Shortly after the iPad created the tablet market (yes, others have made tablet computers prior to the iPad, but none were even marginally successful) several competitors jumped into the market. Almost all were third party devices running Google’s Android operating system, but none could gain significant traction in the market due to the lack of a tablet-focused version of the OS and tablet-specific apps. The second wave of iPad competitors came from larger companies that could offer some sort of ecosystem and support for their devices: Google’s Nexus, the Blackberry Playbook, the Amazon Kindle Fire, and the Barnes and Noble Nook. The Blackberry Playbook was hamstrung by poor development and design (ex: an almost impossible to reach power/wake button) and a woeful lack of apps, and quickly spiraled into the discount bin. The Nexus and Kindle Fire have evolved to become mainstays of the non-Apple tablet market, each with a budding app market and the support of large companies that aren’t afraid to lose money on their devices to gain market share.
Then there’s the Nook. Barnes and Noble’s tablet started out promising, comparing favorably to the Kindle Fire in some reviews. What the Nook didn’t have was the might of a widely diversified organization behind it. While Amazon’s marketplace covers just about anything a consumer might want to buy online (including a media library second only to iTunes), Barnes and Noble is just a book merchant. In an attempt to steer Nook owners back to Barnes and Noble for all their transactions the Nook’s Android version was prevented from installing anything from the Google Play store. That decision was eventually reversed, but the damage had already been done- it’s been confirmed that Barnes and Noble will be discontinuing the Nook HD and HD+. Without a vibrant ecosystem behind it, even the best designed tablet is crippled, and the Nook lineup wasn’t without fault. Barnes and Noble have stated that they will work with other manufacturers to produce B&N-branded devices, but the days of the Android-powered Nook are numbered.
Which brings us to another recent announcement in the tablet world- Microsoft will be slashing the prices of the Surface RT tablet by $150. The RT is Microsoft’s true competitor to the iPad in that it is limited to running specifically designed apps; the more expensive and larger Surface Pro is able to run desktop versions of apps, making it more of a reconfigured laptop with the ‘guts’ behind the screen. At first glance this seems to be a strategy to clear inventories before the release of redesigned second generation Surface tablets, but I don’t buy it (no pun intended). Sales of both Surface models have been more than disappointing, even drawing comparisons to other Microsoft flops like the Zune and Kin.
The failure of the Surface has been multifaceted. The first factor was timing- much like the maligned Zune, it was simply late to market and suffered from rushed development as Microsoft’s admin team misjudged what consumers wanted. The Zune was a respectable player by the time it was officially put to pasture, but by then it was years behind and lacked the ecosystem of support that made the iPod king. The Surface has always seemed to be a reaction to the massive change in the market brought on by tablets, and reactionary products rarely succeed (imagine how panicked the boardroom at Microsoft was when it became apparent that the iPad had taken hold in the business world, instead of merely being a media consumption device as they had predicted).
Secondly, they suffer from the growing pains that all new devices must; but without the benefit of being the first to market. The first generation iPad doesn’t compare favorably to the Surface RT, but the product line had three years of development in the market as well as a synergistic relationship with other iOS devices. Given time, the Surface product line could shape up to be some fine devices- but they won’t likely get that time due to the head start that Android and iOS devices have on them.
Lastly, the Surface suffers from poor design in software and hardware. The core concept behind Windows 8 is a sound one- offer a unified interface across all Windows devices, from handsets to tablets to full PCs. The reality is that mobile devices offer a very different user interface and experience from PCs, and the Surface suffers from this disconnect. The Surface was billed as a tablet you could do anything (especially work related tasks) on, but the RT can’t run many of the apps users would want to (despite the designation, it isn’t running a full install of Windows, it has to run a specially adapted version for its ARM processor). The included Office Student and Home suite provides some great value to users, but it’s worthless without a keyboard that must be purchased separately (and each version of the keyboards Microsoft developed for the Surface has their own design issues). The 16×9 screen layout, kickstand, and software design makes the Surface a landscape oriented tablet; while that’s fine when you can set the device on a flat surface one of the advantage of a tablet is being able to use it anywhere. Some tasks are simply better done in portrait mode.
Then there’s the matter of Windows 8. The latest version of Microsoft’s flagship product has been coldly received by the market, and has already been given a service pack update to restore some of the functionality that was present in Windows 7. Windows 8 takes up a massive amount of storage space- the 32 gigabyte models of the Surface has a surprising small 15 gigabytes of available storage. Android (around 1 gigabyte) and iOS (between 1 and 1.5 gigabytes) are storage lightweights in comparison. The app selection is woefully underdeveloped, and the anemic sales have kept developers from investing in expanding that app library.
I’m far from the only one that’s come down hard on the Surface; some that aren’t as Windows adverse have said that the Surface isn’t worth the price even with the discount. It could become a worthy addition to the tablet market, but it has some significant hurdles to overcome before it’s even in the same league as Android and iOS based tablets, including the budding competition from other Windows 8 tablets. It’s far from the worst product Microsoft has released, but I’m not optimistic on the Surface’s (both the RT and Pro versions) long term prospects. The price cut seems more like a Blackberry Playbook style fire sale than a serious attempt to spark interest in a flagging device.
image courtesy of Venturebeat.com