Surface Is Microsoft’s Mid-Life Cris

It’s a well-known trope of many Hol­ly­wood movies: the for­mer high school cham­pi­ons mar­ries the prom queen, who also hap­pens to be the daugh­ter of the rich­est man in town, and sev­eral decades down the road, now middle-aged, has a new girl­friend he can’t tell any­one about because that would force a divorce from his wife that could leave him destitute.

And sadly, this week, Microsoft seem to put a sim­i­lar sce­nario on dis­play as it orga­nized a luke­warm launch of Win­dows 8 high­light­ing what its OEM (Orig­i­nal Equip­ment Man­u­fac­tur­ers, the folks like HP, Dell, ASUS, Sony and oth­ers who make PCs) did with the new oper­at­ing sys­tem, fol­lowed by a pas­sion­ate plea for Microsoft Sur­face, the piece of hard­ware and soft­ware inte­gra­tion designed by the com­pany to out­shine its partners.

It was a tale of two events, packed on the same day for the same audi­ence and pre­sented with rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent vibes.

Win­dows 8: The PC rev­o­lu­tion will be underhyped
By the time Microsoft launched Win­dows 8, there was lit­tle it could say that had not been pre­sented at length already. Whether it was the fact that they were look­ing to put this on the next 1 bil­lion machines or the fact that 1,000s of PC would come out with an oper­at­ing sys­tem that looked rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from any­thing the com­pany had done before, few morsels of news were made at launch time.

And the scripted event was deliv­ered in the kind of monot­one mode that is best left for incre­men­tal updates. Steven Sinof­sky high­lighted how the com­pany found itself in an evolved world that was rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from that of 1995 when the Red­mond giant launch its last major rework of the Win­dows inter­face. He pre­sented a case that inte­grated Microsoft ser­vices with its soft­ware and men­tioned hard­ware in pass­ing. This was fol­lowed by a demo of what hard­ware ven­dors had done with the new oper­at­ing system.

What the PC indus­try has done is noth­ing short of a rev­o­lu­tion. With only a few excep­tions, PCs run­ning Win­dows 8 look rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from what we’ve come to think of as a PC. In fact, they look rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent from what any­one, includ­ing Apple, the design dar­ling of the indus­try, has done. And while many of the exper­i­ments around new form fac­tors for some­thing that sits in a space between a PC and a tablet, or merges the two into a sin­gle device, a re-imagining of what a com­puter looks like is cur­rently under way. The new devices are mostly portable, mostly with­out CD or DVD dri­ves (long live the cloud and stream­ing) and mostly with­out a com­puter mouse attached to it.

There is an inter­est­ing irony in the fact that the old­est look­ing form-factor for a com­puter, after this week’s announce­ment comes from Apple: Their desk­top com­put­ers don’t have touch-screen, do not include aug­mented real­ity (think of it as a Kinect-like inter­face to oper­ate a com­puter), still rely on a com­puter mouse to do any­thing and still sport slots to insert CDs in: The iMac looks almost retro com­pared to what the PC indus­try is cur­rently com­ing up with and a new era of indus­trial design is under ways for computers.

The new PCs twist and fold (to be hon­est, many of them in a not-so-convincing way, let­ting a few ana­lysts to won­der about how eas­ily a lot of this stuff will break) and present an excit­ing set of new approaches to what a com­puter could be.

Win­dows 8 new inter­face (don’t call it Metro as Microsoft doesn’t like that name any­more) takes the tile approach the com­pany has devel­oped for mobile phones and brings it to the desk­top and tablets, with some refine­ments. Once again, this is rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent and takes some time to get used to but it’s an approach that is meant for a world of touch-screen, leav­ing behind the windows-icons-mouse-pointer inter­face that existed on pre­vi­ous ver­sions of Win­dows and still graces OSX. It’s also an approach that moves away from the inert icons and touch model that exists on iOS and Android to bring forth an age of smart icons, where the screen vibrates with new information.

