Microsoft has changed the Surface of mobile, forever.

Jeff Bacon is the Director of Mobile Strategy at bitHeads, and our regular developer correspondant. But thesuavehog was so excited about Microsoft’s recent tablet announcement, we let him post his thoughts on the Surface. Enjoy! – Ed.

It’s been a little over a week now since Microsoft unveiled one of the best-kept secrets in mobile, which should be blowing the minds of everyone that’s paying attention. Microsoft has re-invented the way people will think about mobile computing with a device that’s going to revolutionize (again) the lives of “the other 95%” — i.e. everyone without an iPad. It’s not just a tablet, it’s a new way of thinking about mobile computing.

Essentially Surface is two tablets. One tablet is a thinner, lighter, more iPad-style tablet, the other is a powerful laptop replacement running the same version of Windows 8 that will run on laptops sold by Dell, HP, Acer, Lenovo, etc. It’s the second one that is the most interesting. The thinner tablet will be attractive to many as a very strong iPad competitor, however it’s not going to change how you think about mobile computing.

The Windows 8 Surface tablet will run every application you run right now on your Windows desktop. All of them. Not some tablet-ized version of Office that sort-of works and is not optimized for touch, not an email program that “mostly” does what you need it to, not Photoshop Lite but full-on super-powered feature-rich Photoshop. Quite simply, it runs everything. Until now, using a tablet and a laptop was a mess of syncing files and making sure whoever built your tablet app also had a desktop version or else use a standard file format or “mostly” interpreted the Microsoft Office file formats correctly. This problem is now gone, for the simple reason that you no longer will have any need to have a tablet separate from your laptop — they are one and the same with Surface.

When you’re at your desktop, you set down Surface, plug-in your external monitor (as I presume you’ll want a larger screen) and start working. When you need to go, you just grab your Surface and all your files, programs, settings, profile and applications come with you. Think about that. No making sure to copy files to Dropbox so you have them on your tablet, no forgetting to hit save and not having the latest copy, no saying “just let me finish this email” because you don’t want to start it from scratch when you get home.

Surface won’t require you to learn a different interface from your desktop PC, won’t require you to learn different programs, or have different peripherals (monitors, keyboard, mice, etc.). It will be all your information, with you, wherever you want it, seamlessly. And it will do all this without you having to buy accessories like stands and external keyboards that don’t marry well with the device — since those both come built into the back and cover of the Surface (respectively).

We are living in a world where massive valuations are being assigned to companies that are trying to solve a problem created by having too many devices. With Surface, Microsoft is providing a solution that, for most people, is the simplest of all: fewer devices. And despite my love for mobile technology, and the affection many people I talk to regularly have, we would all love to carry fewer devices with us and be able to manage our lives in a simpler fashion. Surface provides us that opportunity in a package that suits both casual and power users alike. Get ready 2013, Surface is coming, and we’ll look back in 18 months and wonder how come it took so long for someone to get tablets right.

About the author

Jeff Bacon

Jeff Bacon is the Director of Mobile Strategy at bitHeads Inc. He helps companies understand how to best bring their business to mobile and plan execution strategies to maximise the value mobile can bring to any business. You can read more on the bitHeads’ blog: www.bitheads.com/blog or follow @bitHeads or @TheSuaveHog on Twitter. Check out bitHeads’ mobile portfolio here: http://www.bitheads.com/mobilecustomershowcase.php

  • To be honest I am quite excite about the Surface. I would love to replace my Laptop with a Tablet as long as it ran all my Windows apps… I am in IT and I have to have certain tools at my finger tips. I cant wait to see what this will do.

  • Jwcorey

    I think that if anyone is going to give the iPad a run for its money, it’s going to be Microsoft’s Surface, but you have to be a lot more careful about your rhetoric. We have heard RIM, HP, HTC, Dell and Motorola all step up and announce that the death of the iPad was a done deal. In the end, not one of these companies has a compelling tablet victory to talk about, and some (like RIM and HP) have embarrassed themselves to the extent that they have become cautionary tales to others.

