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Posted on July 19th, 2013 by Jon Honeyball

What exactly is the point of Surface RT?

Surface RT

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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28 Responses to “ What exactly is the point of Surface RT? ”

  1. RIchard Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 12:32 pm

    Excellently written as always, and to the point! Surface RT, and indeed Windows 8 is a complete disaster for Microsoft. We supply PCs and laptops, and since the release of Windows 8 have only 1 customer who has stuck with it, all the rest have asked us to “upgrade” them to Windows 7 so their staff can actually do work. This is particularly true in customers with multiple screens!

     
  2. Steve Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    I think Surface RT was way over priced for its target audience, which was in my opinion non tech people. I know one person with one, a swimming coach, and she loves it; but she didn’t buy it. If they had priced it at £199 with touch cover from the start it would have sold well. Developers, like myself, seeing strong sales would have written more apps and MS would have made more money on the sale of those apps.

    Windows RT should have used the printer/cartridge business model. You can only install apps via Windows Store so MS could have developed and charged for apps like they do games for the XBox and all would be good.

    Shame really.

     
  3. khellan Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    I can see the point and the goal of Windows RT – however its marketing and the message of what it is has not been communicated at ALL.

    If its dependent on an appstoremarketplacelocation then that really needs to be front and centre. It doesn’t need to be better than the rest, but it does need a reason for devs to come on board. If this is their future, why aren’t they encouraging developers to drop x86 type programs and start making storemetromodern type apps exclusively?

    If they can’t get the underlying proposition right, what hope does the RT have?

     
  4. Bill Maslen Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 1:24 pm

    For me, the amazing thing is the way this precisely duplicates the astonishing chaos (in both commercial and marketing terms) that was WinCE. Precisely the same closed environment, Office arrogance, inability to see things from the customer’s point of view. Also, I seem to remember, under Ballmer. Is this some kind of ongoing scam so they can make (tax-avoiding) losses, perhaps?

     
  5. wittgenfrog Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 1:36 pm

    A cock-up certainly, but I think it’s unwise to write of RT and Surface just yet. The names may change, but the ARM versions of Windows are almost certainly here to stay.
    It might have been more intelligent for MS simply to ‘fork’ Windows 8 into “Windows” and “Surface”, irrespective of any code commonality underlying the products. This would have enabled them freely to attack with the ‘consumption’ market using pure “Metro” gadgets without any legacy baggage. This might also have freed-up resources to concentrate on a ‘proper’ Windows 8 from day one.

    More generally your criticism of MS seems a bit over the top, particularly your fondness for MS’s OEMs whom you claim “…have been a backbone of Microsoft’s success over the past 25 years.” That’s one interpretation.
    Another is that they’ve ridden on MS’s coat-tails for many years now contributing next to nothing, while making billions in profits. This view is strongly supported by Apple’s sucess in selling its MacBooks into the “Wintel” marketplace, despite the high costs, and the need effectively to throw away Apple’s increasingly marginalised OSX.

    Your assesment of the two current Surface devices is also a bit harsh. The RT hardware is excellent, being reasonably light, and beautifully designed & made. The ‘Pro’ suffers from the ‘INTEL’ issues noted below. Compare and contrast with the lamentable Acer Iconia W8, reveiwed in PCPRO and panned by Ars Technica.

    I’m sure MS would have been only too happy to stay in the comfy Wintel ghetto, but the rationale for ARM\RT was\is pretty simple. iPads & Android Tablets are selling like hot cakes. They offer a very rich environment in which primarily to ‘consume’ data and MS wanted a slice of that action.
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that Intel’s Atom low-power CPUs have thus-far been inadequate to the task of powering ‘proper’ Windows devices. Their full-fat mobile “Core” CPUs\chipsets are also too energy-hungry to be viable in a Tablet with “all day” battery life.