But the OS is also one that has learned new tricks from its com­peti­tors. Whether it is the inte­grated search that makes it easy to find any­thing on the device and on the inter­net with no bound­aries between the two or the inte­grated shar­ing fea­tures, which bor­row heav­ily from Android (and were also bor­rowed by iOS), Win­dows 8 is an oper­at­ing sys­tem that’s been built for the always con­nected, always-on age of computing.

It’s the kind of OS that should get Microsoft to scream loudly from every rooftops: “We have reimag­ined the PC and moved the dia­logue about the next gen­er­a­tion of com­put­ing inter­faces for­ward; We have forced our part­ners to evolve the com­puter for the next gen­er­a­tion of challenges.”

Instead Microsoft launched Win­dows almost timidly, speak­ing not of Microsoft launch­ing Win­dows but of the indus­try launch­ing Win­dows. At no time dur­ing either Steven Sinofsky’s speech nor Steve Ballmer’s one did the com­pany men­tion its own name and pre­sented the image of a giant reborn. Both seemed wor­ried, con­cerned that they might offend, and with many part­ners in the room, the whole affair felt uneasy as they pre­sented some­thing that just didn’t seem ter­ri­bly excit­ing to them.

The per­for­mance of Microsoft’s man­age­ment was not too far from the per­for­mance of pres­i­dent Obama dur­ing the first pres­i­den­tial debate: som­no­lent, and some­what withdrawn.

Sur­face: Microsoft’s new mistress
But the launch of Win­dows 8 was only part 1 of a dou­ble fea­ture. The day had been bro­ken down in two, with the launch of Microsoft Sur­face reserved for a smaller crowd, one that did not include part­ners and that pre­sented a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent view of Microsoft. If the com­pany looked like it was sleep­ing through its Win­dows 8 launch, the Sur­face launch pre­sented the alpha male ver­sion of Microsoft. From the start of that sec­ond leg, with its heavy-bass dub­step com­mer­cial, and through the rest of the pre­sen­ta­tion, one was left to won­der if the pre­sen­ta­tion was made by the same company.

Steve Sinof­sky, who ear­lier that morn­ing had robot­i­cally run through the Win­dows 8 scripts seemed to go off script, talk­ing about pas­sion and truly excited about this new device. Panos Panay, the man behind the Sur­face tablet, seemed to have had a dou­ble dose of expresso, pre­sent­ing the Sur­face in a way that chan­neled the pre­sen­ta­tion genius of Steve Jobs and com­bined it with a lit­tle Oprah Win­frey thrown in. Whether it was when talk­ing about the hard­ware, the soft­ware, the way this helped him be a bet­ter dad, the going into the crowd and hand­ing out devices to be tested, or throw­ing a tablet on the ground to show how sturdy it was, we were pre­sented with a man who knows what show­man­ship is about.

While Panay played the lead role, Sinof­sky was drop­ping in, with amus­ing quips and a sense that this, the first com­puter built by the com­pany (if you assume that Xbox is not a com­puter) was the truly excit­ing thing. But at the same time, there was some 10­sion in the air: it was almost as if Microsoft had a hard time con­tain­ing its excite­ment but also wanted to keep it all secret in order to not annoy its OEM partners.

Sur­face is a tight-rope act for Microsoft, as it tries to com­pete with its busi­ness part­ners while say­ing it doesn’t com­pete with its busi­ness part­ners. The company’s level of care in attempt­ing to cre­ate a unique device clearly points to how much it believes that this is the future of the com­pany but at the same time, the com­pany is wary of telling PC man­u­fac­tur­ers that it wants to eat their lunch. And so there’s this weird uneasi­ness where the com­pany appears to want to pro­mote Sur­face but at the same time is wary of over-promoting Surface.

Of course, the device is not per­fect (in my own test with it, I found that sound was ane­mic and inte­gra­tion with some USB devices was still a bit of a chal­lenge) but Microsoft appears to have so much rid­ing on this horse that there is a sense of uneasi­ness about the whole affair.

And an affair it is: Microsoft is hid­ing its new mis­tress (Sur­face) from the rich wife (the OEM part­ners) all the while claim­ing that it loves both but, in its heart, truly more enthused by the new girl­friend. Microsoft mar­riage of con­ve­nience is some­thing that sus­tains it today but it yearns to elope with the new thing in town and build a new life with it.

