By Stephen Schenck | June 4, 2013 7:06 AM
It’s been nearly a year now since Microsoft introduced the world to its Surface tablets. As mobile device announcements go, Microsoft nailed it. While there were some rumors talking about the idea of a Microsoft tablet in the days leading up to the event, we were practically shooting in the dark – first there was word that it could be some kind of Barnes & Noble Nook tie-in, and with just hours to go until the announcement itself, we heard that it might be more gaming-focused, like an Xbox 360 accessory.
In the end, what we got was surprising, impressive, and just inspiring: it was a tablet that looked cool, something we thought was Apple’s routine. From the stand, to the keyboard covers, to the magnesium casing, this tablet knew what buttons to push, and had no qualms about doing so.
At least, that was our summer 2012 fling with the Surface – we fell in love with the idea. Reality has a funny way of bringing crushes like that spiraling down to earth, and that’s just what ended up happening here; when the Surface RT finally hit retail that fall, it was just… meh.
Fast forward to the present, and we’ve got the Surface Pro joining its Windows RT sibling, and now rumors pointing to the next generation of Surface models just around the corner. I’m really trying to avoid getting swept up in Microsoft’s siren song again this summer, but based on some recent moves the company’s made, I’m optimistic that it may have learned at least some of its lessons from the first go-round. I say “may” because there’s more than one way to interpret things, but hear me out and see if you don’t find cause for hope, as well.
You Gotta Have a Keyboard. Come on.
The Touch and Type Covers for the two Surface models are great ideas. Sure, the Touch Cover is a bit wonky to use, but Type is totally solid, and in the end, either gets the job done.
It’s clear from Microsoft’s positioning of both as accessories that it really wanted Surface to be a tablet like one you’d use on Android or iOS, but that’s simply not how things worked out. As we’ve mentioned time and time again, the whole Windows RT idea is pretty shaky to begin with, and while a keyboard-less Surface might fly there, that keyboard becomes a whole heck of a lot more important when you’re running Windows 8 on the Surface Pro.
Now, it seems pretty clear that Microsoft isn’t ready to full-on abandon Windows RT. That’s a shame, because pushing on with that is going to continue crippling its standing in the tablet market. Where it can succeed is by focusing less on straight-up tablets and sticking true to its roots with laptops – or rather, ultrabooks with removable keyboards, which may be a more apt way to describe the Surface Pro.
The point of all this is that in the tablet landscape Microsoft has created for itself, keyboards aren’t a luxury – if you want anything approaching a rich experience, that means forgetting RT and making sure your tablet has a keyboard.
Microsoft’s not quite there yet, but its recent free Touch or Type Cover offer has me thinking that it’s coming around to how absolutely essential a keyboard is to using the Surface. Sure, I can come up with a number of reasons to reject that idea – that this is a temporary offer so it carries little weight, or that the promotion is Surface-RT-only and doesn’t affect the model that would most benefit from a keyboard, the Surface Pro – and though those are valid points, I think they miss out on the key issues here: Microsoft has come to understand both that these keyboards are fundamental to the Surface experience users want, and that shoppers are turned-off by the normally excessive price tags for them.
While not convincing on its own, it’s enough to leave me optimistic that the next Surface models won’t make their keyboards optional parts, or at least will be priced affordably enough to actually feel like accessories – who wants to pay as much for a keyboard as you nearly would for a full smartphone?
Price, Price, Price
Not to beat a dead horse, but the same over-the-top pricing issues I have with the Touch and Type Covers I have with the Surface tablets themselves. Microsoft can talk all it likes about wanting Surface to be seen as a premium line, running premium software, but that’s just not jibing with reality.
One big issue with Microsoft’s tablets in particular – and this is especially true for the Surface RT – is how to establish that customers are getting their money’s worth. Pro is easier to sell, just because of the software, but what are you buying into with the Surface RT? Lackluster performance? A middling selection of apps? Neither of those need necessarily kill a tablet, but they’re certainly not going to convince many people to shell out $500 for one.
Microsoft’s got a conference going on down in New Orleans – its TechEd 2013. Attendees have the chance to score themselves some killer Surface deals: that means the Surface Pro 128GB for $400 – less than half price – or the 64GB Surface RT, complete with Touch Cover, for just $100 – as much as the Touch Cover regularly costs alone. By the many-hours-long lines that attendees are waiting in to grab these offers, it’s clear what a difference pricing can make.
Again, we have to look at this in context: these folk are already paying over two grand each just to attend the event, so these prices are almost certainly subsidized to one extent or another by those fees. With rumored new Surface hardware on the way, Microsoft could just be taking the opportunity to dump stock, even if at a loss.
But I just can’t ignore the size of those lines – people waiting two and half hours for a cheap Surface. Microsoft would be a fool not to realize how Surface pricing that can compete with Google’s Nexus tablets will attract customers practically begging you to take their money.
Sure, Microsoft could skew things just a hundred bucks or so higher, but I think it just discovered the Surface pricing it needs to drive sales: the $200 to $700 range, not $500 to $1000.
There’s a lot wrong with Microsoft’s approach to tablets: how it’s sold them, the platforms it created, and the app ecosystem it oversees. Even if it makes the keyboard an integral part of future Surface sales, and corrects its totally-divorced-from-reality pricing errors, there’s still a lot of work to be done. But those are both big steps, all the same, and if it gets just one of those right, the next generation of Surface tablets is going to face much better chances, right out of the gate.