    I bring this to your attention because of this simple fact: The Surface hasn’t shipped yet. Where you’re painting a picture of a tablet for “the rest of us”, you have to bear in mind that there’s not much “rest of us” left: iPad use in the U.S. will double this year to 53.2M users and increase to a whopping 91M by 2015 (http://www.emarketer.com/Article.aspx?id=1009106&R=1009106). Naturally, predicting any state-of-the-union for 2015 is a fool’s errand, but what you can’t deny is that most of the people who want tablets already have them. There won’t be another 50,000,000 consumers ready to buy the Surface when it finally hits the shelves… so for the Surface to challenge the iPad it not only has to gobble up *all* the remaining customers who have held back from buying any of the previous competition, but they also have to gouge a considerable chunk of pre-existing iPad users out of the entrenched market. Does that sound easy? According to Goldman Sachs, 21% of iOS users won’t switch from iOS for any reason or any price. That means before Microsoft even starts trying to lure users away, more than 1/5 of iOS users have decided not to give them the time of day. 

    If sales don’t meet hopes/expectations, can we still say that Microsoft has changed (past-tense) the surface of mobile forever? I would ask: How did they do this with a product not one reviewer has been able to write up yet? In concept, it’s a winner. But Microsoft is notoriously bad for offering a product which does certain things and delivering something that does far, far less. In fact, it has been Microsoft’s most consistent practice to release a product which is far less than what it should be and spending years hammering it into something usable. This has been the case with Windows, Xbox, MS Word and Internet Explorer, to name a few. Do we expect now, with Microsoft’s most ambitious operating system concept in the chute, that the Surface and associated technology will arrive in a state which can compete head-on with the iOS “it just works” experience? Pundits have have resoundingly echoed the sentiment that it’ll be a great success… if they can make it work. Given that “right out of the box” is what Microsoft seems worst at, how likely is it that this will be the 1.0 user experience? And if Windows 8 doesn’t deliver to its fullest on UX out of the gate, will the iOS-using public think “this is a great alternative to the iPad”? I rather think Microsoft would – unintentionally – be creating the sort of consumer opinion which would bring eMarketer’s prediction of 91M iPads by 2015 into reality.

    And why is this? Because the era where unfinished products were your only option is behind us. The “release it incomplete, finish it later, market the hell out of it in the mean time” strategy made companies rich in the pre-iPhone era because users didn’t expect things to just work out of the box. The promise always exceeded the deliverable and consumers just learned to live with malware, crashes, interface glitches, security issues and arcane conflicts between IRQs, drivers, etc. In this era, users expect to turn something on and have it work without having to make concessions or compromises. If Microsoft’s Windows 8 “Boil the Ocean” approach fails to deliver, how many people are going to stop and say “It’s ok. We’ll just wait till they get it right”?

    So you’re saying Microsoft – with an untried operating system in a market where Apple’s enjoyed two years to luxuriously entrench themselves in the market – has “changed the surface of mobile forever” with a product that hasn’t hit the shelves yet? I’m hearing a variation on the familiar riffs of “number one plus” or “amateur hour is over.” I really hope Microsoft cracks this nut, but bestowing too many accolades too soon has – to date – been the defining quality of the losing teams.

  • I tend to share your sentiments Corey. MS had an incredible opportunity to make this a 2 (or 3 – with Google getting into the fray last week) horse race. Right now there is an iPad market and then there are a whole bunch of other black tablets. If they had produced a complete product (shipping date included) and priced this as aggressively as Google and Amazon did with their products, this would have created the tablet industry. Perhaps this was a strategic play ahead of Google IO to confuse the consumer but whoever’s device hits the market first will win this round but none will dethrone the iPad. Not sure that anyone can at this point.

    Time to get back to innovating. More of that, less following please.

  • The only part of that I really agree with is that we do need to be a little careful with products that have not shipped yet. However, Microsoft has a history of success when it decides it’s going all-out in a market. You note:

    Microsoft’s most consistent practice to release a product which is far less than what it should be and spending years hammering it into something usable. This has been the case with Windows, Xbox, MS Word and Internet Explorer, to name a few. 

    However those examples are all of products that Microsoft has had wild success with — in fact, rose to dominate the market in 3 of those 4 cases (Xbox being the only one where they don’t ‘dominate’ but still are succeeding on a grand scale).

    That eMarketer article was written before the Microsoft announcement and prior to the Surface revealing I would not quibble with those projections (aside from agreeing with you in the folly of looking 2 years out in mobile).

    According to that eMarketer article, ~17% of the US population has iPads. That means 83% of the population does not have an iPad. I don’t have laptop penetration numbers but desktop users are trending to buy laptops and Microsoft still dominates those consumers by a wide margin with Windows. While it’s irrelevant how many iOS users will switch to another platform because the market Microsoft can go after discounting them is so large, if we take into account the 79% of iOS users who will entertain the option of switching, that leaves a paltry ~96.5% of the US population who Microsoft can target with this platform.

