Microsoft’s release of its first own-brand tablet computer – Surface – is an example of the dilemma the software giant is facing.
Predictably, Surface has been branded in many places as an “iPad killer”, and there are plenty of places you can read all about the angle of the bezel and the screen resolution if you want.
Equally, the obvious flaws have been identified in many places too – the confusion for consumers of having two products based on different processors (ARM or Intel); the confusion for Windows users of using two interfaces (Metro and conventional Windows); and the lack of any information about availability or pricing.
Generally, reactions can best be described as agreeing that Surface is shiny and new and some people will buy it.
But it’s the analysis by IT managers that Microsoft hopes will ultimately test whether it “gets” the tablet market or not.
Apple’s iPad and the multitude of Android tablets were all designed squarely with the consumer in mind. As many IT managers have found, attempting to satisfy users (and CEOs) who want to use their tablet device for accessing work applications is an integration and security headache – but one that more and more companies are working out.
For Microsoft, however, the challenge is how to convince corporate IT buyers to continue their lucrative commitment to Windows and Office in a mobile, tablet-using world. That is perhaps far more important for Microsoft in the short term than how many consumers will buy Surface.
But herein lies the rub.
Microsoft wants IT managers to decide that Surface is the corporate-friendly tablet to give to users, with easy integration to Windows and other Microsoft software. Redmond wants you, the IT manager, to make the decision on behalf of your users that Surface is the tablet they will use for work.
Those users, however, are telling IT managers that they want to use their own choice of device for work – and that’s rarely (yet) going to be Surface, not without the sort of apps-and-entertainment ecosystem that surrounds the iPad and Android.
IT managers know that consumerisation has changed the basis of their users’ decisions on what technology they want to use.
Microsoft, however, wants to change the point of decision back to the corporate IT decision-maker and away from the user.
If that is the case, Microsoft Surface will fail.
It seems to the outsider that Microsoft simply cannot shake off its corporate-IT way of thinking. As researcher Simon Wardley pointed out in an article for Computer Weekly, Microsoft’s biggest enemy is “old Microsoft”. Perhaps Surface would have a better future if it was looked after by the people behind Xbox – the only true consumer-facing product that Microsoft has made a success.
The balance of power in corporate IT has irrevocably swung away from the old command-and-control style IT department to its users; the IT department that says “no” is the IT department that sooner or later hears “you’ve been outsourced”. IT managers are becoming service providers – and the service their customers want is freedom of device choice.
For that reason, Microsoft knows it has to become the third tablet ecosystem after Apple and Android – and with little meaningful competition from BlackBerry, that third slot is open and Microsoft will almost certainly win it.
It’s not even clear yet to what extent Surface is going to be a mass-market device in itself and instead more of a showcase for how to make Windows 8 tablets, to encourage a broader take-up by hardware partners such as HP, Dell and Lenovo.
Let’s face it, while Windows Phone 8 and Nokia’s associated Lumia devices have received positive reviews, they are hardly causing queues in the high street to meet consumer smartphone demand. A Microsoft-produced tablet is unlikely to be an anything killer – a broad range of Windows 8 tablet providers is the real end game.
But Microsoft will still have to convince consumers that Surface and its equivalents are “cool” if it wants to protect its Windows legacy in business. This time, appealing to IT managers alone will not be enough.