    Microsoft simply couldn’t afford to tie its fortunes to Intel, who like MS’s other ‘partners’ acted as though nothing much was happening. It seems to have taken MS’s porting of Windows to ARM (and Apple’s implicit threat to do something similar with OSX\iOS) to spur a lethargic INTEL into action.
    But the point remains that up ’til now Intel has no CPU\chipset capable of providing iPad like form-factor and performance with all-day running. Haswell is being promoted as a ’solution’, but the noises coming out of Intel on that score don’t sound so good to my ears.

    I do agree that the ‘Desktop\Metro’ divide is a nonsense and your comments about the lack of a ‘Metro’ version of Office are spot-on. I’d guess that MS knows this and is working flat-out to resolve it. “Gemini”, a series of Office fixes, revamps and updates, is reputed to resolve many of these problems over the next couple of years.

     
  6. RichT Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    “Apple’s implicit threat to do something similar with OSX/iOS”… but iOS has only ever run on ARM devices.

     
  7. wittgenfrog Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    Sorry.

    Apart from crappy formatting, I wasn’t clear.
    Apple are\have been rumoured to be porting OSX to ARM \ Merging it with iOS.

    They’re more recently rumoured to be switching to INTEL CPUs for ‘phones, though given their investment in ARM technology, that seems improbable.

     
  8. David Wright Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    I’m very happy with my Windows 8 tablet. Similar battery life to an iPad (more than 9 hours, including several hours of video) and the performance is better than ARM.

    That is RT’s biggest problem. It was started at a time when Intel didn’t have an answer to ARM and it seemed that the future of ultra mobile devices lay with the ARM architecture. By the time Windows 8 and RT were released, Intel had responded and the Z series chips meant better performance and similar battery life to its ARM pedants. Which in turn meant that RT was a solution looking for a problem.

    It had the new interface, but not the ability to run legacy software. Then there was the price, the RT tablets cost nearly as much as the Intel Atom tablets, yet offered much less.

    When I bought my Samsung ATIV SmartPC, it cost 50€ more than the ATIV Tab RT based tablet, yet had double the storage capacity 64GB compared to 32GB), more performance and the same battery life, plus the ability to run ‘all’ Windows software. That left the ATIV Tab, and other ARM based Windows RT tablets in a lose-lose situation. Why pay nearly the same money for half the experience?

    If ARM can’t reply to the threat of the next generation of Intel Atom chips (allegedly double the performance for the same power usage), then RT doesn’t seem to have a future.

    On the other hand, if ARM can offer something Intel can’t, then RT could have a bright future, as more and more ‘legacy’ Windows functionality is dropped or moved onto a HyperV environment, similar to XP mode on Windows 7.

    @Richard, I have the opposite experience, most people who use Windows 8 say how easy it is and how it is less confusing than Windows 7. It is more the power users or the parrot users (those that don’t learn how to use their PC, but learnt how to accomplish a task by learning a series of key strokes or mouse clicks. They feel out of their depth, because it doesn’t look like their old version, whether it is better or not. That was the same problem that Windows 95, XP, Vista and 7 all had to deal with.

     
  9. Richard Smith Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Bombastic Jon Honeyball may be but spot on he most defintely is.

     
  10. JC Says:
    July 19th, 2013 at 5:53 pm

    Had a surface RT for a while now and its great, choose each day whether I take my full laptop or surface as appropriate and it been great.

    I’ve been in IT as long as you have Jon and you remind me of the old guys who said these new fangled PC’s will never amount to much. Maybe you should try it for longer than five minutes and remember that as you get older change gets more difficult and takes longer!

     
  11. SirRoderickSpode Says:
    July 20th, 2013 at 9:48 pm

    “So let’s run through this again. Surface RT added confusion and delay.”

    Confusion and delay. Someone has been reading Thomas the Tank Engine. That is The Fat Controller’s favourite admonishment to ill behaved engines!

