Microsoft’s confusing tablet message

Jim Dalrymple / July 27th, 2012

When Microsoft first announced its Surface tablet, the company seemed to be focused on taking back some of the ground it lost to longtime rival Apple since the release of the iPad. However, I find the company’s inconsistent message since the unveiling to be a tad confusing.

While I may disagree with Microsoft’s overall strategy for the Surface, I do give them credit for not blindly following Apple’s lead in the tablet market. I also agree that if its partners aren’t portraying the vision of Windows correctly, then Microsoft should step up and make sure their vision reaches the public. That vision should be consistent though.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates went so far as to call the Surface introduction “a seminal event,” and even speculated that there was “a strong possibility” that Apple may have to create a Surface-like device in the future.

Strong words from a company that took on Apple’s iPod with the Zune and suffered a crushing defeat.

And then there’s this comment from Gates:

“You don’t have to make a compromise. You can have everything you like about a tablet and everything you like about a PC all in one device. And so that should change the way people look at things.”

That actually sounds like a good thing. Here is the confusing part.

When Microsoft announced Office 2013 it’s not optimized for touch-enabled devices. Microsoft is telling its customers that the Surface tablet is important to them, but yet it’s most important application won’t work properly with the device.

That either screams poor planning between the hardware and software teams or Microsoft jumped on the idea of making the Surface rather quickly and couldn’t change the path of Office development.

In fact, Office is so bad for touch-enabled devices that Ars Techinca’s Peter Bright wrote an article titled “Why bother? The sad state of Office 2013 touch support.”

In that article he said:

These are not touch applications, and you will not want to use them on touch systems. They’re designed for mice and they’re designed for keyboards, and making the buttons on the ribbon larger does nothing to change that fundamental fact.

Those are damning comments, but they’re also true. You can’t expect your customers to purchase a touch-enabled device and then to use desktop software. That is not a winning strategy.

It’s easy to say that Microsoft can fix it in a future release, but new versions of Office aren’t released every year. To make matters worse, they are taking on a strong player in Apple — one that everyone else has tried to take on and failed so far.

Microsoft should do what Apple did before it with iWork. Create touch enabled Office apps that share data with its desktop equivalent in the cloud. Let’s face it, Microsoft is already three years behind Apple in tablets, so it’s not like the need to create touch-enabled apps should come as a huge surprise for them. If it does, Microsoft has bigger problems than touch-enabled apps.

Of course, the Surface comes with a stylus, but I agree with Steve Jobs on this one. If your product has a stylus, you’ve done something wrong. The Surface is supposed to be touch-enabled, not stylus-enabled.

In order for Microsoft to take any significant share of the tablet market, it needs to come out of the gate strong. Sending mixed, confusing messages to its customers about what’s important is not the way to do that.

Jim Dalrymple

Jim Dalrymple has been reporting on Apple for almost 20 years and has written for many industry publications. Jim currently runs The Loop, a technology focused blog, and plays guitar in his spare time. You can follow him on Twitter or visit his Web site.
  • Kit Pierce

    The Surface initiative is nothing but confusing and full of compromises. The flagship product won’t work well with touch, so the thing ships with a keyboard. Fine. But how many consumers are going to go for the cheap model to find that NONE of the flagship software will run on it. How damaging is that going to be for consumer trust and confidence. I fear Surface has disaster written all over it.

    Too bad, too. Would have been nice to have an actual iPad competitor in the market.

    • nat171971

      office will run on the rt also i love the idea of a stylus. my first tablet was a motion computing 1400 (about six years ago) then a 1600 I also have a first gen ipad (basically a toy for my 3 year old), ever try taking notes with your finger not so great. I say lets wait and see what microsoft has to offer. I love my apple products including my 17 inch macbook pro which they don’t make anymore but i dont like apples my way or the highway attitude. that is why my phone is a galaxy sIII and i cant wait to see what the surface has to offer.

      • Rich

        You don’t like Apple’s my way or the highway attitude? Don’t tell anybody but Microsoft has a my way (Windows) or the highway attitude, too! Keep it a secret though.

  • “GUYS: The Surface Keyboard Cover has a KEYBOARD and TRACKPAD built into it! So while touch might not be great, you can easily switch to a keyboard and mouse without carrying anything extra with you!”-Andrew

    Andrew, it is you who are missing the point. ANY current iPad owner can add a keyboard, but few do. It is the things that you can do WITHOUT a keyboard that define the usefulness of a tablet.

