Microsoft enters the post-PC era with a PC
Microsoft’s Surface for Windows 8 RT and Pro announcement from earlier this morning did take everyone by surprise. No one could have thought Microsoft would launch hardware that would compete with its own OEM partners. Judging by the timing of the announcement – it is still at least two months away from shipment and Microsoft hasn’t revealed the price or complete specs – it seems Microsoft wanted to avoid it getting leaked when it starts mass production sometime later this month. However, will the Surface compete with the iPad or will it just lead its OEM partners to tear away their blueprints and start from scratch?
Let’s be honest. The Surface is by far the most exciting hardware we have seen from Microsoft in a long time. It has the potential to change how Windows laptops and tablets look and feel. (It is still a potential considering we are yet to get crucial details including price and battery backup among others.) It breaks the monotony of OEMs blatantly copying the MacBook Air and calling them UltraBooks. The keypad-cum-cover accessory adds the oomph value and to be frank, just from the looks of it, I finally would like to own a Windows-based computer. Yes, it is aspirational.
While Microsoft has got the hardware story right, I’m not entirely sold on the Windows RT and Windows Pro story as consumers do not care whether their machine runs on ARM or Intel x86 architecture processor. For most users, if they are buying a Windows machine they expect everything that a PC can do. It is essentially a PC in a tablet/hybrid form-factor. It is their PC replacement and to an extent that’s how Microsoft and its OEM partners are marketing it. But that is not true, at least not entirely.
If you read the fine-print, machines running on Windows RT won’t get legacy apps. Heck, developers won’t be able to make apps for the desktop mode and can only do so in the Metro mode. That functionality will only be available on Windows Pro machines. Talking about the Surface, it will be the Windows RT machines that will be launched first, followed by the Windows Pro variant, which will be launched approximately three months later.
In terms of pricing, Microsoft has mentioned the Windows RT variant will be priced similarly to other ARM-based tablets. So let’s take the iPad as the benchmark and the 32GB Wi-Fi only variant, which costs $599. Considering legacy apps won’t work, the app ecosystem will have to be started from scratch. To be fair to Microsoft, there already are a few hundred apps out there on its store and we can expect a lot more when the first devices launch. But can it take on the iPad in that respect? Highly unlikely. Also, Windows 8 does have a learning curve in the Metro mode, which means Microsoft is likely to lose out on the familiarity aspect.
Talking about the Windows Pro variant of the Surface, Microsoft has a killer product, at least on paper. It is a complete PC in a tablet form-factor that not only feels premium but also has the “aspirational value” attached to it, just like some of the high-end Sony Vaio laptops from mid-2000′s. But with the pricing, which is expected to be on the higher side, it won’t compete with the iPad. Rather, it will compete with other UltraBooks from Microsoft’s own OEM partners. It won’t make people shift from their MacBook Airs but it will be able to stem the defection rate.
As far as I’m concerned, the Surface is a playbook Microsoft has created for its OEM partners to show them what all is possible with Windows 8. And it is willing to take the lead to ensure the platform’s success if its partners don’t. For Microsoft a lot is riding on Windows 8 and Windows Phone, and it can’t afford to make a mistake here. I just hope to see something similar from Microsoft when it shows off the next version of Windows Phone tomorrow.