     
  12. Muck Says:
    July 21st, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Haha JC it isn’t age. It’s the fact that its not marketed properly. It isn’t as big as iOS so there’s little that runs on it so what’s the point? Microsoft gave the impression of one OS for all devices but the truth is they have had a second OS like Apple. Apple embraces the fact they their mobile OS is separate to the desktop OS and the apps communicate between the two. Microsoft gives the impression that its the same OS yet the same apps do not run on both

     
  13. Jo Says:
    July 21st, 2013 at 10:10 pm

    Windows 8 works really well with touch screens, we have supplied many clients with windows 8 and install classic shell as standard, it works and with multiple screens its great (Richard!?!) yes the start screen is silly for a regular desktop but most users ignore it

     
  14. David K Says:
    July 22nd, 2013 at 9:35 am

    To much pontification here, its a massive failure. A new platform, a new OS, a new game play/strategy. That none of us really wanted. Was it the same person who thought up the initial new X-box marketing….

    Looking forward to the forthcoming article about surface pro being to late and out of date and hugely over priced.

     
  15. Phil Says:
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:22 am

    Use the RT myself would say that it should have been sold with the keyboard. With the keyboard, it’s more than a basic tablet. Without it, it’s less than a basic tablet.

     
  16. Nick Ioannou Says:
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:34 am

    Now that the Surface RT is £279 it’s actually quite good, but Microsoft need to show that they will be investing in improving the OS. At the Win8 launch events they said the Surface would be a game changer, it was but not the way they thought. Microsoft should give Windows Store credits to all those that paid full price as a thank you.

     
  17. JGWilliams Says:
    July 22nd, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    I can certainly see the point of the Surface RT and would have loved to have one – but as others have pointed out it’s way overpriced. Just like Apples tablets, only with fewer apps.

    I really like the Modern Interface on my Windows phone – not sure it works quite so well on a bigger screen, but that would be my only real criticism.

     
  18. David Says:
    July 22nd, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Plus the issue that the difference between Windows RT and the full Windows 8 was not communicated well, and this is going to have left a lot of potential buyers confused.

     
  19. Dave Says:
    July 24th, 2013 at 11:36 pm

    Loving the hyperbole here. Lots of hipsters and wanna be’s. Got my RT today and am typing this on it. It’s most definitely the best tablet of them all, and I’ve used most of them. It fits in perfectly as a secondary device where a heavy load is required, but if I’m on the road with just a light schedule it’s good enough to be a primary work horse. Yes, I’ll admit, there’s not enough Fart apps, but let’s face it. If we’re honest, and I’m not sure many here are, what we need our tablets for are for both production and consumption. The RT more than fulfils both of these and some. Now if we could only get out of our skinny jeans and stop talking bollocks, we could actually start living in the 21st Century.

     
  20. Glyn Says:
    July 25th, 2013 at 6:40 am

    @Dave Well said Sir! This too is being read and written on a Surface running Windows RT. Fantastic little device. The build quality is superb and it performs well for all tasks I’ve tried to date, from email and browsing all manner of websites to watching TV. I’ve found all the Apps I need and more in the Store. There’s so much clap-trap being written it is no wonder sales are low! Everyone I know who has seen and used a Surface RT, including iSheep, are impressed by the speed, fluid response and capability. The battery life is great too.

     
  21. Bill Maslen Says:
    July 25th, 2013 at 9:16 am

    @Glyn: I’m delighted to hear the Windows RT experience is good. But not actually reassured, because it reeks (to an older power user like me) of an experimental OS that was poorly conceived, poorly marketed and foisted on the general public without proper warning (of the various ways it differs from Win8 – a confusion reflected in some of the comments in this thread, amusingly enough). Based on past experience (of e.g. WinCE, WinFS etc. etc.), it’s highly likely that by the end of this year, or perhaps by the end of 2014, WinRT will have been allowed to die. The Ballmer embarrassment factor means that’s a more or less foregone conclusion. Hey, I’d love to be proved wrong – I was as excited as anybody else by initial reviews of the Surface – but market takeup has been so poor that I’m gloomily standing by my prediction.

