Will the Microsoft Surface be an iPad killer?

This week, Microsoft released their secret weapon in the fight to regain their losing market share against Apple. It was a surprise move, they did manage to keep this under wraps and it did not leak out to the masses like their versions of a new OS/Office or some other software manages to do. The launch was breathtaking and the first reaction for any person that is in love with Gadgets would definitely have been "Gimme, Gimme"

At launch there was very little that was known about these devices, even now there isn't much that is known , but from what is being speculated, the future of Microsoft Surface seems to look down a gloomy dark road.Here's some of the reasons why.

1. The Product
The product is an amazing looking piece of hardware (at least from the videos) with a body made of VaporMag (vs Apple's use of the Aluminum). While all of the iOS devices are based on ARM devices, Microsoft Surface has two offerings, an ARM based and an Intel based system. Which also means that the apps that you can run on one cannot be run on the other. So even before they have a product in the market, they have already made it super expensive for users and/or developers. There would be an inherent need to have two versions of an app. The strategy of a consumer - producer device, where the PRO version can help produce content and the RT version can help consume; seems like a good one, but places an extra burden on the developer/consumer. Developers might love this as it means 2x sales.

2. The Price
Though there is no official update on the price, a price of about $600 is estimated for the RT version and around the $1000 mark for the Pro version. This has instantly placed the device out of the market it was trying to fight. If the RT version cannot be used for anything other than running apps (which do not exist and none of the earlier apps can be run) it is a very expensive tablet. The windows Phone is a classic example, Even after Microsoft distributed hundreds and thousands of these devices to their partners and employees (to boost the market penetration) it just fell dud in comparison to other devices. An iPad can be purchased for about $400 and it is an established product in the market that has been tested and approved by the consumers over the last few years and 3 generations. Surface is new and untested in terms of performance and features. Anything that will be more expensive than this mark will not be accepted very well. The Amazon Kindle Fire sold for under $200 and that went well because a lot of consumers thought that it was priced just right. Given that it was nearly half the price than that of what is considered a market standard.

3. The People
For a device or ecosystem there are two things that are important, Developers and Consumers. They work in tandem, if there are not many consumers, developers do not waste their time on the platform, and if there are not many apps, then consumers do not waste their time on the platform. Which then again leads us to the first relationship, if there are not many consumers... It is quite surprising to note that a lot of good Mac/iOS developers / companies are headed by ex-Apple employees and there is an increasing number of new developers signing up to be a developer for Apple platforms. Matter cannot be created out of nothing, similarly, developers cannot just appear from nowhere. When Microsoft killed off Visual Basic, they alienated a huge population of developers, some of which migrated to DotNet and many other off Microsoft Platforms. Now, when Microsoft is trying to get this lost set of developers, they are a bit too late and offer little or no incentive at all.

4. The Tools
This is another areas which is not in favour of Microsoft. Visual Studio is an amazing product and has grown over the years. However, it has become a Intergalactic Cannon, when all the developers might have wanted was a catapult. I cannot recollect, someone from Microsoft mentioned that their tools have been modeled on the feedback from the developer community. Which one, the existing one or the growing one which they need to attract? If the admission standards are that of an Olympic Athlete, good luck on recruiting boy scouts. Apple has gone through this earlier when they disallowed the use of other frameworks for development. However they soon saw reason and ... an explosion of apps using various frameworks and languages. The only thing that prevented other frameworks from creating a workable solution of Windows Phone was the lack of using C++ for the apps, With windows 8 they might open that up.

5. The App Market
Just like in the console wars, the consumer is the loser. I have all the three consoles and then games for certain consoles, either depending on a good offer or depending on the best experience or further in some cases exclusivity. I cannot play Halo on anything other than the xBox and Gods of War on anything other than a PS3. However would I want to buy the same game over and over again for all of my consoles? Absolutely not. In fact I would want that they provide a universal disc that works on each of the platforms so that I can choose which one to run it on, after all I am paying for a copy of the game and if I own a console, I should be able to play on it. With the apps, if a user purchases an app, they can install it on any of their other devices. There is no pressing reason to install Angry birds on every device (iOs, Android, WP7, HP WebOS and so on) Windows Phone 7 apps are not exactly the enchantment that people would be after. Admitted that the Metro interface looks good (the radio buttons and the Slider buttons look horrible, in fact Android 4.0 looks much better in terms of the widget UI) and the apps rely on XNA and/or Silverlight with C# as the language for development. The apps that are in the app market are mainly from three sources, Microsoft Employees, Microsoft Partners and Students that were offered a free Windows Phone device to have an app in the app market.