    I realize I’m being slightly (ok, largely) sarcastic in that response since you do make good points. However, the mobile marketplace shifts FAST and any entrant into the space that manages to create a product that solves problems other companies have chosen to ignore has a shot. That’s how Apple gained it’s success (by producing a product that ignored the standard concerns of mobile tech at the time in favour of the consumer interface) and it’s how Microsoft can take a huge chunk of the tablet market. Apple has never shown a willingness to move outside it’s comfort zone (which is partially the reason it’s PC market size is so small) and so offers an opportunity for competition for customers it decides it is not interested in or not willing to fight for.

    Microsoft could either save the Surface announcement until it was ready to ship, or announce ‘vapour-ware’.  If they saved the announcement, they’d get killed for not having enough “apps” on the platform (despite the face that they have a larger community of application developers to make them than any other platform, by far) and by announcing it now people will say “show me the money” until it ships.

    People always bash Microsoft for, well, mostly being Microsoft, but they have a much longer, stronger, history of coming out with successful mass-market products than even Apple does (note: mobile notwithstanding… yet).

    My money is on Microsoft’s tablet and their proven willingness to get it right — even if it takes a few tries (see: Windows Phone 7… er, 8).

  • Jwcorey

    This is a long comment in reply to a long comment, and this sort of thing can get stupid if the back-and-forth goes on for too long. I’ll only make a couple more comments and let it lie.
    – The article says “changed”. Past-tense. Flat-out: No, it hasn’t. Not yet. It’s a tablet that hasn’t shipped running an OS that hasn’t shipped. It hasn’t done anything yet.- I did say that I thought Microsoft is the only one who can give the iPad a run for its money right now. 
    – A lot of Microsoft’s “refining process” takes a long, long time. Internet Explorer is a great example, but there are others. As you said, things change quickly in the mobile market. You don’t have years to get things right before you become a serious player. Just ask RIM.
    – You make it sound as if 79% of iOS users will switch simply because 21% said they won’t. That’s not what the data is telling us.
    – Of the entire population of the US, how many people are going to buy tablets? And how many of those will already have tablets by the time Surface ships? It’s not as much of a cakewalk as you make it sound.

    I’m not bashing anyone. What I am saying is that Microsoft has not had a win in this market yet, and previous successes don’t add up to guaranteed marketshare (again: just ask RIM). It’s too late to speak in past-tense. There’s not an iota of data which credibly argues that the Surface will eat Apple’s lunch. Make no mistake: I hope it does. But being Microsoft alone isn’t good enough to make it happen.

  • You don’t love long-winded comment threads? =)

    I appreciate all the feedback and love a good debate on mobile.

    You can change a market even without releasing anything. If Microsoft never releases the Surface, they will still have made a big change because they have given their OEMs a minimum bar to shoot for in their next tablet iterations on Windows.

    Microsoft has been in mobile refining it’s products for literally over a decade and have shown that if you are willing to spend the money, you can spend the years to get things right (most companies just don’t have the billions of dollars it takes to do that).

    I don’t mean to mis-represent that the other 79% is iOS users will switch just that the door isn’t closed for them which makes them part of a reasonable target market to shoot for (no one ever sells to everyone in their target market but the larger the target the better).

    I think we need to look at the population of people that will buy slim, powerful laptops vs tablets. Because that’s what’s so great about the Surface: it doesn’t aim to appeal to people who just want a tablet, it aims to appeal to the larger group of people who want more.

    It’s a great debate and mobile predictions are frequently fools jobs (though I’m often guilty of the sin of claiming foresight) however I’ve been beating the “Microsoft is coming” drum for over a year and it’s exciting to finally see them live up to my expectations (so far).

  • Jwcorey

    If you can change a market without actually really saying anything then let’s take a look at Microsoft’s three competitors in the mobile space: RIM, Apple, Google. How have these three corporations changed as a result of the Surface? Where are the metrics which show that buyers have moved in a new direction? What’s changed?

  • I get your point but you can’t expect to see the public impact of change in a company, based on a surprise event, this fast — but that doesn’t mean things aren’t changing inside those companies already. 

    Do I have specific examples direct correlated changes internally at these companies? No, but if I did I’d be under NDA for them anyway until they were public =)

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