     
  22. Alan Says:
    July 25th, 2013 at 9:33 am

    If Microsoft do incremental releases of software you bitch about there being nothing new so they do something massive and you bitch about it not being enough! For most users, VBA support in Office is irrelevant and any businesses still using it know they really shouldn’t be, so I have no idea why you think it is important? And it is still the only tablet that is a genuine laptop replacement capability built in (keyboard, remote desktop, multiple user accounts, Office, USB ports that support any device etc.).

     
  23. Katsu999 Says:
    July 26th, 2013 at 6:22 pm

    Ahh, Office, how deep your laurels are! May you enjoy them in a warm sunset!

    So, there’s a Windows and a Mac version of full-fat Office, and has been for many many years. It is an Industry staple, as essential to businesses as the telephone. The iPad has been out for several years now, and no sign of Office arriving there. That’s a big market to ignore. And Android – probably on billions more devices than even iOS in worldwide terms. Another massive market ignored. That’s two huge losses due to Office.

    And so they make the RT. If it’d had a full-fat Office from the start (and, as you say, Active Directory), businesses would probably have leapt on it in a big way, as it would have been a cheap-ish, reliable (no hinges! no HD! no removable parts!), remotely manageable and reasonably secure device for running full-fat Office, fairly different from the corporate Laptop experience.

    But it didn’t. It threw the RT into the market without anything useful for corporates, and expected the rest of us to just go “Wow, it’s a cheap Surface, whatever that is!” like the dumb consumers MS thinks we are.

    MS seem to be in full-on PANIC/FIREFIGHTING mode, and has been pretty much since the iPhone arrived. And after WinCE going belly up, they should have learnt a trick – DON’T PANIC! PROGRAM!

    Instead of sitting back and thinking deeply about “What would be a killer strategy over the next 5 years?”, they are blindly jumping into markets they have simply not thought through at all.

    “We need a Windows phone now! Quick, buy Nokia!”
    Problem solved?
    Mehhh…

    “We need a cheap Tablet now! Quick, rush out an ARM device!”
    Problem solved?
    Mehhh…

    Good luck to MS, but without a wise and forward-looking focus that refuses to rush out products until they are ‘just right’, they will just suffer more and deeper financial embarrasments in the next few years. And a lack of Office for the majority of Devices out there is grim icing on a grim cake. They never did properly separate Windows developement from Office, and this is the small-minded result of that strategy. They could have sold GAZILLIONS more copies of Office if they had made it for more OS’s.

    Oh, and as an iPad (and PC) user, I can say that it is a pretty useless toy, and insists on being a slave to a ‘real’ machine to achieve anything vaguely ‘productive’ or ‘useful’. Even though it has far more Processing- and Graphics-power than the laptop I hoped it would replace, the programs it can run are nowhere near as useful. In fact, playing games is the thing it does best – Real Racing anyone? Like I said, it’s a toy.

     
  24. Alan Says:
    July 26th, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    What rubbish! Why should they put Office on a platform no one expects to pay more than 99p for any app! Can you imagine if they put Office on the iStore at £180 and the beating you would be dishing them out for it now?
    And no, hingeless laptops have a market of about 4! Remember the Toshiba tablets from a few years pre-iPad? No I thought not, but they (and now the Surface Pro) prove tablets are little more than, as you say, toys still.
    And MS chose, rightly or wrongly, to kill WinCE and launch Win Phone BEFORE the tie-up with Nokia.
    And the Surface was hardly rushed, not perfect maybe and there is certainly some good stuff to look forward to in V2 but certainly a more complete product than the millions of half-baked Android tablets out there!
    But you won’t find me arguing that the iPad is only a toy, I am not convinced about the format at all. But what if you added a removable keyboard and added 90% of the number one productivity suite everyone uses?! Now THAT could be useful… oh, no wait, they just did that…

     
  25. Katsu999 Says:
    July 26th, 2013 at 10:52 pm

    ..and you always could attach a keyboard and mouse to almost any Bluetooth-equipped device and it would work in some fashion – my Nexus 4 does – so that’s no ‘revolutionary new idea’. Just MS deciding “We thought of that!” because they think it’s a selling point the competition hasn’t boasted about yet. But it’s certainly not ‘new’ at all.

