While working at Activision some 16 years ago, I negotiated with Microsoft to build out an Internet presence around our marque game title, Mech Warrior Three. Microsoft offered to build and host the site for free on MSN. I told them that we didn’t want to be trapped inside the walled garden of MSN, we wanted it out in the open, on the World Wide Web. Microsoft responded that to put it out on the web would cost $25,000 per month.
For Microsoft, in those early Internet days, the dream of a captive customer base remained alive. Bill Gates had to shake up the entire company to cure it of that delusion.
Now Microsoft is the visionary. With the Surface they are leading the industry out of a world of limited and limiting devices, and into a new world where the device becomes a useful, integrated component of our lives. Why am I so bullish, when the Surface failed to sell out and the reviews are so negative? First, here is some context.
I run a boutique investment bank that sells software companies. Our clients expect us to stay on top of technology trends. Our staff, technology junkies all, are the earliest of early adopters, running the latest Android and Apple devices through their paces, then trading up to the newest shiny thing. Devices are so endemic that Exchange server, which initially limited to 10 the number of devices each user could connect and synchronize to, had to be reconfigured to raise the limit to 20. It was no surprise when the first Surfaces started popping up in the office on October 26th. We quickly realized, however, that this device is different.
My view on the “bring your own device” movement is that the proliferation of devices has actually reduced productivity. Smart phones and tablets are great content consumption devices. People watch movies, check social status, listen to music, read a book. They also glance at email and then think to themselves, “Hmm. . . I better respond to that when I get to a desk.” Or “Hmm. . . . I will need to print that boarding pass when I get to a desk.” Or “Hmm. . . I should really get my vacation photos off the memory card in my phone. I will have to take care of that when I get to a desk, because there is no card slot or USB port on my tablet.” Or “Hmm. . . to respond to this message, I need to review a document that is on one of the file shares on the server, but I can’t access them from my tablet so I will have to take care of that when I get to a desk.” The list goes on.
The devices don’t have to be clumsy and poorly integrated with IT infrastructure. They are clumsy and poorly integrated for two reasons. First, to keep the user experience simple. Steve Jobs wanted one button on the iPhone. Software developers have to adapt. But simplicity is also a smokescreen for the second factor, which relates directly to revenue. By creating a walled garden that opens only to the application store, vendors have locked users into paying for a lot of basic functionality.
For example, if you want to get a file onto your tablet, do you a) drag it onto the tablet from your computer? Or b) try to remember which computer the tablet is paired with, find that computer, get the file onto it, import it into your iTunes, plug in the tablet, and wait while all your movies transfer? Cloud storage services such as Dropbox have solved this problem for consumers, but Dropbox has already been compromised and the consumer cloud services are not enterprise-ready. Nor does your CFO want yet another monthly charge on your corporate credit card, paying for data storage without management or archive.
Alternatively, if you want to access a file share on the network-attached storage, do you a) map the NAS drive and open it on your tablet? Or b) purchase and install an app (tablet vendor keeps ~30% of the purchase price), configure it to point to the IP address of the share, and then find that app every time you want to access the share?
Actually, that was a trick question because even if you successfully open the directory containing the file, you almost certainly won’t be able to open or edit the file itself so, really, what is the point? Might as well kick back and watch YouTube videos on the amazing HD tablet screen. Which is the problem. The solution would be a tablet that is smart about the tech ecosystem around it, can stand comfortably on a desk or function as a tablet, has a compact but usable keyboard, and is compatible with the document formats that we work in every day.
That pretty much sums up the Surface. Within 20 minutes of turning it on, we had mapped network drives, printed documents to network printers, edited Word and Excel documents, updated our Dynamics CRM system through the IE 10 browser, flipped through a book on Kindle, streamed music from a network share and from a Google music account and, yes, we also watched a YouTube video.
The hardware design is also worth a mention. A flip-out kickstand adds immensely to the utility of the device. I found it effective on a desk as well as in my lap. The touch cover is nowhere near as good as a traditional keyboard, but vastly more effective and usable than any other tablet input device that I have tried, including Bluetooth keyboards.
The new Surface brings utility and productivity to the tablet form factor. It has some rough edges and will definitely appeal more to tech-savvy, productivity-oriented early adopters than to people who are looking to a tablet primarily for entertainment value. But nonetheless it is a game changer. It breaks down the walled garden.
Nat Burgess is president of Corum Group, a Seattle area M&A advisory firm.
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