Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware?

by Patrick Moorhead   |   December 11th, 2012

Microsoft Surface has been on sale for a while now and reviews  are out where reviewers tell the public what they thought about their experiences. The reviews varied widely as I illustrate below, but I wanted to spend some time digging into one of the more controversial topics, Surface’s backward compatibility with legacy hardware and software.

Early Reviews Mixed
The headlines and results for the early reviews were mixed, ranging from ZDNet’s Ed Bott “enthusiastically recommended” to Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle “this is technological heartbreak” and everything in-between. Why the big disparity?

The big disparity comes from the different way reviewers approach their personal experiences, their projected experiences and the time frames in mind. Most of the positive review comments are coming from today’s sophisticated hardware and the potential for an improved software experience in future. The more negative comments involve the here and now software experience, primarily around the kind and numbers of apps in the Windows Store. Those reviewers who didn’t find the apps they wanted also pointed out that Surface cannot run legacy Windows apps. Some of those reviewers made it sound somewhat like Microsoft will make no future improvements down the line. This is a bit unfair in that Microsoft will improve the software experience, but, if a consumer does order a Surface today, this is what they are getting today. Thus we see the importance of having everything in place on day one of the reviews.

Product reviews reflect a snapshot in time of the reviewer’s personal experiences, sophistication levels, favorite software, preferred ecosystem and usage patterns. If you are like the reviewer, then it should work out well for you. Better yet, choose a friend you know who has the product and ask them what they think about it.

Is Windows Desktop Software Important?
One important thing for consumers to ask when considering Surface is whether they want to load any of the current Windows desktop apps they own today or if they will want to buy and install new Windows desktop apps in the future. Surface owners must select and buy all their “Metro-style” apps from the Microsoft store but cannot buy or load Windows “Desktop-style” apps.

Surface comes pre-loaded with full (not trial) versions of high quality Microsoft productivity apps Word, Excel and Powerpoint, so the basics of productivity are covered. Will consumers miss loading their older Windows software or buying new Windows desktop software? It depends. It’s not as simple as asking snarky questions like, “do iPad users miss this,” and moving on. It really comes down to perception and reality of what consumers will want to do with the tablet.

Shopper sophistication will run the gamut and the more sophisticated users will make a more surgical decision tree. All things equal, they will ask, “what programs do I run today and want tomorrow on my Windows 7 PC that I would want to run on my Surface tablet?”

All things equal like price, weight, brand and battery life, I want my tablet to run a few key apps that aren’t in the Microsoft Store or I just prefer in a desktop mode. For me, I want the following desktop apps to run on my tablet: Wizard101 and Pirate101 games for my son, Google Chrome web browser, and Evernote. Other consumers may want to run apps like World of Warcraft, iTunes, Microsoft Outlook, Picasa, VLC PLayer or Quicken.

The biggest challenge comes down to naming, unfortunately. When some uneducated consumers hear “Windows”, they could think they can load Windows software and “Windows”, albeit “RT”, will be splashed across every piece of marketing collateral. I believe some consumers will see “Windows” and buy Surface thinking it runs their older Windows desktop apps. Other consumers will view Surface more like an iPad or Kindle Fire and not care at all. I think this will be a short-term challenge until the entire ecosystem gets educated on the differences between Windows 8 and RT and consumer’s favorite apps become available in the Windows Store.

Is Legacy Hardware Important?
Another important thing consumers need to consider is whether they want to “fully” run all their currently-owned peripherals with Surface. These are peripherals like webcams, mice, printer-scanners, game controllers, label makers, receipt scanners, etc. At this point, no one publicly knows which legacy peripherals will work perfectly, work without special capabilities provided by desktop software, or not run at all. There will be new devices or relabeling of older devices as “Windows RT” compatible, but for other devices, it isn’t a known entity.

Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. I have an HP printer/scanner/fax machine and a Neat sheet scanner for receipts, business cards and documents. On my HP today, I can scan a document in and it magically shows up as a PDF file in “My Documents” folder. Also, when I am printing I can set quality levels and the paper tray. My Neat scanner uses software where I repeatedly change features like color-BxW, dual sided, ignore blank sheets and collated scanning. Will these features work with Surface? I don’t know and I don’t know when or if I will know unless I have a Surface to use. For the record, neither my iPad or Nexus tablets support any of these special features.

Will this become an issue? The answer is the same as the one above on desktop software. It will depend on the user, their knowledge, their expectations of a device with a Windows brand and their experiences with other tablet devices. For those users who equate Windows with backwards peripheral connectivity, it will be an issue as they won’t know until they buy it and something doesn’t work as expected. Like legacy software, legacy hardware is a short term issue and should work itself over time.

What’s the Impact?
I believe even with all the Surface goodness, its lack of support for legacy Windows desktop software and legacy peripherals will continue to subtract from reviews and perceptions on the consumer side and particularly on the enterprise side. Enterprises use more of their head and less of their heart as IT is about business, not new and shiny objects. However, the legacy objections will die down on the consumer side over the next year as more high quality apps get added to the Windows Store and everyone gets proper expectations set. Right or wrong, given enterprise’s fixation on legacy everything, I can see a more protracted time-frame for them to get comfortable with Surface. I’m very interested to see the reviews in a few days on Intel’s Clover Trail-based Windows 8 tablets that compare the experience to Surface and other Windows RT-based devices.

As for impact to sales, that is a much more complex question which I will address in another column.