And at the source of it all, that may be why the com­pany is under-hyping Sur­face and Win­dows 8. Microsoft is hav­ing a mid-life cri­sis and after a 30+ year mar­riage with its OEMs, the com­pany is plot­ting a future that looks rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent, one where it is sin­gle and gets to choose what its product/mate looks like. It’s the future it really wants but it’s also a future the com­pany is not will­ing to admit to. All its inse­cu­ri­ties are tied into its rela­tion­ship with the OEMs and the com­pany fears that if it makes the jump, it will have a chance to fail and that’s truly scary.

So the com­pany is doing every­thing to under­mine its own hopes. Look­ing at the Sur­face is fac­ing a true tragedy due to poor pric­ing: The Sur­face retails at $499 with­out the key­board (you’ll have to pay $100 extra for that) and thus finds itself in a space where it is too expen­sive to com­pete in the tablet space and not feature-rich enough to com­pete in the PC space. It’s the kind of device that would have been per­fect at a $399 price point with the key­board included, the kind of device that could have stolen mil­lions of hearts away from the iPad; It’s the kind of device that could still have been a suc­cess­ful con­tender at $329 with­out its key­board; It’s the kind of device that seems to exist to prove Apple’s supe­ri­or­ity in squeez­ing every dol­lar out of its pro­duc­tion line to deliver prod­ucts that are rel­a­tively inex­pen­sive while get­ting decent enough mar­gins for the company.

And the truly sad part is that Microsoft will look at this fail­ure in sell­ing more of those devices as con­fir­ma­tion that it should have stuck with its part­ners in the first place (no mat­ter what I, or any other pun­dit, say, there will be hun­dreds of mil­lions of copies of Win­dows 8 sold, as the indus­try as a whole loads it up on new machines that will get upgraded to eventually).

But maybe there’s hope. I was recently talk­ing to a long­time Apple user (the kind of per­son that was there with the early macs, the kind of per­son who stuck by Apple’s side through the lean years; the kind of per­son who’s never own any­thing but a mac) and she told me that Sur­face was the first time she thought of a Microsoft prod­uct as a decent alter­na­tives. The live tiles, in par­tic­u­lar, were part of the attraction.

I’ve also car­ried a Win­dows phone for a few weeks and there is some­thing inter­est­ing hap­pen­ing there: when nor­mal peo­ple (ie. peo­ple who do not live and breathe tech) look at it, they like it. They instinc­tively get what tiles are about and see a lot of the small things in Microsoft’s new user inter­face that they enjoy.

The chal­lenge for Microsoft has been in rein­sert­ing itself into the con­ver­sa­tion. In a world where Apple and Android dom­i­nate the dia­logue of what a mobile OS should look like, Microsoft is hav­ing a hard time get­ting a word in edge-wise. With Win­dows 8, the com­pany is now sit­ting by a loud­speaker, using the biggest piece in its sound equip­ment to make its argument.

And when it does make that argu­ment, it needs to do so force­fully and with con­fi­dence: Microsoft needs to real­ize that while the Sur­face is an inter­est­ing device, it is but one of the chan­nels of dis­tri­b­u­tion of the new Win­dows look. The com­pany needs to see that while Apple is much big­ger than they are today, Microsoft still has to learn how to man­u­fac­ture effi­ciently at scale (Apple’s advan­tage didn’t come overnight: they’ve been churn­ing out iPods for over a decade, fig­ur­ing out how to do hard­ware in the most cost-and-quality-efficient way through mul­ti­ple iterations)

The bat­tle will be long and Sur­face may fail right now but Microsoft needs to keep its bal­anc­ing act of sup­port­ing its OEM part­ners so they can attack the mar­ket as part of a united front while at the same time iter­at­ing Sur­face so it can become what Microsoft hopes it to be.

Will they be able to do it? Only the future can tell us but one thing is clear: fail­ure is not an option because fail­ure would mean that Microsoft is out of the game altogether.

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