    I still stand by my opinion they should have sold a lot of Office Suites to a lot of Device users, and as for nobody will “pay more than 99p for any app!”, you obviously haven’t scanned through an App store very much. I use a Multitrack audio recording program that cost £40, as an example of ‘higher’ App prices. Office could be £50, and it would sell like hot cakes, to a far larger market than a specialist recording App. MS have all the code already written, they don’t have to start from scratch which would save a lot of money, so it’s simply a case of Porting an already complete set of Programs (some would say Office was as complete as it needed to be many years ago, and they have simply been ‘polishing up’ recent incarnations) to a different OS or 2 (all basically versions of the Unix/Linux tree, and I’d be surprised they haven’t done that already in skunkworks), and make a huge amount of money – what’s not to like? Getting off their arrogant arses and actually making it happen? Restricting products to minority Devices (and dwindling PC’s) for no good reason simply restricts your market – even if you own the Devices outright. But if your Devices fail to catch on, they may take the Product down with them. Holding Office users to ransom by making them buy MS hardware won’t work now because too many people have already moved on. Buy they could still do the Porting, it’s not too late.

    Honeyball is absolutely correct.

     
  26. WisdomLikeSilence Says:
    August 1st, 2013 at 2:07 pm

    If you are a software company, you try to maximize the adoption and utilization of your product. So you try and get Office on as many platforms as you can – OSX, whatever, not just the OS you also happen to make. MS has never really resolved this ‘we make Windows, we really want to always be positioning ourselves to support and nurture Windows, even if it impacts negatively on our big-picture business’. This kind of thinking is beyond Ballmer, but apparently he’s finally conquered ’sky up, ground down’

     
  27. dila512 Says:
    August 2nd, 2013 at 11:58 pm

    @Bill Maslen: WinCE is still in production known as Windows Embedded now, latest release was in June 2013, and WinFS isn’t an operating system it is a storage subsystem concept of which various parts have appeared in products including SQL Server.

     
  28. Decimal Says:
    August 15th, 2013 at 11:26 am

    If you think of Surface RT as being a student productivity platform, it makes perfect sense. Why pay for a laptop and an tablet when you can have both in one device? Have you seen people taking notes on an iPad in meetings? It’s painful. And the competing iPad/Android devices don’t run Office. I’ve tried the BT keyboard attached to a Nexus or an iPad. It’s slower, less intuitive and more clumsy to setup than the Surface. As a consumer/student device with laptop and tablet functionality, Surface RT it is the best out there at the moment. Look at the reviews of the RT by consumers who have actually bought one: they are overwhelmingly positive about it, particularly now it has Outlook. This shows that there is nothing wrong with the device, but that commentator expectations were set unfairly high for a new platform.

    I don’t understand why Microsoft should be criticised for expecting to sell a lot of these. In my view, what failed (in terms of shifting stock) was not the product itself, but the marketing and distribution, which should have more clearly identified the student/office focus for the device. It was also very difficult to actually get hands-on with the Surface until very recently. The price point with the keyboard was too inflexible, and a few more tempting bundle offers and tie-ins would have helped to shift inventory faster.

    Would students and casual office users have bought the Surface Pro instead? No, because it is too heavy to lug around on the train or between classes. The Pro is the corporate version of Surface and for students at £800, it competes (in their minds) with the Macbook Pro.

     

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