Surface Diary: What should Microsoft do now? Here’s the view from my house

Last fall, I purchased a Surface RT tablet for my family, taking the money we had originally set aside for an iPad and going all in with Microsoft instead. Yes, it was a big risk. But at the very least I figured it would be fun to write about. This was Microsoft’s first “computer,” after all, which made it important to experience first-hand.

Apparently I was practically alone in making this particular buying decision.

surfaceblackLast week Microsoft took a $900 million charge against its quarterly earnings to recognize “inventory adjustments” for the Surface RT. In other words, the company has been forced to slash the price of the tablet to clear the shelves because demand has been so low.

So where can Microsoft go from here? Assuming the company will be coming out with future versions of this tablet, here are a few ideas based on my family’s experience with the Surface over the past nine months.

Hardware: The Surface RT is the version of the tablet that runs on ARM processors, which means it’s primarily a consumer device, ostensibly going head-to-head with the iPad instead of playing the role of a full Windows PC like the Surface Pro.

And yet, the Surface RT hardware is not consumer friendly. It feels and looks like a business machine. The cold black exterior makes the Surface RT seem out of place in a comfy living room, and the sharp edges make it uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time, particularly when lying down. Then there’s the harsh landscape orientation, which makes attempting to use it in portrait mode almost comical.

Yes, the kickstand can be nice at the table, but the situations when we use it are actually pretty limited. Also, you can forget about the Surface’s signature accessory, the snap-in keyboard. I bought a TypeCover attachment for the Surface RT, and it has been sitting on a shelf in my office downstairs for months. Around the house, it just doesn’t get used.

surfaceportraitWhen given a choice, I’ve found that we’ll almost always default to another device for a particular use. For example, rather than using the Mail app on the Surface RT to check messages in the living room, my wife consistently uses her iPhone 3GS instead. This is a result of habit, in part, but on a subconscious level I think it also has to do with the fact that the Surface isn’t particularly comfortable to use.

Microsoft needs to make its next tablet a joy to hold, as a first step toward making it fun to use.

Apps: Yes, this subject again. I hate to bring it up, but it continues to be a problem in my experience.

Our Surface RT ends up being used primarily as a consumption device around the house, to watch Netflix and YouTube, and to check the news, primarily via the built-in Bing News app. Our toddler likes Microsoft’s Fresh Paint app and some of the third-party kids’ coloring-book apps. But beyond the basics, things can start to feel pretty thin.

Just as the latest example, we were doing some real estate searches, checking out homes in a variety of neighborhoods, and we decided to download the Zillow app for Windows on the Surface RT … only to find out that one doesn’t exist. The alternatives in the Windows Store were subpar. Sure, we can use the browser, but it’s always better to have a native app for a touch interface.

Microsoft has started to address the problem with a series of new first-party apps in Windows 8.1, but there’s no way the company can do this on its own. Microsoft somehow needs to prove to more third-party devs that this platform is worth their time.

Surface

Strengths to build on: By far the biggest selling point of the Surface RT for families is the ability to have multiple user accounts. This is an important point of differentiation for Microsoft and it’s typically the first thing that I mention when people ask what I like about the device.

Microsoft should be touting this feature over stuff like the USB ports and the kickstand and whatever else it’s putting into its commercials.

Also, despite all the negative reaction to the Modern UI in Windows 8/RT, it is actually a very nice and usable interface for a tablet. After using it for as long as we have around the house now, I find Windows RT much faster and smoother to navigate than iOS on the iPad.

(In the bigger picture, it’s too bad Microsoft wasn’t able to come out with a dedicated tablet OS, without trying to mash up the new and old Windows into a single operating system. The realities of hybrid and convertible hardware might have made this tough, but it would be fascinating to turn back the clock and see how Windows 8/RT would have been received if Microsoft had kept the traditional interface for desktops and rolled out the new Modern UI just for tablets.)

And finally, in the areas of strengths, Microsoft has clearly struck a chord with the Surface brand name. My daughter calls my Windows Phone the “Surface Phone,” and asks for the Surface by name when she wants to watch a video.

Bottom line, my household Surface experiment hasn’t been a disaster, by any stretch, but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend that anyone else follow in my footsteps, even at the new $349 price. And that, ultimately, is a sign of the challenge Microsoft needs to overcome.

