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When it comes to tablets, Microsoft is the scrappy underdog. The company shipped a combined 900,000 units of its Surface RT and Surface Pro slates in the first quarter of 2013, according to the latest global estimates from research firm IDC. Most of those were Surface Pro units -- the business-oriented model that runs legacy Windows programs -- that just began shipping in February. The numbers were good enough to earn Microsoft the 5th spot in IDC's list of the Top 5 tablet vendors, but a closer look at the Surface stats shows a less upbeat scenario.
For instance, IDC reports that combined shipments (from Microsoft and its hardware partners) of Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets in the first quarter totaled just 1.8 million. Remember, half of those were Surface tablets. Apple, by comparison, shipped 19.5 million iPads in Q1, and Samsung shipped 8.8 million of its various tablet models. To be fair, Microsoft's 5th place spot isn't bad considering the Surface's newness, and IDC reports that Redmond is in the process of widening the tablet's distribution.
Microsoft's tablet strategy faces several hurdles, however, including a troubling lack of interest from both consumers and OEMs in the ARM-based Windows RT platform. From a U.S. consumer's perspective, the Surface RT's $499 entry-level price may simply seem too high, particularly when competing large slates like the Amazon Kindle Fire HD 8.9-inch and Google Nexus 10 start at $269 and $399, respectively, albeit with less storage (16 GB each vs. 32 GB for the Surface RT). Apple's older iPad 2 starts at $399, and its 4th-generation full-size model is $499 and up.
If it's true that the Surface Pro is selling but the more iPad-like Surface RT isn't, what should Microsoft do? Rumors have swirled for weeks about the fate of Windows RT, many with an apocalyptic bent. Despite the fact that RT is a well-designed tablet OS -- ignore the relative dearth of apps for a moment -- its Windows Lite architecture is a big migraine from a marketing perspective. Perhaps it needs an identity -- or at least some UI changes -- that distinguish it from Windows 8. When store clerks have to explain the difference between Microsoft's two identical-looking tablet OS's, well, nothing good can come from that.
We've come up with 10 steps that Microsoft might take to boost interest in the next generation of Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets. Some suggestions are based on current rumors; others are inspired by current trends in the marketplace.
If you were Microsoft, what would you do?
A funny thing happened right around the time Microsoft launched its 10-inch Surface slates. Consumers decided they really, really like smaller slates, which cost less, are easier to carry and hold, and do pretty much their same thing as their larger sibs. Apple's 7.9-inch iPad mini is a bona fide hit, and the 7-inch Google Nexus 7 and Amazon Kindle Fire have found receptive audiences too. For Microsoft's mobile strategy to work, it badly needs a 7- or 8-inch Surface in the game. Not surprisingly, Redmond is planning to launch a smaller slate later this year, The Wall Street Journal reports. If true, would Surface's optional Type Cover and Touch Cover keyboards shrink as well?
Windows RT has a very limited implementation of the traditional Windows Desktop, which runs just one program: a preinstalled copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT. That's it: You can't install any other apps there. This makes the Desktop feels like a weird appendage, one that somehow managed to survive Windows' evolutionary upheaval. And that's pretty much the case. Desktop will stick around until Microsoft ships a Windows 8-style (i.e. Metro/Modern UI) version of Office. When will that happen? Perhaps when the next version of Office arrives, which could be far off.
System software always gobbles more than its fair share of storage, but nowhere is its gluttony more acute than on the Surface RT and Surface Pro. According to Microsoft, the 32-GB Surface RT has about 15 GB of available space for user content; the 64-GB Surface Pro has 30 GB of free space. In other words, more than half of the devices' advertised storage capacity is unavailable before you open the box.
This shortcoming seems more troublesome for users of the 64-GB Surface Pro ($899), which is really a full-fledged Windows laptop with a detachable keyboard, touchscreen and stylus. Think about it: A $1,000 PC (including keyboard) with a measly 30 gigs of usable storage? Microsoft may want to boost that figure, or drop the 64-GB model and make the 128-GB unit (89 GB of available space) the low-end Surface Pro.
The angle of the Surface's kickstand is not adjustable. This may not be a big deal on the Surface RT, particularly if you use the device mostly as a handheld, iPad-style tablet. But since the Surface Pro is a full Windows laptop, it really could use an adjustable screen. Without one, you'll find yourself adjusting your body (e.g., hunching over) quite often to view the screen at the ideal angle.
Early reviews of the Surface Pro, even the favorable ones, griped about the device's so-so battery life, which ranged from 2.5 to 4.5 hours, depending on usage. Not terrible, perhaps, but also not on par with the 6-hour (or longer) lifespan of similarly priced Ultrabooks like the Acer Iconia W700.
A solution may be coming soon, however, according to some industry watchers. In a Reddit Q&A session in February, Panos Panay, a Microsoft corporate vice president working on Surface, said the company went with a smaller battery to keep the Surface Pro thin and light (under 2 pounds). When asked if Redmond had plans to offer an extended battery, or perhaps even a keyboard cover with a built-in battery, Panay replied: "That would require extending the design of the accessory spine to include some way to transfer higher current between the peripheral and the main battery. Which we did." Intel's new Haswell chip (more on this later) will help boost battery life too.
The Surface's front- and rear-facing cameras, both 720p shooters, are yawn-worthy. Sure, the front cam is perfectly adequate for Skype chats, but what good is the rear unit? Yes, many critics have griped that rear cameras and 10-inch slates aren't a good match. (And if you've ever tried shooting video with a full-size iPad, you know there's a lot of truth there.) But if rumors are true of a 7-inch to 8-inch Surface, Microsoft should put a quality shooter on the smaller Surface's backside. At the very least it should match the iPad mini's 5MP rear-facing cam.
Windows RT devices come with Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT, which includes tablet-optimized versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. What's missing? Outlook, of course, but that may change soon. Paul Thurrott of Supersite for Windows reported last month that Outlook for RT exists. However, it's unclear how or when Microsoft will release it. The addition of Outlook could help make the Surface RT -- and the Windows RT platform in general -- more appealing to longtime Office users, both business and consumer.
OK, this is more of a Windows 8 gripe, but it applies to the Surface as well. The Modern UI is aesthetically pleasing, but it definitely needs work. For instance, how do you close a Modern UI app? There's a way to do this, but novice users won't learn without doing a little research. Similarly, the Charms bar doesn't also appear when you scroll to the right side of the screen. (Hint: try the lower-right corner.)
Sure, tech-savvy users know these navigational tricks, but that's beside the point. Windows 8 lacks visual clues to help everyday business users master its new UI. And for enterprises, this means expensive, time-consuming retraining for employees. There's room for hope, though. The next version of Windows may very well address some of these UI shortcomings.
Intel is announcing its 4th generation of Intel core processors, code-named "Haswell," on June 3. The new chip design promises better power management and all-day battery life for Ultrabooks, including Intel-based hybrids like the Surface Pro. If Haswell delivers as promised, it could help Microsoft boost the Surface Pro's mediocre battery life, thereby fixing one of the tablet's major shortcomings.
A number of developments may bring lower Surface prices. First off, a smaller Surface model would likely be priced in the $200 to $300 range to compete with the Nexus 7, Kindle Fire HD, iPad mini and other slates. And some reports have Microsoft reworking its Windows OS tech specs to allow lower-resolution displays, and perhaps even lowering its Windows licensing fees to attract more hardware manufacturers to its tablet platform.
The Microsoft Store recently cut prices of Windows 8 devices (not including the Surface Pro). Of course, lower prices may simply be a way to clear out old inventory, or to boost interest in the tepidly received Windows 8.