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Surface RT 2: What will they do, what should they do

by Brandon on August 14th, 2013

Kevin C. Tofel over at GigaOM just posted his suggestions for how Microsoft could turn the next Surface RT into a winner. He makes some good points. Here’s my take.

What I expect

Hardware

Microsoft (and Nvidia, and even Qualcomm) have all hinted or straight-up said they’re working on a second generation of Surface hardware. Let me be ultra clear: When I began my leave before resigning from Microsoft, I was not yet privy to any hardware plans, so absolutely anything I say on the matter is purely speculation. And who doesn’t enjoy a bit of that?

Some things are just obvious. Nvidia’s CEO said they’re working on a new Surface RT. Instead of the already-then-obsolete Tegra 3 that held back the first generation device (both in performance and screen resolution), it’s pretty obvious that some variant of the Tegra 4 will be arriving in a Microsoft tablet. It also doesn’t seem a stretch to expect such a thing to arrive with Windows 8.1 on or around October 18th. Again, just stating what seems obvious based on reading the same reports everyone else has.

I’ll limit my further hardware speculation to saying four things:

  1. Display. I’d be surprised if the second-gen Surface RT did not have a 1080p display. Kevin thinks this is unnecessary, or not worth pushing the price up to accommodate. I have to disagree here. Going higher than 1080p seems unlikely, and the returns are clearly diminished after that point on a 10.6″ display. But the difference between text on a first-gen RT and a Pro is stark. As well, the number of reviews that dinged the original model for its comparatively low resolution display suggests it would be unwise to ship a follow-up a year later without addressing that.
  2. Price. As much as I would love to get my hands on one of those for the $299 price point Kevin suggests they aim for, I just don’t see it happening. Not on a 10.6″ model. Instead, I expect prices to be in line with the original launch price of last year’s RT. Maybe $100 cheaper, or with some kind of keyboard cover / accessory bundle. A better deal than that is certainly possible, but I just don’t see it happening.
  3. Hardware design. I don’t expect this to change in any drastic way. I do think they’re perfectionists though, and they will have at least tried to address any nits people had with the first model.
  4. Smaller, cheaper model. This just seems inevitable.

That’s what I think they’ll do (on the ARM side of things anyway), and for the most part I think it’s the right set of things. As Kevin says, the Surface hardware is actually already very nice. It’s just a little underpowered, especially for the price it launched at. That’s easy to fix. A boosted screen resolution and some other tweaks should help shore up its review scores. That leaves the real challenge (and where I think they’ll struggle most) to the product positioning, marketing, and software.

App ecosystem

You’ll hear a lot about how the app situation has improved drastically from the Win 8 launch, but virtually everyone is still going to say “but it’s still not where it needs to be.” Oh right, forgot the spoiler alert. Sorry if I just ruined every Windows 8.1 review for you :-)

Office and Desktop

They added Outlook on the desktop for Windows RT. This betrays the fact that they still don’t have a “Metro” version of Office ready and that the desktop is still around. On one hand, this is obviously a shame. On the other, it seems at least some folks were asking for it. So yeah, if Outlook is the one desktop app you can’t live without, 8.1 will save the day.

Every review is still going to talk about how confusing the desktop is on a tablet (and more so than ever on a smaller version), and they’re all going to say a keyboard cover is a must to make sense of this, brining the effective price up substantially. Which leads me to…

What I would do

Imagining a world where I’d run everything from the beginning or could go back in time to last year and make things right can be a fun exercise, but isn’t particularly helpful to anyone. So instead, let’s assume I were in charge of what Windows and Surface did starting today, working with what I assume they have based on what I said above. Here’s what I’d do.

Naming

I’d call the thing Surface 2. No RT, please. The 2 stands for “we fixed it.” Assuming there’s a little one, that’s the Surface Mini. Maybe someone thinks naming like this is too easy and they won’t be earning their paycheck by picking the obvious answer. Trust me, simple is your salvation. In this hypothetical world where I’m in charge, there’s an important rule. For each extra word, you’re fired. And for Pete’s sake, don’t futz with it once you launch. We’ve all seen enough Windows Phone 7 Series, Surface with Windows RT, Surface Windows RT identity crises to make our heads spin. You can’t hotfix a brand. Seriously, the way you MS branding guys swerve, I sometimes want to give you a sobriety test.

Don’t put the Windows RT name anywhere. If you have time, replace it. If anyone asks, this is now Surface OS. It’s like Windows 8, but it’s not backward compatible. Done. You’re welcome.

Office and Desktop

Windows dev team, you have one more DCR (for the uninitiated – a last minute feature). Hide the Office and all other Desktop tiles by default on Windows RT. Or at least on MS-branded RT devices (err, maybe those are the same thing now – good thing, too, now that you’ve followed my earlier order to rename it Surface OS). At a minimum, don’t have any pinned on Start. But really, just hide them all, from everywhere. I don’t care if power users can get there via search or task manager or what have you. Just bury it.

