Microsoft’s confusing tablet message

on July 27, 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.