Surface Diary: Previous installments

  • Patrick Husting

    Totally agree with you Todd. I WANTED the Surface RT to replace my iPad but the feel and the performance of the unit doesn’t replace my iPad at all. Performance is #1 and it is totally slow. Experience with getting to apps quickly, launching quickly and using quickly is not the experience I get with the RT unit.

    AND, it crashes or LOCKS UP after viewing a dozen or more web sites in IE.

    Tim Cook is right, you need to build for the device and not an OS for every kind of platform…

  • Robert Brant

    I like my Surface RT. I find it comfortable to hold but then again Ive never owned an iPad. The surface doesn’t feel cheap to me at all when I hold it. I don’t have problems with it locking up or freezing. I find it to be a very stable OS. Unlike you Todd I use the keyboard quite a bit especially when I use Word or Excel. The apps are a problem Ill give you that. There are not a lot of 3rd party apps but I was expecting that after all I have the same problem with my WP8. The app issue is the only major problem I see with the Surface.

    • http://geekwire.com Todd Bishop

      Good to hear a different perspective. Is your Surface RT a family device or something you’re primarily using yourself?

      • Robert Brant

        My Surface is primarily used by me. My kids use it from time to time to play games but I use it about 90% of the time. I got it over other tablets because I wanted something that was a hybrid between a tablet and a laptop and this seemed to fit the bill better. Really my only major issues with the Surface is the lack of apps but like I said I knee that going in. Also for the price I paid ($600) I would have liked the ability to charge it at the computer without having to spend an additional $80 for the Surface Pro charger. They both should have been boxed with that charger IMO.

    • Jason Farris

      I have a Pro myself but a couple family members have RTs and really like them. They aren’t technical people, don’t read the tech press, and don’t realize they have all these “problems”, they just love it

      BTW I use my pro in portrait orientation all the time, I don’t find it “comical” at all. Great for taking notes with the pen, great for reading / browsing long articles. I don’t see how additional screen space is an issue; in landscape it’s used for snaps and in portrait it makes a nice canvas for holding in on hand and painting or writing with the other.

      @ Todd, I do notice your photo has some pretty huge live tiles, perhaps if you want a more friendly portrait navigation of the start screen, you may consider increasing the number of rows displayed. I find the default live tile size too large for my tastes.

      • esail

        would you buy a surface pro 2?

        • Jason Farris

          For sure, although I don’t see outgrowing this one anytime soon, pretty stout machine. Perhaps a Surface3.

          • esail

            well the surface 2 might have wireless charging and NFC, and on some websites already have 256gb. models. BANZIA!

          • Jason Farris

            I expect all those thing to be ubiquitous by the time I’m in the market for a new tab. :)

          • esail

            maybe if your to get a new tab when the surface 3 is released it will have a 500gb. hard drive. that’s the only downside to the surface pro, right now it only comes in 64-128gb. not enough to do work on.

          • Jason Farris

            I thought that too but in reality I don’t run into a storage issue much. Between SkyDrive and the expansion port it’s plenty flexible for now.

  • Guest

    Give up.

  • louise

    Beg to differ: The edges of my Surface are quite rounded enough, thank you. The snap-on keyboard is absolutely user-friendly. The whole Office capability makes it a viable entity that’s easy to use. Not to mention that the plug-ins are a must that Ipad never had. It’s the difference between a tricycle and motorcycle. It’s not just a pretty face, consumption device; it is a production tool too. The only drawback is the lack of apps and that’ll change eventually. I pity those who haven’t yet recognized the attributes of this device: you guys are missing out.

  • http://www.mainstreetchatham.com/ JimmyFal

    “would be fascinating to turn back the clock and see how Windows 8/RT would have been received if Microsoft had kept the traditional interface for desktops and rolled out the new Modern UI just for tablets.)”

