Monday, October 29, 2012

Does Microsoft Surface meet a real need, or is it an engineering solution in search of a problem?

Trust TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog) to ridicule Microsoft's Steve Ballmer at every opportunity. For one, the guy's bald - he doesn't have short-cropped hair like You-Know-Who had. For another, the guy makes outrageous statements - never mind that You-Know-Who liked to make outrageous statements also.

Let's look at TUAW's take on a recent CNBC interview. According to TUAW, Ballmer said the following:

"I don't think anybody has done a product that is the product that I see customers wanting. You can go through the products from all those guys ... and none of them has a product that you can really use. Not Apple. Not Google. Not Amazon."

TUAW then marshals some statements that it sourced from allthingssd:

Apple has sold 100 million iPads since it launched the device two and a half years ago. And Amazon, without ever disclosing any sales numbers, perennially maintains that the Kindle Fire is its best-selling product ever.

But TUAW focused on only PART of what Ballmer said. Here, according to allthingssd, is Ballmer's complete quote:

I don’t think anybody has done a product that is the product that I see customers wanting. You can go through the products from all those guys … and none of them has a product that you can really use. Not Apple. Not Google. Not Amazon. Nobody has a product that lets you work and play that can be your tablet and your PC. Not at any price point.

This is a first-class tablet that people can enjoy and appreciate. It’s a PC; it’s a tablet. It’s for play; it’s for work. It’s a got a great price. That product doesn’t exist today.

While TUAW mentions Ballmer's tablet/PC comment in passing at the end of its post, the lead concentrates on the millions of devices that have already been sold.

But what of Ballmer's point that Surface functions as both a tablet and a PC? Is this what customers really want? Two years from now, will people laugh at the old days in which people were forced to use their devices as either business computers OR personal tablets?

You could look at Ballmer's main point and argue that it's complete nonsense. My older readers may recall this Saturday Night Live parody commercial:

Wife: New Shimmer is a floor wax!

Husband: No, new Shimmer is a dessert topping!

Wife: It's a floor wax!

Husband: It's a dessert topping!

Wife: It's a floor wax, I'm telling you!

Husband: It's a dessert topping, you cow!

Spokesman: [ enters quickly ] Hey, hey, hey, calm down, you two. New Shimmer is both a floor wax and a dessert topping!

Will people truly want a single device that functions both in the corporate environment (with keyboard) and at home (as a tablet)? Will corporate IT departments buy into the concept? Will workers/players buy into the concept?

According to Techradar, personal users may buy into the idea even if corporate IT departments do not:

According to an independent survey commissioned by Hornbill Service Management of 1,457 British office workers, 53% state that corporate IT is failing to keep pace with the needs of the business. Some are taking drastic steps to resolve this: 40% state that they will use personal devices without getting permission from, or informing, IT in order to improve productivity.

So corporate people might be sneaking Surface in the back door. Hmmm...sounds like what happened with the Macintosh in the 1980s.

But Techradar does go on to say that, while Microsoft is banking on the idea that enterprises will gravitate toward a business-designed device (Surface) rather than a consumer-designed device (iPad), Surface may end up with some hefty competition soon:

And many industry watchers point to the latest range of entry-level Ultrabooks that will be arriving in 2013 that could deliver business machines that evolve the humble notebook PC into a device that enterprises can embrace.

So maybe Surface 1.0 may not be the industry shift that Ballmer is looking for. But Microsoft is certainly able to come up with a version 2.0, and a version 3.0, and to keep on working on a product until it dominates the market. And we all know that Ballmer is sensitive to the needs of developers.

So perhaps a few years from now, Ballmer's statement that none of the early 2012 products can really be used by customers may be a valid one. There's a chance that Ballmer is predicting the future - and TUAW missed it by focusing on the past.
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