    You can use if while standing. You can use it when you frequently move from room to room or location to location. You can use it as a kiosk. You can use it in sales presentations. You can use it as a laid back entertainment consumption device. You can use it in the classroom with individual students. You can use it if you don’t care to learn the complexities of a computer. For further examples, please see: The PC is the Titanic and he Tablet is the Iceberg.

    In all the examples cited, not one of them would work well with a keyboard and not one of them will work well with Microsoft’s new version of Office. The keyboard does not clarify Microsoft’s Surface message, it muddies it. What they’re saying is that “We make the best tablet out there because it’s the most like a notebook.” The Surface isn’t trying to be the best tablet possible, it’s trying make a tablet into the best notebook possible. (The Microsoft Surface Anti-Tablet.)

    • benbajarin

      Why wouldn’t I just buy a notebook then? It also has a keyboard and trackpad built into it.

      • This Surface is a LOT lighter and the keyboard and mouse aren’t attached to the Surface. You don’t have to have them get in the way if you don’t need them, but you do have them there if you want them.

        • Phil

          I understand your point but from a practical user standpoint it doesnt work. If I’m going to pay to have Office on my tablet the. It’s because I’ll use it a lot and to use it I have to sit down pull out kickstand and keyboard–that defeats the purpose of the tablet–I want to stand with the tart in one hand and use Office with the other–otherwise it makes. I sense to have a tablet and just use a notebook.

          • steve_wildstrom

            I love the fact that I can use my iPad as a sort of pseudo-notebook (with a Zagg keyboard) when I need to. It spares me the need to carry a laptop when I’d only use it for light-duty work. But most of the time i value the iPad for being a handheld device that I can use standing, sitting, or lying down (and I do all three regularly.)

    • FalKirk

      “The Surface Keyboard Cover has a KEYBOARD and TRACKPAD built into it!”-Andrew

      Your comment doesn’t contradict the article, it makes the article’s point.

      Microsoft is not trying to make the best tablet availabe. They’re trying to make their tablet into the best NOTEBOOK available. Their’s is the anti-tablet strategy.

      The tablet is defined by things it does well WITHOUT a keyboard and WITH touch. It works best when standing or moving from place to place or when leaning back or in a dozen other situations where touch and a simple user interface trump a mouse, keyboard and a more complex user interface.

      Apple believes that touch is for horizontal screens and that mice and trackpads and keyboards are for vertical screens. Microsoft believes that touch and mice and trackpads and keyboards are for everything; that computers are computers regardless of shape or size or function; that one operating system fits all.

      Actually, Microsoft is sending a very consistent message. Windows everywhere. We’re about to find whether the message matches up to the reality.

      • Rich

        “Microsoft is sending a very consistent message. Windows everywhere.”

        Exactly…Windows everywhere! That’s what Microsoft believes is the right way to do things. The Surface comes with a stylus? The company wants to party like it’s 1999!

        Let’s hope their market is using the same calendar…

    • dshan

      But you will almost certainly have to pay extra for these covers, with a notebook you get the touchpad and keyboard thrown in as part of the price, and all the apps on anotebook require them. It seems likely that the only app that will require a keyboard and mouse/trackpad with the Surface (the RT model anyway) is MS Office, Metro apps are all touch apps that don’t need such crutches. So with the RT Surface you get a free’ copy of Office but have to pay for a keyboard and touchpad/mouse to use it. with the Win8 surface you will have to buy both a keyboard and touchpad /mouse and the Office software that requires them. Such a deal!

  • dshan

    And that’s precisely why MS have given so much attention to the two Surface keyboard/touchpad covers – users will need them to run Office on the devices! It’s probably the major reason they developed them in the first place, they should just be honest and call them the Office Covers.

  • who_r_dem

    regarding the stylus, if you have to jot down notes in a pinch, its much more natural to write with a “pen / pencil” than your fingertip. The stylus makes perfect sense. That stylus is not meant for probing through the menus or tapping apps.

    I think what Steve Jobs meant by “If your product has a stylus, you’ve done something wrong” is having to use a stylus to navigate through the menus and the OS. (im thinking in lines of the oldschool PALM hardware with windows 6~6.5).

    • Zurkram

      The problem is its one more thing you have to bring with you and keep track of.

  • Just look at the disaster that was IE9 Mobile on Windows Phone 7. They seriously thought that a browser platform on a touch device with NO TOUCH EVENT SUPPORT was a workable idea, and there’s no hope in sight for WP7 as 7.8 has no indication that they’ll be rectifying this woeful oversight.

    It couldn’t be any clearer that Microsoft is not ready to generally not prepared to deal with the design challenges of touch platforms, despite their overt attempt to push that direction with UX decisions like the Metro UI.

Protected by Gerben Law