Surface Pro: a solution without a problem?

03 Dec

surfaceIn my previous post, I mused on how Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet/laptop hybrid would be dead on arrival thanks to its $900 price tag. On further consideration, I’m convinced it will be DOA even at a lower price. As neither a tablet nor a laptop, it’s a device without a clear use case, which means it’s a solution in search of a problem. In other words, it’s a bad, bad idea.

Consider how tablets are used. The majority of buyers use them to surf the web while on the couch, browse photos, read e-books and email, watch movies and play games. Some power users also try to get actual business productivity out of them. In some cases, tablets do such tasks better than anything else – I’ve written before about how apps such as SignMyPad, which lets you sign documents with your finger, are invaluable – but in many other situations, they’re terrible. I would rather bash my head against a wall than use a tablet for spreadsheets, for example.

That’s not to say they’re not handy for business uses. Many professionals – from doctors to pilots – use them as portable displays, which come in handy for everything from patient charts to flight manuals. There are also many specialized tablet apps that do in fact make use of the touch screen in creative ways. Lighting Designer, as just one example, helps cinematographers set up shots with their fingers.

For the most part, though, hard-core computing is done on an actual computer and then transferred over to the tablet in one way or another for viewing.

Laptops, on the other hand, are the complete inverse. While all of the media consumption listed above can be done on them, there’s little question that such tasks are easier and more comfortably done on a tablet, hence the category’s success. Laptops, meanwhile, enable full content creation, which is their main use. Very few people buy them just for watching movies or reading e-books.

Because tablets enable media consumption, consumers judge them mainly on five factors: price, size and weight, app and content availability, screen sharpness and battery life. The tablets that have done well – including Amazon’s Kindle Fire and Google’s Nexus 7 – have got some variation of those right. With the iPad Mini, Apple hits almost all of those notes (with a sharper screen likely coming next year).

The Surface Pro – with the revelation that it’ll only have about four hours of battery life – scores in almost none of those categories. So even at a lower cost, will it be a worthwhile tablet? It’s hard to see how.

Given that, does it adequately replace a laptop? Again, no. Not only is its battery life worse than that offered by Apple’s MacBook Air and many Ultrabooks, the Surface Pro is also impractical without, y’know, an actual surface to put it on. Its kickstand and attachable Touch pad keyboard are nifty, but not at all practical for using on your lap. That is why portable computers – which are quite comfortable to use on your lap – are called laptops, after all.

It’s normally unfair to judge a product sight unseen, but it’s also hard to see a proper use case for Microsoft’s hybrid device. It’s just not better than a tablet or a laptop, but rather a limited version of both.

The Surface Pro is also hardly the first such hybrid – Lenovo, for one, has been pushing this idea for years – but Microsoft is looking for it to be the first to succeed. The reasons above are good indicators as to why, as of yet, none have.


Posted by on December 3, 2012 in computers, microsoft


8 responses to “Surface Pro: a solution without a problem?

  1. russellmcormond

    December 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Not surprising, I’m with you on your evaluation of Surface.

    It is the same as when people ask me what office suite I run on my ASUS Transformer tablet. With the full keyboard it looks like a laptop, but it is a mobile computer. An important aspect of mobile computing is portability and battery life. It doesn’t have a hard disk, and it doesn’t run desktop applications.

    Running a desktop operating system or desktop applications on a mobile computer is simply missing the point. I don’t *EVER WANT* to run an office suite on a mobile computer, regardless of who wrote it (LibreOffice or Microsoft office doesn’t matter to me). These types of tools need to be plugged into the wall, and IMHO are always crap when on battery. I believe the same thing for desktop operating systems like Windows or even Ubuntu. I don’t want to run Ubuntu on my tablet, even though Ubuntu wants to offer people that option.

    While there are a few geeks who want to run everything on everything, I think we have hit a computing price point where we can finally use the right tool for the right job rather than wanting one tool that does everything (and does most things poorly). There are times I want a big desktop, sometimes I want a portable desktop (AKA: laptop), times I want a media centre, sometimes a mobile computer (with a choice of screen sizes to fit the specifics of the job), etc.

    It seems Microsoft Surface is yet another desktop pretending to be something else and because it won’t match any real-life use case correctly will be a failure except those brand loyalists — You have to remember that Microsoft has religious devotees just like Apple does, who will buy products they are told to even if it didn’t otherwise meet their needs. They’ll buy it, and the’ll evangelize their devotion to others.

    • petenowak2000

      December 3, 2012 at 11:36 am

      I don’t think I could have put that any better myself. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Derek Scott (@dscott1923)

    December 3, 2012 at 11:46 am

    Even with the identity crisis, a lower price point would make a huge difference. If it was priced competitively, people might be inclined to take a look at it when out for their Xmas/Boxing Day shopping. But at $900 to start, they’ll keep on walking. The general public will initially view it as a tablet (which it is, until you shell out even more for the keyboard), and with everything else costing $400-$600, and in some cases even cheaper, the Surface won’t get a second glance.

