The Surface Reaffirms An Old Maxim: Pre-Order At Your Own Peril

As you’ve no doubt seen, the Surface RT reviews are starting to come in. Ours isn’t among them yet -stay tuned for our own commentary on Microsoft’s newest, most important tablet computer launch- but a survey of the landscape shows early responses to be mixed.

Most agree that the hardware is beautiful, something plain to most everyone at the Surface’s unveiling event. Reviewer after reviewer calls out the tablet’s solid build quality, the premium feel of its VaporMg magnesium alloy, and its innovative and useful Touch Cover and Type Cover. But it’s not perfect; also mentioned by more than one writer was the display resolution, which at 1366 x 768 is good, but on a 10.6-inch display, certainly a far cry from great. Then there’s the bulk; though it’s comparable in weight to the new iPad, many have said the Surface’s size and 16:9 aspect ratio make it an awkward device to hold.

Then there’s software. Windows 8 is the biggest departure from Microsoft’s traditional user interface in years, maybe ever. We love the colorful, tile-based, Metro-derived UI, and that’s reflected in comments from the blogosphere, most of them containing phrases like “a joy to use,” and “well suited for this form factor.” Maybe the biggest praise for Microsoft’s new software comes in the form of the near-universal negative reaction to the inclusion of the traditional Windows desktop in RT. People want to use the new UI, and they find it jarring when they’re forced to use the classic environment to run Office. But that’s the (huge) problem: the app ecosystem isn’t in place for Windows RT to flourish yet. That’s the issue that’s led some to say the device feels “undercooked” and others to lament that the software “will take away your patience.”

Yes, yes: “the apps will come.” “Better to have undercooked software than defective hardware as software can be honed over time.” And so on. We fully expect that refinement from Microsoft, and we look forward to seeing it in the days and weeks ahead. But the point is, as our own Jaime Rivera points out, the device isn’t perfect.

But no device is. Which is why pre-ordering first-generation products is one of the worst ideas in consumer electronics.

Note the important qualifier there: “first-generation products.” That applies to almost every groundbreaking device in every category, from every manufacturer. I remember the first time I heard someone caution against investing in a first-generation product: it was a college professor of mine, answering when I asked if he was planning on purchasing the original iPhone. “I’ll never buy a first-generation product from Apple again,” he said, recalling a bad experience with his first PowerBook or something similar. But his antipathy extended beyond Apple; he’d actually first learned the lesson making an early purchase of a Palm product, a Treo not yet ready for prime-time.

Good thing Palm never made that mistake again.

All these were first-generation product purchases that went sour. They always go sour, because it’s now apparently acceptable, in corporate as well as consumer culture, to ship products in an unfinished state. Examples abound on nearly every platform: the initial release of Windows Phone 7 with no true multitasking even in a year when “multitasking” was the buzzword of the marketplace; Android’s half-cooked debut on the unremarkable G1; the Palm Pre’s mile-long list of deficiencies; the BlackBerry Storm. If you want to stretch things a little, you can even say the original iPhone’s debut with no third-party app support falls into this category. The Surface is but the latest example of an imperfect flagship product unveiling.

Which is why you should only pre-order a product if it’s an upgrade of an existing device family with a good reputation. Refusing that advice isn’t always a recipe for disaster; those who pre-ordered the Nexus 7, for example, are probably –rightly– satisfied with their decision. But those are the exceptions. The vast majority of the time, pre-ordering a first-wave product will lead to more tears than will pre-ordering, say, a new iPad, or a new Galaxy Note– because those are proven products.

… as surprising as that may (still) be.

Pre-orders serve a function in those cases: they exist so people who really want the new device don’t get screwed over on release day because they’re unwilling or unable to stand in line outside a retail store. In that way, pre-orders are good. But they also exist as a tool for manipulation. They get a lot of buzz because manufacturers promote them. It makes headlines when device pre-orders sell out; that says the advertising and marketing teams have done their job properly, but it also says the device has allure. That’s good when it’s a result of a long reputation for providing reliable service; it’s bad when the force driving the pre-orders is unsubstantiated buzz, fueled by deep marketing pockets. In those cases, when the almost-inevitably-undercooked product lands and people are disappointed, the result is a new wave of flame wars in comment sections (see below, I’m sure) as fanboys unwittingly serve as living examples of something called “post-purchase rationalization.”

Don’t be a fanboy. Don’t be a rube. Don’t let multi-million-dollar mega-corporations milk your wallet on the basis of buzz and bombast. Don’t pre-order a first-generation product. I know we’re all tech geeks and that’s hard, but you’ll thank yourself when you’re not kicking yourself a year later, when the inevitable second-generation product lands, and the entire internet writes articles with the title, “Product X2 Is What Product X Should Have Been.”


Reviews from The Verge, Engadget, The New York Times, and Gizmodo were referenced in this editorial.

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About The Author
Michael Fisher
Michael Fisher has followed the world of mobile technology for over ten years as hobbyist, retailer, and reviewer. A lengthy stint as a Sprint Nextel employee and a long-time devotion to webOS have cemented his love for the underdog platforms of the world. In addition to serving as Pocketnow's Reviews Editor, Michael is a stage, screen, and voice actor, as well as co-founder of a profitable YouTube-based business. He lives in Boston, MA. Read more about Michael Fisher!