The Microsoft Surface tablet was announced this Monday, and is the first major tablet to ship with Windows 8. The Surface will launch with two models, one powered by a laptop-grade processor and one with a less powerful, less expensive ARM processor.
I am particularly interested in Windows 8,as it will mark the first major desktop operating system designed with touch in mind. About ten years ago I had a Windows XP Touch edition slate tablet, and it was obvious that I was basically using an OS designed for a keyboard and mouse. Several years later Apple released the iPad, and the more natural interface catapulted the device into prominence.
I believe touch-based, portable devices are our personal computing future, so what will the Microsoft Surface tablet need to do to succeed?
- A mass market price. I guess the x86 version of the Surface will cost about $800 or $900 without the nifty keyboard cover. The ARM version will probably be about $450. I think most Americans still consider tablets to be luxury items, and as such may ask the legitimate question : why wouldn’t I just buy a laptop? Tablets are generally more portable, have a longer battery life, and may be more appropriate in capabilities and interface for most than laptops. However, in order to get over the mental hurdle that tablets are just expensive niche devices, I think Microsoft should price the ARM Surface at less than $250 and the x86 version at less than $500. The Kindle Fire sold a lot of units not because the OS nor the device hardware were particularly great, but because it was an inexpensive product with a name people knew and trusted. Microsoft should follow this strategy instead of Apple’s rich white guy affluent marketing model.
- Long battery life. The iPad has great battery life. I remember the first time I used the iPad for an extended period of time. We kept trying to kill the battery, and it finally gave up the ghost after over a day of nonstop usage by a pack of curious nerds. My Kindle Fire had okay battery life, but after hacking it to install Ice Cream Sandwich I’ve overclocked my tablet and the battery life suffered. Ideally I’d like to see the Surface get about a day and a half of battery life at full power. With power governance perhaps three days without a charge would be fantastic. Because the Surface is going to run a desktop OS I am very nervous it will have laptop-class battery life in a smaller form factor. My ultrabook can get about five or six hours of life, and that meets my expectations for a laptop. However, a tablet with six hours of battery life is a non-starter, no matter how inexpensive or powerful it is.
- Connectivity. Microsoft needs to promote the productivity of a modern touch device as much as freedom of the tablet form factor. One of the ways tablets can be more productive is through its ability to connect, whether it be via data or other devices. I believe a 4G mobile network connection is a must. As more and more tablets eschew removable storage and push cloud storage we need to be able to access our data from nearly anywhere.
I also think Bluetooth is mandatory for accessories such as a keyboard and mouse. I type about 40 words per minute on my Kindle Fire, but for heavy text entry I still prefer a hardware keyboard. If the Surface is going to make it as a primary computing device and push tablets from niche to mainstream Microsoft has to support docking the device to more traditional computer accessories.
On that note, the Surface tablet must be able to connect to an external display like a monitor, projector, or television. The ability to share content or present work will be very helpful in reinforcing the idea that a tablet is a work machine and not a toy. I know people who are already using their iPads in this way, and I hope Microsoft continues this trend. Bonus points for using a standard connector and not a proprietary one like Apple has.
I’ve ranked the top three things the Surface needs to do to differentiate itself based on how I think most people will use tablets now and in the immediate future. I don’t think app support, cameras, or industrial design are critical for people who think critically. I think Apple’s design helps justify the hefty price tag and people who buy iPads point to the beautiful hardware as a justification for the extra space in their wallet. That being said, the Surface can’t be flimsy and has to be durable. It can’t feel cheap even if it’s inexpensive. However, the slew of inexpensive plastic-bodied laptops and netbooks prove that people are more motivated by price than they are by performance or design.
I plan on buying a Surface depending on the price. I am curious to see if Windows 8 on a touch-enabled device will prompt me to migrate my smartphone from the Android stack to the Microsoft one. Concepts like experience integration and data migration are important longer-term needs, the top three attributes the Surface needs to succeed is price, battery life, and connectivity.
Good luck, Microsoft, and may you bring the marketing strength that Google can’t seem to figure out.