Microsoft’s Surface Makes Windows RT Strategy Even More Confusing

Microsoft’s Surface Makes Windows RT Strategy Even More Confusing

Surface shakes up Windows RT and Windows 8 strategies, but not in a good way.

Microsoft’s announcement of its new Surface tablets got the entire tech industry’s attention yesterday. The announcement was big on drama but not so big on details. Despite showing off the new Surface devices and using them to build hype for Windows RT and Windows 8, Microsoft left out some key points of information like pricing and a clear understanding of how the devices will fit into mobile tech market.

The announcement also left many technology pros scratching their heads in confusion about Microsoft’s decision to own the entire computing process in the way that Apple does – from hardware to OS, to the app market. Another head scratcher, particularly for CIOs and IT leaders, is how or where Surface devices will fit into businesses.

Owning the entire device and ecosystem is a business model that has been incredibly successful and lucrative for Apple. While Microsoft may be attempting to replicate Apple’s approach, it’s by no means a foregone conclusion that the company can do so. Apple has a much larger chain of retail outlets, it doesn’t compete with devices running iOS (or OS X) created by other companies, and Apple built its iOS juggernaut slowly one layer at a time over the past decade, beginning with its digital hub strategy and the iPod.

The competition with longtime OEM partners is easily the most shocking thing about the Surface devices. As analysts Richard Edwards and Jan Dawson from research firm Ovum point out, this could be a serious sign that Microsoft isn’t satisfied with the work of its hardware partners with respect to Windows RT/8, or even longer term relationships.

On the hardware front, bringing out its own device ahead of the Windows 8 launch could imply that Microsoft is not happy with devices being built by its OEM partners or that it’s not satisfied with only taking a licence fee from selling Windows-based tablets. Either way, the move is a vote of no confidence in these partners, who should rightly feel slighted…or challenged. Rarely is it a good idea for an OS owner to start competing with its OEM partners, but Microsoft is clearly taking a page out of the Apple playbook by bringing Surface to market.

That brings us to an important point. Surface tablets are essentially nothing more than one more Windows RT device and another tablet PC running Windows 8. They simply happen to be designed and built by Microsoft. Microsoft has been pretty strict with the requirements for Windows RT tablets, which are designed to compete with the iPad. As a result, it’s likely that Surface for Windows RT won’t be significantly different from Windows RT tablets made by any other company.

That brings up another big question – who is the customer Microsoft is targeting with Surface?

Given the limited distribution channel, it seems that Microsoft is going after the consumer market (or a subset of it) and may be using Surface devices to generated interest in Windows RT and Windows 8. Based on that and the overall feel of the media campaign, it seems unlikely that Surface devices will be aimed at the enterprise market (at least initially). Having said that, they should still integrate into businesses with the same set of options and challenges as other Windows RT tablets and Windows 8 systems.

Ironically, targeting the enterprise market instead could be a better strategy, particularly for Windows RT. Microsoft might be able to develop a better case for Windows RT tablets as business devices if it markets directly IT departments. Most IT professionals are hesitant about Windows RT because it eschews existing device/PC management options. Directly appealing to longtime Windows systems administrators and engineers could keep some of them focused on Microsoft solutions rather than looking at more established and popular options, most notably the iPad.

All in all, Microsoft seems to be trying to use pages from Apple’s playbook with Surface, but isn’t quite managing to do so effectively. As a result, the company is creating more confusion around its immediate plans for Windows RT and Windows 8 as well as its long term goals.

  • Aidan Taylor

    This sites for Macs; Apple. Not Microsoft.

  • staticint

    While I understand and stand by CoM’s desire to forever be Apple fanboys/girls, that doesn’t necessarily entail bashing Microsoft at every corner, especially over non-issues such as this. Seriously.

  • Tony Jago Million

    I hope you realise there is another market where Microsoft “Own the entire device and ecosystem” – its called XBox and they’ve been somewhat successful at it. There should be no “confusion” as to what they’re trying to do.