Notice how I didn’t say remove Office? Yeah, there’s a reason for that. You’re going to take my advice from the last post and from now on, Office is “included” with the Touch or Type Cover. Make some pretty retail boxes that scream “This box has Office and a sweet keyboard cover! That’s totally worth $100!”

You plug one of those in, and bam, Office (and any other desktop stuff you can’t bear to leave buried) appears. It was always on the drive (shhhh), you just need to connect a keyboard to unlock it. From then on, it’s there, even when the keyboard is detached. You could hide it when detached, but that’d just be an annoying limitation and add complexity to the implementation. You’re shipping in two months, so let’s keep this simple. Maybe other users still have desktop things hidden until they connect it at least once. Keep things simpler for the kiddos or something. Whatever. That’s just details.

See what that did? Now you have Surface and it’s a pure, uncompromised iPad competitor. All that work to make Windows 8.1′s PC Settings app complete can actually pay off. Many people will buy this and use the new stuff and they’ll be happy with their Microsoft iPad.

Some will buy it and be sold on the idea that they can add a keyboard and Office later. They’ll take their Surface 2 home, enjoy it for a while, and eventually think “Man, I never even use my old laptop any more, except for Office. I should go buy that Office for Surface and keyboard thingy.” Others will buy both up front, as I bet most do today, and that’s awesome.  But now you’ve actually got a contender for the “I just want a tablet” market. Whereas last year every review (and probably every salesperson) said “to really use the Surface, you need the keyboard. Office is just useless without it,” instead people can be comfortable buying (and selling) it as a tablet. And they’ll no longer feel like they have to spend an extra $100+ to make their $500 device useful. That’s a good thing. Because as it was, most of them weren’t going for it.

In-store marketing

You’ve got some great attack ads going on now which pit the iPad against the Surface (and other Windows 8/RT devices). That’s great. But you know what would be better? Do that in the Store. In fact, here’s what I’d do:

Above the Surface display at Best Buy, put a little flyer that compares it against the iPad (and maybe an Android thing). Have a picture of each, with the Surface clearly looking more awesome, and then have the usual point-by-point checklist. For example:

Feature iPad Surface 2
Fast perfomance x x
High res screen x x
Light + thin x x
Battery ~10 hours ~10 hours
Kick stand x
Keyboard covers Sold separately
Office 2013 Separately (w/ cover)
Facebook, Rhapsody,
FlipBoard, Angry Birds, etc.
x x
Do two things at once x
USB port x
Price $499 $499

(All values in this table are entirely fictional for illustrative purposes, and based on nothing but the speculation in the first part of this post)

Then, assuming you make one, do the same with the Surface Mini and iPad Mini.

Then, and this is important, do it with the Pro and the MacBook Air.

Now people know which products to compare. Surface vs iPad. Pro vs MBA. People will get this just by seeing those pictures side-by-side, and they’ll have expectations you’re better able to meet.

Office and the Pro

In my last post I described how the fact that the Surface RT comes with Office, and the more expensive “Pro” model does not, is the most confusing thing to happen in the history of the universe. Seriously, if you want to make a Best Buy customer’s head explode, just try explaining this. Or if you want to torture a sales person, ask about the RT, then the Pro, and say these magic words: “Cool, so they both come with Office?” Fix this. I don’t care if this means sucking it up and including Home & Student on the Pro, or including a year of Office 365. I can imagine a sales person convincing you that the 1 year subscription with the Pro is better (you can use it on up to 4 other PCs, too!), and a year seems like a long time to not have to worry about it. Right now it’s got a trial or something. Not acceptable.

If you did what I said earlier and made Office part of the keyboard purchase, then you’ve sort of solved this problem. Maybe the keyboard unlocks a preinstalled copy of “Office 2013 Home and Student for Touch PCs” (someone just got fired 6 times) just like on the other (“RT”) models. Maybe it pops up a window that lets you redeem 1 free year of O365. You guys are smart. Make that work.

Apps

Proudly feature awesome Windows exclusives like this one and help the developers promote them. I’ll consider it a thank you for all the free advice ;-)

From → Technology

One Comment
  1. Walt French permalink

    Allow me to offer a further suggestion: back up and figure out, who needs tablet-type-mobility capability that we can deliver, and how will we enchant that person to buy a Microsoft product?

    Microsoft won’t win a checkbox war against Android tablets, especially $300–$400 Android Nexus or similar.

    And it won’t win a general tablet consumer who’s seen Apple refine the original tablet definition a couple of times and sees superb retail sales & support plus first-class ecosystem. “Doing 2 things at once” is pretty weak tea versus “not being able to run the best, good-looking apps that my friends are using” and why the heck use some mid-1990s standard USB port if you’re somebody who connects to the cloud all the time anyway?

    In fact, the whole question of fixing Surface RT is cart-before-the-horse: Microsoft is asking how to get consumers to solve its problems, not how to meet consumers’ needs.

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