By Stephen Schenck | May 9, 2013 10:57 AM
Microsoft made some bold, risky choices when introducing its first Surface tablets. Both the Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro Surface models did things sort of differently from competitors like the iPad or any number of Android tablets. For one, Microsoft chose to position these two as premium devices, and avoided the bottom-scratching battle for budget tablet sales taking place in the $200-$400 range. It also gambled on not going with a unified platform for its mobile apps, making its tablets incompatible with apps already developed for Windows Phone.
I’ll get back to the app situation in a moment, but my point is that Microsoft took some big gambles with these first Surface models. Now we’re talking about what might be next for the Surface family, with rumors looking to Microsoft’s follow-up effort. What worked with the first Surfaces that it needs to keep up with, and what does it desperately need to do differently for the next Microsoft Surface models?
The First Generation
I was really hoping to like the Surface tablets from the moment I saw them: great designs, nice connectivity options, and some decent-enough-sounding hardware. By the time fall 2012 rolled around and the Surface RT hit the scene, I’d started to hear some serious reservations about the tablet. When I was able to lay my hands on one, I finally got to see what had everyone worried: the RT was alright, but it wasn’t the polished, premium tablet experience I was hoping for. We mentioned as much in our review, noting that while Microsoft got a few things right, like some killer battery life, so many things were done wrong that the whole package ended up being a disappointment.
That wasn’t the end of the story, though, and even if the Surface RT wasn’t living up to the hype, there was still cause to be excited about the Surface Pro. After all, two of the biggest spots where the RT came up short where with the Windows RT OS itself and some generally sluggish performance. From the sound of things, the Intel-running Surface Pro should have been able to come through where the RT couldn’t.
Indeed, when it got here the Surface Pro felt like a revelation, but in spite of being able to step up to the task, it backtracked in a few regards, like taking a big hit with battery life and bloating down available storage with an extra 15GB of pre-installed software.
Still, it was just so much better than the Surface RT – the difference between an interesting toy and a powerful tool. This could be seen as boding well for Microsoft’s follow-up efforts, but that’s not necessarily a given; Microsoft has to swallow its pride and honestly look at why the Surface RT didn’t measure up.
What Not To Do
In my mind, the single largest problem with Microsoft’s tablet efforts is software. Microsoft should be well aware from its experience with Windows Phone that as fancy as your platform is, it lives and dies based on app availability. With that in mind, it’s confounding how Microsoft was able to convince itself that this whole RT idea had any legs to it. Instead of having a middling collection of smartphone apps, now it was also setting itself up to have a disappointing collection of RT apps.
While the development bar for RT may be low due to heavy similarities with full-fledged Windows 8, it’s still a lot to expect for devs to crank out apps for such a laser-focused platform. This isn’t like iOS or Android, where you can optimize an app with relative ease for a few different screen sizes and let it do its thing on both phones and tablets without giving it a second though.
I can understand why Microsoft decided to do things this way – like so many other tech heavyweights it envisions a future where phones, tablets, TV, computers – they’re all interconnected. The problem for Microsoft is that it has so much past in the computer side of things that it can’t radically change things there, lest it break years of back-compatibility. Instead, it created RT as a kludge to bridge the smartphone and PC worlds. RT lets Microsoft use cheaper, more battery-friendly tablet hardware instead of heavyweight laptop components.
So my first big recommendation: don’t release another RT-based Surface model. Sure, the RT ecosystem is maturing, but it’s still painting yourself into a corner. At some point, Microsoft needs to admit that full-fledged Windows 8 is the more appropriate way to unite the mobile and desktop worlds, and release the hardware to match.
Now, I don’t actually expect Microsoft to do anything like this; it would enrage OEMs who already took a big chance on RT, not to mention all the users who bought that hardware. But I just don’t see a successful future for the platform, and it might be better to send it out to pasture now.
If a Surface RT has to return, I’ve got to throw the idea of WP8 compatibility back in the hat. I realize it might not be pretty, and would be another great big hack itself, but it could sure give an iffy platform the jump-start it needs. Sure, apps designed for a four-inch screen might look a little odd at 10 inches, but what about these smaller tablets we keep hearing about? Maybe Microsoft could stick with RT for that form factor and throw in the WP8 mode as a bonus.
But enough bad-mouthing Windows RT; what about Surface hardware? What does MS need to do? As I touched on, this is an issue also intimately tied to the OS. A Tegra 3, like in the first Surface RT, won’t run Windows 8 Pro, but it’s going to be more efficient than a beefier x86 processor. How do you get iPad-like battery life with an Intel chip?
One solution may be products based around Intel’s new Silvermont cores. From the sound of things, these 22nm designs should be very battery friendly and might be able to wed Surface Pro performance with Surface RT battery life. Granted, improvements like that tend to be oversold, but I’m optimistic.
Microsoft might also want to look into offering some more varied Surface hardware options. The 4GB of RAM on the Surface Pro was good, but some users crave more, and unlike a laptop, there’s no easy path to do-it-yourself upgrades. If you’re not going to let users pop in more RAM later, make sure you’re selling them enough to start with.
What Can Stay
Some things I wouldn’t be too concerned with tweaking. The lowish-res screen on the Surface RT got some flack, and while I wouldn’t reject a new Surface model with a display more like the Pro’s 1080p, I don’t think this is as big of a deal as it was made out to be.
Really, though, a lot of the design really got nailed the first time around: keep the kickstand, keep the full-sized USB ports – heck, give us more of those.
The general idea behind the Surface keyboards was OK, but it needs a little adjusting. I hated the Touch keyboard, so that might be worth retiring – make it Type or nothing. The biggest change that needs to happen there is pricing. $130 for a bleeping keyboard is cuckoo bananas.
I realize I’m a bit all over the place here with thoughts on the next Surface models. That’s because there’s a lot to consider about the first tablets, and Microsoft’s incredible ambition is going to lead to plenty of nit-picking. I’ve got broad problems with the company’s approach to tablets in general, as well as specific concerns with some hardware choices. In the end, I’d wager that what we actually see could be wildly different from what I’m proposing here.
That could be OK, though. Maybe the most important thing that needs to happen is for Microsoft to admit to itself that the first Surface launch just did not go well. Dress it up however you like, but trying to bring more of the same is going to fail just as hard; something needs to change, and we’re all waiting to see if you’re able to figure it out.