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All signs point to the demise of Microsoft's Surface tablet

Gregg Keizer | Jan. 27, 2015
Microsoft can finally put its billion-dollar mistake behind it.

That was a problem: Microsoft never made clear to consumers that Windows 8 and Windows RT were entirely different beasts, and that the latter was, in fact, incapable of running -- with the exception of Microsoft's own scaled-back Office -- anything but the new "Metro" apps.

Gottheil agreed. "The single biggest mistake was that Microsoft did not clearly tell the world what the Surface was and what it wasn't," he said. "It was essentially a communication problem. But the dearth of software for the modern interface didn't help."

Microsoft's bad timing
Baker had a different explanation for the Surface RT's and Surface 2's failure: Timing.

"I don't think it was the hardware or the operating system," Baker said. "They did all of that well. But it was launched in the teeth of the iPad explosion. Nothing in the 10-in. form factor would have been successful. All everyone wanted then was an iPad."

Baker also disagreed with the others who said that Microsoft's failure was its own making. "You can ding them on all that stuff, but they clearly differentiated the Surface RT from the Surface Pro on price and marketing and positioning," Baker said. "It didn't make a difference. If someone wanted a slab of glass then, the iPad was the only thing they were going to want."

Microsoft cast the Surface RT, but the Surface Pro even more, as necessary, saying that it had to jump into the device business because, said then-CEO Steve Ballmer, "What our software could do would require us to push hardware, sometimes where our partners hadn't envisioned."

Some analysts weren't so sure. While they unanimously applauded the Surface Pro 3, the current incarnation of Microsoft's 2-in-1, they weren't convinced that Microsoft had to get involved.

"A lot of OEMs would have done interesting designs, even without Surface," argued O'Donnell.

But Baker, whose job at the NPD Group is to track U.S. device sales and trends, countered. "They had to do the Surface. With all the growth then going on in tablets, they had to have a solution," he said. "They acknowledged that they needed something in the market. But the [OEM] partners have caught up. In any case, you can't really point to a huge, overwhelming support for 2-in-1s. They're getting better and will get much better with Windows 10, but 2-in-1s are still a niche."

Although the already-sold Surface RT and Surface 2 won't have an upgrade path to Windows 10, there's no reason why Microsoft couldn't revive the pure tablet form factor with or after the launch of the new OS. "If they could find a way to differentiate a pure tablet from the Surface Pro, [the Surface] could come back with Windows 10," speculated Gottheil.


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