Note: This column previously appeared on Forbes.com.

Patrick Moorhead

Patrick Moorhead was ranked the #1 technology industry analyst by Apollo Research for the U.S. and EMEA in May, 2013.. He is President and Principal Analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, a high tech analyst firm focused on the ecosystem intersections of the phone, tablet, PC, TV, datacenter and cloud. Moorhead departed AMD in 2011 where he served as Corporate Vice President and Corporate Fellow in the strategy group. There, he developed long-term strategies for mobile computing devices and personal computers. In his 11 years at AMD he also led product management, business planning, product marketing, regional marketing, channel marketing, and corporate marketing. Moorhead worked at Compaq Computer Corp. during their run to the #1 market share leader position in personal computers. Moorhead also served as an executive at AltaVista E-commerce during their peak and pioneered cost per click e-commerce models.
  • FalKirk

    “When some uneducated consumers hear “Windows”, they could think they can load Windows software…”

    Expecting legacy apps to run on a new computer named Windows is not uneducated. It is, on the contrary, to be expected. I would respectfully suggest that it is not the consumer who is uneducated, but rather it was the person or persons who named the product “Windows” who was uneducated.

    • http://twitter.com/M_Gauche James King

      Agreed. This entire article shows the issues with Surface in particular and Microsoft in general. The product takes an inordinate amount of “education” to use properly and understand. I thought we had gotten beyond that with the iPad. Apparently not.

      Surface is a typical Microsoft product … it does a lot of useful things in very non-useful ways. I think it’s safe to say that the product is a failure from a UX perspective.

      The typical consumer is not interested in combating a steep learning curve to get the most out of their devices. This is why Microsoft is getting killed in the current tech landscape. Microsoft’s engineering-heavy method of designing software is simply not going to cut it anymore because it isn’t the only game in town anymore. If Microsoft wants to change its fortunes, it’s going to have to design its products from the UI down, not the kernel up as it has been. Microsoft is going to have to understand that the UI and UX is what makes or breaks a product, not its functionality. iPads do far less than Surface but I think its no contest which one people prefer.

    • Rich

      Exactly right!! Microsoft is so totally stuck on the Windows name that if they ever started making garbage disposers or lawnmowers, I’d be really amazed if those products weren’t called Windows.

      Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and the Surface all appear to be selling poorly. Considering how important these products are to Microsoft, I’m beginning to feel sorry for the company. Microsoft is sinking in quicksand, even in the enterprise, and the name of the quicksand is Windows. They need to become aware of that and make a fresh start. A tech company that clings to the past too long is a tech company in real trouble.

  • derek

    I think the RT Surface machines only include the desktop because there is no Metro/Windows 8 style version of office yet. Once office is available in Metro then the desktop can be removed from subsequent versions of RT machines and then you have a ‘real’ tablet. However, including the desktop on the V1 machines sets an interesting precedent so how do you then remove the legacy desktop later?

  • Rich

    “However, the legacy objections will die down on the consumer side over the next year as more high quality apps get added to the Windows Store and everyone gets proper expectations set.”

    I’m sorry Patrick, you sound like you think this is still the 1990s and Microsoft is the only game in town, therefore they can introduce a faulty product that seriously misleads consumers with the name Windows (an ancient name you couldn’t separate from Microsoft if you used a crowbar), and all the company needs to do is be patient and wait for the market to catch up to Microsoft…as you suggest when you talk about everyone getting proper expectations set. (In other words, the stupid consumer needs to get smart! Honestly, that looks like arrogance in your front yard.)

    You know what? This is 2012 and Microsoft not only isn’t the only game in town, they are way behind in this market and their *only* hope of success is to start making very attractive products. I don’t believe either Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 or the Surface fits that description.

  • Calipenguin

    Sometimes you don’t know you’ll need a legacy app. For example, if your child’s new teacher requires the use of old educational software or textbooks on CD-ROM. Or maybe your 3G or 4G USB network connector requires software from the ISP. Unlike a MacBook with an Intel CPU, your Surface ARM CPU has no hope of ever running legacy Windows apps, not even through VMWare.

  • mhikl

    Naming’s a bugaboo. Maybe Winlit, miniWin, Wingoes, or something reminiscent of big daddy; but indeed, Windows conjures up the behemoth of all operating systems, and it becomes oxymoronic applied to a tablet of any size. Even the large Greys scanning us from the other side of the moon wouldn’t have a pad size enough for such a moniker. Nope. Windows is Windows, Office products are what they are and MS can’t get away with slapping lipstick on a prepubescent and calling it by the same name expecting to stir the same desires of yore without a whacking good bit of confusion. Pages and Numbers get away with it because they are modest little apps that play in any size sandbox, whilst Word and Excel feel more comfortable in the tents of old style carnival freaks.
    If business (and myopic reviewers) demands the monster apps then a notebook is surely due. But fer the general run of most tasks, small and agile, a tabby does the rest the best.

  • http://www.BarnesFamily.com/ davebarnes

    Solitaire is very important

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1131685622 Peter Buckton

    If legacy compatibility is important, then where does that leave RT?
    What exactly is the point of RT? How long will it continue to be supported?
    Is it supposed to gradually merge with PRO, or diverge further? if it diverges then it really isn’t Windows is it (it is a Lite tablet OS). And if there is a divergence, then sooner of later one of them is pretty much guaranteed to wither and die. I am not seeing how this strategy is supposed to work.
    When is Windows not Windows…? When it is something completely different…