I was somewhat surprised to learn this week that Microsoft had developed a tablet that’s actually pretty cool. My expectations were admittedly low when I attended the company’s big unveiling event in Los Angeles but once I saw the tablet and played around with it for a bit, I gradually grew more impressed, something I haven’t felt about any Microsoft product other than the Xbox in a long time.
What made the Surface impressive for me? The main feature was the way Microsoft implemented two distinct types of physical keyboards on its tablets, as both the Touch Cover and the Type Cover were remarkably thin, light and unobtrusive. The fact that they can easily be folded into the tablet or readily detached makes them that much cooler, and Microsoft’s engineering team deserves a big thumbs-up for such a sharp design. The keyboards, combined with the smartly-implemented kickstand, make Surface the first big-name tablet that can really double as a PC and be used for work as well as fun.
That said, nothing is guaranteed in this world and there are still plenty of ways that Microsoft can screw this up. In no particular order, here are three things Microsoft should look to do in order to ensure that the Surface isn’t remembered the same way as the BlackBerry PlayBook or the HP Touchpad.
- Price this thing competitively. Early rumors suggest that the Windows RT version of Surface — i.e., the Surface that will be going head-to-head with the iPad on the tablet market — will be priced at $600. This is, to put it bluntly, insane. Microsoft is a very late entrant into a crowded market whose leader has already developed very strong brand loyalty. In order to make Surface competitive, Microsoft cannot offer a product that’s more expensive than the leading brand: the company has to either match it or, even better, undercut it. At this point, Microsoft needs to concern itself with building up a user base first and making money second. Showing that Windows can expand its user base to the tablet sphere will make Windows tablets more attractive for OEMs to invest in, which will mean more licensing cash for Microsoft in the long run. So please, Microsoft, if you want Surface to sell you need to be willing to take a hit financially at first and sell it at a lower price.
- Xbox must be a part of the package. Another set of rumors surrounding Surface before its launch was that it would also double as a touchscreen Xbox controller. While this rumor didn’t pan out at Microsoft’s Surface event this week, it’s definitely something the company should implement in the future. Why? Because the Xbox is the one clear-cut advantage that Microsoft has over Apple right now. The beauty of the Xbox is that it really has become the hub for home entertainment and isn’t just a gaming console anymore. Personally speaking, I use my Xbox to watch DVDs, to stream movies over Netflix and, yes, to bash in peoples’ spines with giant war hammers in Skyrim. If Microsoft can make Surface an integral part of the Xbox experience then it will have gone a long way toward owning the living room. Microsoft might even consider a package deal when the Xbox 720 comes out that adds a low-level Surface tablet for just an extra $50 when people buy the new console.
- Windows 8 cannot suck. This may seem kind of obvious, but we have to remember that we’re talking about Microsoft here. It wasn’t that long ago when Vista was tormenting both users and OEMs alike and when Clippy was stalking through your Word document, just waiting for a chance to spring up and annoy you. But even beyond those obvious debacles, Windows 8 cannot get away with performing the same way on a tablet that past editions of Windows have performed on PCs. Let’s be honest: People will simply not tolerate their tablet telling them that it will need to shut down to apply Windows updates. Ditto with long boot-up times. Microsoft has said all the right things so far about Windows 8 being a dramatic overhaul of Windows for mobile computing, and early previews of the platform show promise, but the company still has to execute.
If Microsoft can cross all its T’s and dot all its I’s in these three areas, it will make a compelling case to consumers that its operating system can be a one-stop shop for their work and home entertainment needs alike. Whether or not it succeeds in this endeavor, it will certainly be fascinating to watch.