6. Costs of Development
It might be thought that developing for the Apple platform is a very expensive proposition as one needs to purchase an Apple device to develop on and given the cost differences between an Apple computer and a Windows Box from one of the partners (manufacturers) MacBooks and iMacs might seem a bit expensive. However when considering serious development, purchasing a MSDN subscription would set you back starting $699 and $499 for renewals which miraculously with the Aussie Tax (that most companies in the US add on to the Aussie consumers for no apparent reason) is $1,220 and $872 (renewals) to the Visual Studio Ultimate with MSDN costing $11,899 with $3,799 (renewal) and the cost to us Aussies, $20,775 with $6,649 (renewal). In that kind of money, one can buy decent Apple Hardware like the MacPro, iMac and a notebook.

$2,999 Entry Level Quad-Code Mac Pro with Lion Server
$1,399 Entry level 24" iMac
$2,499 Entry level MacBook Pro (15" retina)
$ 539 Entry Level iPad
$ 799 The iPhone
$8,235 TOTAL

The cost if you had taken the Apple hardware to develop, you are still better off and if you were to spend this amount on an annual basis (remember trade-ins, give these to your friends, relatives ro sell them off after 12 months, you would still be able to get a major portion of the $8,235 back. Microsoft events vs WWDC, I guess no other event is as popular as the WWDC.

7. Enterprise
The only thing that keeps Microsoft afloat is that windows is being used in the enterprise and a lot of developers are developing Enterprise solutions on windows. I recollect about 2 decades ago, we had System/36 and AS/400 with DLC connected dumb green terminals. These were soon replaced with windows 3.1 or 95 terminals using BNC or CAT5. So windows did not by default or by design become the enterprise choice, today the apple hardware though expensive is considered a much superior piece of hardware than the offerings from other manufacturers. Work places are encouraging BYOD (bring your own devices) and Apple devices are featuring in this list. In many places where Windows laptops were being used, iPads are brought in as replacements.
The other part of the enterprise that is being managed on Microsoft platforms are things like the Exchange Server, SQL server and the Share-Point server. However in terms of a log-in or Identity management server, there are other alternatives that are competing and equally secure and easy to manage. So there is a big possibility that these could get replaced. Microsoft has ben riding the wave, the thing to note with waves are that they start with a low amplitude, rise to it's peak and then starts to decay with the amplitude decreasing gradually. They have ridden the wave and not really bothered what happens at the end of it all. It would not happen overnight, but it is a definite outcome that is coming.

8. Manufacturing Partners
The only reason that Microsoft could distribute their Windows Phones out to the masses was that the manufacturing partners were happy to provide a sizable number of units for free to give away. This time around they have literally kicked their own partners and gone ahead to release their own hardware (good on them) but the partners are not very happy about this decision. There are reports that some partners are already predicting the doom that Microsoft is heading towards with this device.

Microsoft has deep, very very deep pockets. They also have some of the best developers and minds in the industry. It would be unfair to compare the leadership styles, but Clowning is not exactly a leadership style is it, at least not when I checked last. It seems that the current leadership at Microsoft, the Steve man either is trying to hang cool with his kids or has an identity crisis, where he is desperately trying to be what he isn't. He might be a Math major, but he does not relate with the younger generation, nor with the developers. Bill Gates on the other hand fit right into the developers community as one of them. You must have watched the You Tube video of the Asus PadFone launch by the Chairman of Asus group ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqjoRMHyYQc ) If dramatics was what was required, they should have hired Jackie Chan to present the same with all the histrionics that could be delivered on stage. Similarly, Steve Balmer was no less, if there is a competition of which CEO can be silliest at launch, there are plenty and Microsoft, Asus are winning. On the tecnhincal side of the Microsoft Surface, if these issues and concerns are not addressed, it is hardly possible that it could work out. HP Touchpads were an iPad killer (the battery was horrible) but the OS and the multi-tasking was amazing. The only way that Microsoft can actually get their tablets out into use is give them away (not for free, but at a subsidised price), they would end up giving it away to all their employees anyways for free, so instead if they subsidise it, they could use that money to achieve better reach. They need to listen to the developers, not the egalitarian bunch but the ones that they want to engage and help migrate onto their platforms. The market is ruthless and with the current level of greed, economies are shaken all round the world and it does not seem that it is over, a second Global Financial Crisis just looming round the corner can only spell bad news for companies wanting to take control of their marketshares.

I used to be a Microsoft Developer, had to give up Delphi because my supervisor (now a Microsoft Employee, then at United Airlines) thought that Delphi / Borland was a fly by night and Microsoft is a big giant and their products will last for ever. I hope that the products do last for ever, but it all needs the feedback and feature cycle.


  1. I think you hit this right on! I sadly feel Microsoft will only get it when it is too late (maybe it already is too late). Something Microsoft competitors clearly understand – it is all about developers:)


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