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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

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