It’s hard to believe Microsoft announced the current generation Surface tablets on June 18, 2012. I distinctly remember how excited I was for the Surface Pro to launch. There was finally going to be a legitimate tablet that could run traditional desktop programs, and then serve as a normal tablet if needed—not to mention the decent specs, solid build quality and other features. The only major concern I had was how it would function on a person’s lap, but overall I believed Surface would be a runaway success.
I didn’t feel the same way about Surface RT from day one. Surface RT differs from the Surface Pro because it can only run apps from the Windows Store—similar to how iOS devices can only run apps found on the App Store.
Surface RT was in the spotlight recently after Microsoft’s Form 10-K filing showed a $900 million loss due to “Surface RT inventory adjustments.” Even worse, the report showed Surface revenue only totaled $853 million—resulting in a $47 million loss. The Verge learned that the company had built too many Surface RT devices, which was later confirmed by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer when he admitted it at an internal town hall-style event. Computerworld reported that the gaffe lead Ballmer to be “forced out” of Microsoft—he will leave within the next 12 months.
It’s clear Microsoft did a poor job estimating Surface RT demand, but that’s not why both Surface devices failed. A combination of events and choices, over the course of a year, prevented Surface from gaining any traction in the marketplace:
They took too long
Microsoft did not provide any pricing or availability information during their special event on June 16, and stayed silent on the matter until October 16. It took the company 120 days to elaborate on two small—but very important—details for one of the two Surface devices. Surface Pro hopefuls were simply left in the dark.
In total, it took Microsoft 236 days to fully launch Surface in the US. Surface RT became available on October 26, 2012 to coincide with the Windows 8 launch, 130 days after the product was announced. The Surface Pro wouldn’t become available for another 106 days, finally launching on February 9, 2013.
The time is notable because Microsoft failed to completely launch its new product before the all-important holiday season. Taking 236 days—basically two-thirds of a year—to launch a product is an outrageous amount of time. Not only did consumers lose interest, companies like Samsung were already showing off their own Surface-like devices in January 2013 at the Consumer Electronics Show—before the Surface Pro launched!
I’m not an advertising major, but I thought the purpose of advertising something was to show off what the product was capable of, or demonstrate how it could benefit the consumer. Surface was an incredibly interesting product with specifications and features that—you would think—would be easy to advertise.
Instead, Microsoft decided to introduce Surface with this:
Let’s see… what have we learned here?
- Surface has a keyboard that snaps into place, and is available in several colors
- Surface has a kickstand
- Surface has a touchscreen—duh, it’s a tablet
- Attaching keyboards to tablets might inflict a sudden urge to dance
- Surface can play videos
- Surface can take photos or videos
This ad barely touches on what the Surface can do, with the exception that there was an effort to show the various Office program logos from 0:51-0:52. How is the average person supposed to know what a Surface is when all the ad focuses on are keyboards clicking, kickstands snapping and lots of dancing?
Here’s another ad:
This ad is better than the first one, but still doesn’t elaborate on the product’s several features. Viewers are again shown the clicking keyboard and Windows 8 interface, but are only introduced to three features: the pressure-sensitive stylus, the Excel app and a USB port.
I feel that Microsoft could have demonstrated the stylus in more creative ways, like featuring artistic or note taking applications. The USB port is an important hardware feature, and was featured when an executive-looking individual plugs a USB microphone and starts beatboxing. At the end you’ll see an email application being used, but it’s only shown for a second.
Microsoft again used fancy and unnecessary theatrics to demonstrate a few simple features, most of which were shown for a second or two. As with the first spot, I found the dancing to detract from the overall message of the commercial—was there one? Why didn’t Microsoft just focus on the Surface’s capabilities? Better yet, why not compare Surface to the competition?
In mid-2013, Microsoft finally began airing informational—and humorous—commercials, but by then it was likely too late. Here’s one of the newer ads:
Microsoft should have aired this commercial first.
In this Surface RT commercial, Microsoft finally shows off the device’s capabilities while simultaneously comparing it to an iPad. The piece does a good job at showing off everything an iPad doesn’t have, including:
- USB port
- SD card slot
- Real keyboard
- Lower price point
Of course the spot doesn’t mention apps, but this 30-second ad was more informative than the two previous one-minute ads previously aired.
The price (at launch)
When the Surface Pro launched, the 64 GB model was $899 and the 128 GB model ran for $999. The 32 GB Surface RT launched at $499, with the 64 GB variant coming in at $599. None of the devices come with the Touch Cover or Type Cover keyboards, so customers had to either add $100 to bundle it with the hardware or $120 to buy one separately.
The price of the Surface Pro, with keyboard, was comparable in price to various Ultrabooks and laptops on the market at $1,000 and $1,100. The real issue was Surface RT and how it compared against the iPad and various Android tablets.
A Surface RT, with keyboard, would cost $599, $100 more than an iPad and $200 more than an entry-level Nexus 10 with 16 GB of memory. There was simply no way consumers would pay that amount of money for an unfamiliar device lacking a populous app ecosystem. Usually ads would help educate people on what a product can do, but Microsoft’s ads were borderline useless in this case.
Part of me wonders if Surface RT would have been more successful if they followed Amazon’s strategy with the Kindle Fire. Amazon had never made a tablet before the Fire, but its success was largely due to the fact it was cheaper than other tablets—and still is for the most part. Amazon’s Appstore was also brand new, but it was adding more content as time went by.
My biggest issue with Surface RT is Windows RT, the version of Windows designed only for ARM-based devices. I have no idea why Microsoft introduced the Surface RT, a product running a version of Windows that can’t run traditional desktop programs, and then market the device alongside the Surface Pro—which can handle them like every other Windows-based computer to come before it.
The second biggest issue is the ecosystem, or lack thereof. Did Microsoft really want to compete against Apple and Google’s thriving ecosystems? They could have taken advantage of the countless number of programs already available for Windows computers, while simultaneously building up their Windows Store—think of how Macs have an App Store, but can still install non-App Store applications.
Microsoft should have never introduced Windows RT. I believe they should have made the Surface RT into a lower-end Surface Pro. This way both devices can run traditional desktop programs and still have access to the Windows Store for easy access to apps built for Windows 8+. The only differences would be raw speed and power.
Timeliness, advertising, price, and Windows RT all played important roles in the failure of Surface. With the next generation Surface device(s) looming and Microsoft acquiring Nokia’s mobile devices division, it’ll be interesting to see how Microsoft handles future self-built devices.