  • vanmacguy

    I think the confusion is around Microsoft’s choice to kick the OEM’s squarely in the place you don’t want to be kicked.

    What we’ve got here is tablet makers (Samsung for example) now paying Microsoft $85 for each copy of Windows 8 they preinstall on a tablet they make and then going to market with a device that they’re in direct competition with Microsoft with.
    And Microsoft saying they believe the best experience for the consumer is one where one company owns both the hardware and the software is saying what to the likes of Dell, HP, Toshiba, etc? That they’re all supplying less than the best experience to the consumer.
    That’s the confusion. I’m not bashing Microsoft, but am pointing out the ultra confusing message that was delivered yesterday.
    And @Tony, Microsoft doesn’t have hardware partners with XBox.
  • Andrew John

    While I understand and stand by CoM’s desire to forever be Apple fanboys/girls, that doesn’t necessarily entail bashing Microsoft at every corner, especially over non-issues such as this. Seriously.

    You clearly didn’t read the article did you? You just read the headline and got your knickers in a twist. If you actually read the article you would have discovered it wasn’t bashing MS, just asking questions about this curious approach, and the many questions left unanswered after its launch. Pricing? Target market? Apps? And now this determined approach to slap its traditional OEM’s right in the face in the belief that they’ll have to do it themselves now.

    Do yourself a favour and read the article. It actually asks some very relevant questions, one that any prospective buyer should grasp before lining up for this one.
  • Singh Amardeep

    i ACTUALLY LIKE IT. I’m an apple fan boy but I actually like this tab.

  • Evil_Scot

    The fact that Ryan states that RT should be for the corporates seems to infer that he does not understand the key differenced between RT and pro. The pro version supports legacy applications through a windowed desktop as well as Windows Run Time apps meaning those applications developed in house by people such as myself can be run on these new devices.The operating system on the pro platform is the same as that used on the desktop towers and all in one systems. In fact windows 8 can be thought of as running iOS apps on Mountain lion whilst using iOS as the application launcher.

    This press release could be seen as MS throwing down the gauntlet to Asus. Transformer RT anyone?

    Of course the keyboard cover is MS’s way of flicking the bird at iOS and ICS tablets and the awful onscreen keyboards. I am one of those who prefer physical keyboards on their phones so the Idea of a laptop/tablet hybrid is quite appealing despite the fact that my laptop died from neglect after buying an iPad1.

    Therein lies Apple’s challenge. iOS 6 see’s the withdrawal of support for original hardware which could mean that once I have finished paying for it, this device could be obsolete. With an installed user base of millions of desktop PCs the windows App market place could become vibrant in a short space of time and those with experience of Windows marketplace would certainly consider using an MS device over a Google licensed one. Those users with an iPod may face a tougher decision.

  • lwdesign1

    As an Apple user since 1989, I’m actually pleased to see Microsoft come out with a product that looks like it could actually be fun and productive to use–and that doesn’t slavishly copy everything Apple has already done. Microsoft is one of the only companies to do something different in its phones and tablet, which is a distinctly strange turn of events. I hope the new tablet does well for them. It’s good for Apple to have some stiff competition to drive them to even greater heights. Would I buy one? Nope. I still have too bad a taste in my mouth from years of using Windows and Microsoft software. It would have to be SIGNIFICANTLY better and more usable than Apple’s iOS for me to even consider switching, which I still don’t think Microsoft is capable of (based on past performance). I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, however.

  • Justin Gilbert

    Its not the first time MS has competed directly with its partners.

About the author

Ryan FaasRyan Faas is a technology journalist and consultant living in upstate New York who has written extensively about Apple, business and enterprise IT, and the mobile industry. In addition to writing for Cult of Mac, he is a contributor to Computerworld, InformIT, and Peachpit Press. In a previous existence he was a healthcare IT director as well as a systems and network administrator. Follow Ryan on Twitter and Google +

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