a wedge between Apple and Apple consumers over the course of years.
But for this to happen, Windows 8 will need to be a runaway success. The Xbox 360 isn't exactly a halo-creating device -- oh, wait, "Halo" ... awesome game series. But I mean the Xbox isn't an influencer to get people to buy tablets. Just as an Apple TV isn't likely to entice anyone into buying an iPad. If consumers start upgrading their PCs and like the experience, their next tech purchase might be Windows Surface. But with that keyboard, might they just buy a Surface anyway?
Maybe. I still think PC owners would be more likely to choose an iPad if they were truly looking to simplify their home computing experience.
What About the Corporate Enterprise?
Might the Microsoft Surface entice corporate sales? Probably. But it just won't be at the forefront of any Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) plan any time soon. Apple beat everyone into the enterprise, almost by accident, and the BYOD trend is a powerful movement. Microsoft has a long uphill climb to reverse the line graph here.
All in all, while I am impressed with Microsoft's Surface efforts -- and I am a little more interested in touching one than an old half-empty can of tuna -- most Apple fans have yet to see anything game-changing here. It's all promise and a big list of if if ifs before consumers fall in love with it.