Earlier this year, Microsoft whipped the curtain back from Surface, its latest attempt at radically altering the dynamics of the tablet market. In a radical change from its habits of past years, Microsoft didn’t trust an outside manufacturer to design and build the device; instead, it took every part of the process in-house, from software to hardware.
Microsoft intended Surface as the flagship device for Windows 8, which radically reimagines the Windows user interface. Windows 8’s Start screen is a colorful grid of tiles, each linked to a separate application; the desktop, that mainstay of previous Windows editions, is accessible only by clicking or tapping on one tile in particular. That redesign is meant to make Windows 8 easy to use on both tablets and traditional PCs.
The first Surface device to hit the market ran Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 designed to run on devices powered by ARM architecture, which dominates the mobility segment. While Windows RT looks exactly like Windows 8, it can’t run the legacy programs built for Windows on x86 processors—hence Surface Pro, a version of the tablet running full-fledged Windows 8, due on store shelves in January.
Surface Pro—or “Surface with Windows 8 Pro,” in Microsoft’s official, somewhat clunky terminology—features an Intel Core i5 processor, a full-size USB 3.0 port, a 10.6-inch screen capable of 1920×1080 resolution, and support for digital pen input. It weighs a bit less than two pounds, with a thickness of just under 14 millimeters. And unlike Surface with Windows RT, it can actually run legacy Windows applications (although it won’t be able to run apps developed for Windows RT, unless the developers in question also built a version of their app for Windows 8—you really can’t get here from there).
Sounds good, right? Not so fast: Surface Pro boasts one feature that could rapidly become an Achilles Heel, especially if Microsoft intends for the device to compete against Apple’s iPad and a host of lightweight Google Android touch-screens. In a Nov. 29 Tweet to a customer, the official Surface Twitter feed claimed: “We expect it [Surface Pro] to have approx. half the battery life of Surface with Windows RT.”
That means Surface Pro will have roughly four hours of battery life. That’s around half the battery life (if not less) of Apple’s various iPads, the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, Research In Motion’s PlayBook, Hewlett-Packard’s now-cancelled TouchPad, and Motorola’s all-but-forgotten Xoom. In other words, pretty much every tablet currently on the market.
Nor can the Surface Pro compete with other tablets on price. The 64GB version of the device will retail for $899, with the 128GB version coming in a little higher at $999. While Microsoft throws in a Surface pen with Palm Block technology, the flexible cover that doubles as a keyboard—a key element in the device’s marketing campaign—is still sold separately.
Compare that to the current iPad, arguably Microsoft’s greatest competition in the tablet space, where pricing for the various models ranges from $499 for the 16GB Wi-Fi model to $829 for the 64GB version with Wi-Fi and cellular. Or Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD with 4G LTE, which starts at $499 for the 32GB model; or Google’s Nexus 10, which starts at $399.
Microsoft can argue that the Surface Pro’s ability to run legacy applications makes it a far more versatile device than any of those competitors, with greater potential utility to consumers and office workers—but the radically shorter battery life undercuts any arguments about the tablet’s utility. The fact that the Surface Pro is bulkier and bigger than other tablets on the market also doesn’t help, especially if that market is gravitating more and more toward smaller tablets such as the iPad Mini.
Microsoft clearly wants the Surface Pro to succeed. Why else dump untold millions of dollars into the marketing effort, plastering seemingly every bus stop and billboard between Manhattan and Los Angeles with “Surface” advertisements? But Microsoft in many ways also seems trapped by its inability to market anything without wanting to earn a hefty margin from it. At a price of a couple hundred dollars, Surface might have proven a game-changing hit; but now it looks more and more like Microsoft will need to struggle to make good on the initial optimism for its Next Big Thing.