What exactly is the point of Surface RT?

19 Jul 2013

The ongoing story of Windows 8, and in particular the Microsoft Surface hardware, keeps rumbling onwards. Hot on the heels of news that Microsoft was holding a Surface RT firesale for developers, and setting a “get one in a packet of breakfast cereal” price for academic institutions, comes the news that Microsoft has a warehouses full of unsold stock that has an unpleasant tendency to depreciate. And your auditors have an unhelpful requirement that things are valued correctly.

So the news that there is a near billion dollar writedown on the value of the Surface RT stockpile held by Microsoft comes as no great surprise, although the scale and size of the loss is substantial. Some are claiming it points to Microsoft having ordered some six million units of the thing, which, although somewhat higher than I would have expected, might turn out to be about right.

One has to ask what would motivate an organisation such as Microsoft to display such strong belief in a product that has real hard costs associated with it? After all, getting the production rate for something like Windows is not an issue — its licenses, bits of paper, and a few DVDs. Building laptops is a different kettle of fish.

Every IT manager in the land could see how much that sucked as a proposition

Now, we know that Microsoft doesn’t actually make the Surface products — they are made in the Far East by a hardware manufacturer. Maybe that vendor insisted on a six million unit run-rate. If so, that was quite spectacularly good negotiating by them to secure such a large order. Or maybe, and frankly far more likely, Microsoft simply believed that the world and his wife would want a Surface RT device, so six million seemed like a good number?

In my opinion, Surface RT and the whole ARM adventure is a tipping point-level mistake. It took away resources from the Intel-focussed Windows core engineering teams, and undoubtedly resulted in additional delay, which resulted in a scaling back of the deliverables for Windows 8. Spend five minutes with 8.1, and you’ll see feature after feature properly implemented which hadn’t been tackled in Windows 8. This comes down to planning, program management, and the need to hit a hard shipping date.

It has resulted in clearly showing to the world just how arrogant the Office team really is, and has been for years. It had nothing ready for Metro, either on Intel or ARM. So Microsoft had to make a special exception to allow the Office team to ship Win32-API ARM code in order to have something in the box. Shipping a tablet without the magic bullet of Office was unthinkable, so Microsoft decided to do the unthinkable, and let the Office team off the hook yet again. Yet it didn’t want third-party developers writing Win32 ARM code, so it made this exception available to only the Office team and no-one else.

Without doubt this has been another factor in the huge “meh” focussed on Surface RT by the business community. They too have complex Win32 applications that they wanted to put onto ARM, but didn’t have the time or resource to do a full Metro rewrite. But they were kept out in the cold, and simply did the obvious thing — ignore Windows RT on ARM completely.

Doing its own hardware allowed Microsoft to take a moral high ground against the OEMs, by claiming that its hardware was the reference quality, the benchmark against which everything should be measured. The cold reality is that both Surface RT and Surface Pro are adequate products at best, and certainly don’t shine as being anything special at all.

They are riddled with design compromises and awkwardness, coupled to poor OS (ARM) and disappointing battery life (Intel). Worse still, the Surface RT ARM version cannot be upgraded to be a full managed member of a corporate network, because Active Directory is missing in action. The version of Office that comes with Surface RT is skeletal in its capabilities at best, and yet although you must spend money on getting a business licence for it, you gain no extra capability in the process. Every IT manager in the land could see how much that sucked as a proposition. And there was initially no Outlook for Surface RT, either.

So let’s run through this again. Surface RT added confusion and delay. It limited the capabilities of the Windows 8 release. It put the inadequacies of the Office group into stark relief, and required a workaround that deeply annoyed corporate customers and developers. And it annoyed the OEMs too, who have been a backbone of Microsoft’s success over the past 25 years. Finally, the unsold stock is sucking money from the company, and the accountants won’t let Microsoft keep this a secret any longer.

Remind me, what was the upside of this platform again?

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