You have to give Microsoft and, in particular, Microsoft Corporate VP Panos Panay credit. The Surface 2 launch event was so spirited, passionate and, despite massive connectivity issues for all us live bloggers, well-executed that one could almost forget the myriad issues Microsoft faces as a company and would-be contender in the tablet marketplace.
Panay, who held the stage for a little more than an hour did not talk or act like a guy trying to account for any sins of the past 12 months. His inspired stage show expertly wove a tale of performance, fun, innovation and maybe rejuvenation for a tablet brand that some were ready to write off.
Yet, as the buzz of the event wore off it became clear to me that while Microsoft has made a host of necessary and quite worthy changes to both the Surface RT and Surface Pro, along with their attendant services, it had not changed its tablet strategy that much.
What He Said
“It’s not a subtle revamp,” said Panay as he unveiled the product formerly known as Surface RT — now just Surface 2.0. As he said it, I felt an electric twinge of excitement course through my body: “A new look?! that would be amazing. Game on, Apple.” But as the video reveal of the Surface 2 rolled on screen, I noticed how, in all the most important ways, the Surface 2 looked just like the Surface RT.
Obviously, there are differences like a new, brighter display, a more powerful Nvidia Tegra 4 CPU and a USB 3.0 port. However, visually, the changes could be measured in millimeters and a few dozen grams: The Surface 2 is 0.4 mm thinner and roughly 35 grams lighter than Surface RT.
After the event, a still-amped Panay sat down with me to explain, in a bit more detail, Microsoft’s go-forward Surface plan.
He said dropping the “RT” from the name, while still running Windows RT 8.1, was in response to customers who felt they were simply “buying Surface.” This change, Panay told me, simplified that. Microsoft even placed “Surface” on the body so customers could “proudly” display it.
Microsoft’s Surface project has not gone smoothly. The company, by its own measure, reportedly built too many devices and took a $900 million hit on Surface-related inventory adjustments. Panay, though, made it clear that Microsoft is committed to the Surface brand.
Panay wouldn’t reveal exact sales numbers, but told me “[Surface RT] sales continue to increase. That’s why that product’s going to stay on the market.”
There is some indication that Microsoft’s initial marketing plan, which focused heavily on the Surface RT’s convertible nature (so many touch covers snapping into tablets), has been abandoned.
“The biggest feedback we got, was people want us to tell them how to use the product and what to use it for,” said Panay when I asked him about the lack of “clicking-into-tablets” visuals in the new Surface commercial. The new campaign will, said Panay, focus on bringing Surface into real people’s hands. Essentially, Microsoft has to show consumers what they’d do with a Surface and why they want it. The click you hear when the touchpad connects to the Surface is likely not one of the core reasons.
A Tale of Two Tablets
Microsoft’s two-pronged tablet approach remains in effect. In fact, some were surprised that Microsoft did not use this opportunity to add a third tablet arrow to the quiver: the anticipated Surface Mini. Without this smaller device, Microsoft has no 8-inch Windows RT option, and partners like Asus, Acer and others seem hell-bent on using Android for most of their 7-to-8-inch tablets.
For now, your second Microsoft tablet option remains the business-friendly Surface Pro 2. Even then, it’s less a tablet than, as Panay described it to me, “a true PC in a tablet form factor.” The components certainly bear that out. The Surface Pro 2 has an Intel Haswell CPU, the same powerful, power-saving component found in many of today’s leading Ultrabooks as well as the MacBook Air. “It’s faster than almost anything on the market today,” said Panay, and “You can’t ignore the fact that it works as a great PC first. But it does serve as a tablet in that form factor.”
Microsoft is somewhat more comfortable talking about Pro sales, though only in broad generalities. Panay told me the Pro is one of the best-selling products at $899 and above. As an Intel-based product that can natively run X86 applications, its clearly more attractive to businesses.
Much of the feedback Microsoft got on the first Pro was that the battery life was terrible. Mashable Tech Channel Editor Pete Pachal ran down the battery in 2.5 hours. For those on the go, this was a non-starter. “People who bought Pro, loved Pro,” said Panay, “but [they said] we really need more battery life.”
Panay says Microsoft got the message, “Every piece of innovation we did was to get more battery life.”
Surface Pro 2, according to Panay, gets 75% more battery life.
Polish and Refinement
Mobile plus better battery life is winning equation. Still, it, like much of what Microsoft revealed this week, it’s a necessary improvement and not a product overhaul. Don’t get me wrong, virtually every one of these updates and enhancements is necessary and welcome. In particular, for those who are not satisfied with the roughly 7.5 hours of battery life they’ll get with the new Surface Pro 2, Panay revealed a Power Cover, which is essentially a Type Cover sandwiched with a thin battery. It’ll increase total battery life to three times that of the original Surface Pro. That Power Cover, however, won’t launch until sometime next year.
Virtually every change Microsoft made will improve the overall experiences of using a Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. The devices have better cameras, improved audio and even a second setting for the kickstand.
For some reason, though, I’m especially excited about the new Type and Touch Covers. Microsoft radically increased their sensitivity and, more importantly added a backlit keyboard to both. Since I’m often live-blogging in the dark, this is a real boon. The new Type and Touch Covers will, by the way, work on the current Surface tablets.
No, Microsoft did not break any new ground on pricing. The base-level Surface 2 is $449. Tat’s $50 cheaper than a base iPad, but probably not enough to make anyone switch. On the other hand, Microsoft throws the complete Office Suite into the mix (including Outlook). That’s at least a $100 value.
Then there’s the storage. Each new Surface comes with 200GB of free SkyDrive storage. First of all, I’ve never seen a company offer that much free space. Second of all, the beauty of Microsoft Surface is how well it integrates with Microsoft’s’ growing ecosystem of cloud-based services. The company even threw in Skype-based free Wi-Fi, though I have never seen a public Skype hotspot.
The Vertical Climb
When I wrote about Surface RT last year, I said it was a tablet Windows users will love. It’s fun, easy to use and, as long as you don’t get too hung up on the apps Windows RT doesn’t have, an excellent productivity tool. I still believe that but, despite Panay’s obvious enthusiasm, I still don’t know how Microsoft is going make a dent in the consumer tablet market. Is it simply a matter of marketing? Is it the price? Is it is the perception that one ecosystem is better than the other? I really don’t know.
Panay told me the Surface is elegant and brings out emotions in those who try it. I just wonder if any of those emotions will induce a purchase.