  3. craigbamford

    December 8, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    It is priced competitively. It’s just that it’s competing with the similarly-specced Air, instead of the much less potent iPad.

    Frankly, I’m still not seeing the case here. It’s not a “neither” case. It’s a “both” case. It’s a question of whether you’re willing to trade off slightly lower battery life and (very) slightly higher weight for the convenience and, frankly, the cost-savings of buying a single device that suits both tablet and laptop tasks.

    And, yes, that is a HUGE cost savings, considering the rather daunting cost of buying both an Air and an iPad. Russell’s talking about an absolutely enormous, positively daunting amount of money. Most people aren’t going to have a desktop, a laptop, and various flavours of portable device. They couldn’t afford it.

    (Not unless they’re wealthy enough that their principle concern is the sort of wealth signalling that Apple devices are really about.)

    Besides, since when is content creation exclusively (or even mainly) done in one’s lap? If THAT is the use case of a laptop, then one that’s best used on a desk (or a table, or whatever), and those are exactly the places where it’s mostly likely you’ll be able to plug the thing in for a bit. If you’re a writer, working in your lap over the long term is going to do terrible things to your back; if you’re an artist or coder, you work on a desk as a matter of course, and are going to care more about applications in the first place.

    But, no. Many, many people use laptops for content consumption. They do watch movies on them. They do watch television on them. They do play games(!!) on them. They also do like touchscreens as an input choice for that sort of thing, though…and if they want to save a bit of money, they can get a device that does double-duty, so that they need purchase neither an Air nor one of Russell’s desktops.

    Seems like a logical enough real-world use-case to me.

    • craigbamford

      December 8, 2012 at 5:17 pm

      Just to add…

      …all this device is, at the end of the day, is a touchscreen laptop. It’s not really a tablet. The only reason why people presume otherwise is the admittedly-baffling decision not to include a Touch or Type Cover with purchase.

      I’m really, honestly not sure why the hell someone would assume that touchscreen laptops are “DOA”. Maybe the kickstand isn’t ergonomic in the lap (though I’ve heard more than enough people say that they’re perfectly fine with it), that’s still the sort of device you’re looking at.

      If you think that Apple isn’t going down this route, you’re dreaming. The only question is when.

      (Well, that, and the question of which hoops various tech journalists will jump through to present it as The Greatest Thing Ever. If they managed to do it with Siri, a feature that Android had for years, then I’m sure they’ll find a way to pretend that Apple invented the Surface. It’s still sad to see how the old skepticism during Microsoft’s salad days have given way to this compete deference to Cupertino.)

    • russellmcormond

      December 8, 2012 at 8:08 pm

      Just to be clear, I own no Apple devices and was definitely not talking about purchasing devices with the Apple tax (or the lack of honesty around ownership inherent in paying for Apple devices)

      When you drop the 1990’s brand devotion (Apple, Microsoft being the worst) the hardware I’m talking about is much less expensive. Things like a BoxeeBox or Samsung SmartTV type things for living-room video/etc.

      • craigbamford

        December 9, 2012 at 12:30 am

        Sure, Boxee and the like are nice TV solutions. I was more talking about your “Desktop for [A}, Laptop for [B], Tablet for [C]” point. People simply can’t afford all that, especially in this country where we get soaked for Internet and electronics alike. Something has to give.

        Up until now, it’s been desktops, since application processing has been moving to the web, so the laptops’ relatively weaker CPUs aren’t as big an issue.

        (Gaming on laptops is still a problem, but since 90% of pre-built desktops have terrible video cards, people don’t even realize that another option is POSSIBLE, let alone that PCs are the single most vibrant gaming platform in the industry right now.)

        Since incomes continue to crash, though, people are going to have to choose between having a laptop and having a tablet. Touchscreens are a killer feature, but neither you, I, nor Peter want an all-tablet market; it’d ruin the discursive aspect of the Internet and turn it into Television 2.0.

        So what’s the next-best solution? Integrate the functions of laptops and tablet together. That’s what the Surface Pro does.

        (Admittedly, not perfectly. But that’s the thing about Microsoft: their first run is rarely perfect, and it’s the second version that’s the one to watch. Just look at the XBox.)

        To say that the device is “DOA” because the iPad Mini exists and because you’re wealthy enough to buy all the platforms you’d like is just wrongheaded. It’s completely out of touch, and to the extent that it shoves the market down the all-consumption-all-the-time Television 2.0 road, it’s almost a bit disturbing.

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