    Good old hind site. Apps will never come to the platform unless more devices get into the wild. As a direct competitor to the ipad you really can’t compare because of the app count etc. But the way this think multi-tasks, and just having office available to me is outstanding. And the split screen option in 8.1 is amazing too.
    I love parking at a nice overlook in the car, tethering it to my phone, and hanging it on the steering wheel with the kickstand; while the keyboard rests on the center of the steering wheel. I do this all the time. And then I use MS Office and SkyDrive to access all my documents and get a ton of work done while sitting at the ocean, it’s awesome.
    I can’t imagine any older kid wanting one because it doesn’t yet run Minecraft eh? What this platform needs is the lower price which is nice, and more people adopting it, so as to get apps. Without eyes, no apps. And it needs to mature. It’s maturing very quickly, but in hindsight, MS should have taken that loss at the beginning of this units life and created some positive buzz instead of the “wait till we work the bugs out” buzz that it received.

    This thing shines quite nicely with Win 8.1 on it, hope folks get to sit down with it in these 600 Microsoft stores opening up within Best Buy coming up here. As it is now, you have to do a million updates just to get the device in good working order, and most consumers walk out of the stores not even knowing that.

    With 8.1 this fall, it will have a year under its’ belt. The future is bright even if the present doesn’t seem quite so. MS had to take the first step, even if they didn’t hit the road running they took the first step, and it was good swing, but not even close to a miss in my opinion.

  • Keith

    I’m with Robert. I was one of the first to purchase an RT and it’s met my expectations. I primarily use it for checking email, search and resolve discussions when friends are over and we’re discussing a particular issue. It works very well for me when on occasion I take it on a trip and use it at the airport, in friend’s homes or other places where there’s Wi-Fi. Yes, apps are an issue and I constantly write emails to financial institutions I use to not discriminate against us Win8 users by only providing apps for those other systems. And I do mean discriminate.

  • SilverSee

    We just loaded the Windows 8.1 Preview on our Surface RT and I have to say the experience is promising.

    Re. performance: one of the big changes in Windows 8.1 is that the OS will “tombstone” apps when they are closed so that they can be resumed instantly when launched again from the Start Screen. However, this apparently requires that apps be compiled specifically for Windows 8.1, so in the Preview this behavior an only be seen in Microsoft’s new apps, such as Bing Health and Fitness.

    Believe me, instant app launching (at least for the second and subsequent times) makes a *huge* difference in the perceived responsiveness and performance of the Surface RT. Presumably, when 8.1 is finalized, the other in-box apps in Windows RT will be updated to support this feature as well, which should result in a really nice bump in the overall user experience on the Surface RT and other Windows tablets. We will see.

  • whoami

    just curious, why do you know a Zillow app – when you can open it in browser and do all the searches ?

  • Paul

    Having got a Surface – I actually like it in many ways but the biggest letdown for me is the built in free apps – Mail, and the the People App and the messaging app – they seem to operate as separate islands of data. If I go into the People App – I want to see messages from a person, I want to see any emails they have sent me – and it would be nice if the Facebook feed appeared as well. I don’t want to go to the people app then switch to the mail app to find my contact, write the email. These apps should be much closer tied together. In fact I’d go further – don’t have two or three apps – have one app with all of that in it.

    But I have an Android Phone as well – and I much prefer the Modern Interface to Androids. Now if only I could have the apps on android with the Modern interface of Windows ;)

    • Jason Farris

      I find this curious as well, Windows Phone version does exactly what you describe and the People app there is a precursor to W8′s version, and it’s handled really well. I guess having both I never really notice the absence in the desktop version.

  • jackie

    I, too, bought the RT when it first came out. I don’t understand why it isn’t in demand. I had an iPad, I have since given it to my 3 year old grandson. I love my Surface. Unlike some of the other posts here, internet browsing on the Surface blows the iPad away.
    I use it every day. I fashioned a hook on the wall next to my bed to hang while charging at night, within arm’s reach if an idea hits me. Laying down is a favorite way to use it.
    The keypad, I agree, doesn’t get TYPED on very much (I prefer the onscreen keyboard), but it is totally awesome as a protective cover when I throw it in my bag, eliminating the need for a bulkier after market cover, and the keyboard is there if I need it. I haven’t removed it since I bought it.
    I took my Surface on a cruise, took pictures during the day, plugged the camera into the USB, downloaded pictures, blogged about our day in port, and posted.
    Simple. Skydrive integration is excellent also.
    I was planning on getting the Surface Pro, but instead I have upgraded my home PC to windows 8 pro and am going to try the remote desktop next.
    The more I use this tablet, the better I like it. Windows 8 is on the right path for the future of computing.