June 24 2012, 9:10 AM
Without a doubt, Microsoft had a very, very big week. Hot on the heels of Apple refreshing their laptop line, and showing off the new features of iOS 6, Microsoft was going to have to really up their game to capture that level of hype and excitement. Did they?
Yes and no.
For starters, Microsoft met industry expectations of announcing their own hardware, something of a rarity for the company. Surface is the new Microsoft tablet that will be leveraging Windows 8 in an attempt to take on the tablet dominance of Apple and the iPad. The Redmond crew had something very interesting to show off. Tech wise, this is a very exciting development. We could have our first legitimate contender to the iPad that may see success without being a pure undercut and cheaper alternative.
Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer showed us what they have built, and from all appearances it is a doozy. A beautiful magnesium built casing that should be incredibly durable, tapered edges, large screen, slim and well weighted. By all accounts a very nicely built tablet. An ARM model running Windows RT and an x86 model (Pro) running desktop Windows 8. Two specialized products that could potentially target every niche of the market. A device that can be exciting for consumers, but also be beautifully adopted by enterprise. They also showed their incredibly interesting and somewhat revolutionary tablet cover, which also doubles as an incredibly thin keyboard and touchpad. There are two models of cover depending on your need, with different thicknesses and keyboard tactile touch. Both have a touchpad as well, allowing you to essentially turn the tablet into a small laptop on a whim.
From a tech standpoint, Microsoft knocked it out of the park. An interesting product, that targets a variety of consumers, with features that have not been seen previously, running proprietary Microsoft software and the familiar Windows OS. The potential is huge.
But from a presentation standpoint, Microsoft fumbled. Bad. It started with one of their Surface units locking up in the middle of the presentation. This isn't the first time such a thing has happened to a Microsoft show, though everyone would have hoped it would be the last. While there is a level of understanding that these things happen, and that this wasn't a "final" product, it does leave a bit of a bitter taste.
And then there's the bit that Microsoft didn't have. They tried to showcase their product in a large, Apple-esque way, but missed out on the fundamentals of what generates Apple level buzz. Price? No idea. Microsoft had nothing to say other than it would be "competitive". Okay. Industry insiders have speculated that the RT version would be similar in price to the iPad while the Pro version could hit MAcBook Air levels. This undermines a key concept of what makes an Apple event work. They tell you the price, and then tell you why it's a great value. This gives Apple a chance to spin that price and make consumers see it as a good thing (even if it may not be). Microsoft lost that chance. By saying that the price is going to be revealed closer to launch date, they are putting that power in the hands of their competitors, and even the buying public.
This then ties into the second mistake. They didn't give a release date. The RT version should coincide with the release of Windows 8, with the Pro version being released three months later. That is simply terrible. Every truly succesful product unveiling in recent memory has included a solid launch date, and that date needs to be "soon". They really could have taken a page from Apple on this one. Microsoft announced a new product, but gave no details about pricing or availability. That just leaves the gate wide open for the competition to step in and highlight new products that can hit market way earlier.
And then there are the other intangibles. How much RAM does Surface have? No idea. What kind of battery life can we expect? No idea. What kind of screen resolution will it have? No idea.
Microsoft unveiled a killer product. In theory. It is incredibly exciting and could actually be the first legitimate contender to the tablet crown firmly in the iPad's hands. But they dropped the ball in the announcement. If they had waited, had all the answers to the questions, and been fully prepared to have the product launch shortly after the announcement, it would have been a killer presentation. Instead, they made a rookie mistake. There's no shame in admitting that Apple is better at product launches. There is, however, shame in not adapting and learning from your competition.
The second announcement that Microsoft had this week was Windows Phone 8. And I'll start with the same issues as Surface. No release date. No updates on pricing. Nothing solid.
Again, it felt early. They had no product demos, they just mentioned the key partners. The rough notion of a Fall release has been bantered about, but again, no concrete date.
The last piece of negative news is that Windows Phone 7 devices will not be updated to 8. Yeah, that sucks. But to play devil's advocate, it really shouldn't be a surprise. We are dealing with a completely different kernel, powered by different hardware, being leveraged by new technologies and adding a slew of features that just aren't possible on the current crop of devices. It isn't so much an upgrade to the current OS, as it is a brand new OS in and of itself. So while it does indeed suck to have a brand new Windows Phone whose days are numbered, it shouldn't be a shock.
Luckily, Microsoft has promised an update, Essentially Windows Phone 7.8, that will bring as many of the perks as possible to the current crop of phones. So while I doubt it will wash the bad taste out of everyone's mouths (I say as I look at my Lumia 800), there are improvements coming.
But what Windows Phone 8 does bring is incredibly impressive. Multi-core support. A greater range of resolutions, including a 720p screen. Removable storage. NFC (including NFC payment options), Nokia Maps for Windows Phone handsets (brilliant!) and an improved home screen with a lot more customization options and less wasted space.
By and large, this should bring feature parity with iOS and Android, and even several areas where Windows Phone is the top dog. While I doubt this will lead to an immediate turnaround in market share, it should do an awful lot to make more people seriously consider Windows Phone over other devices.
And then there is this: A massive increase in security, and a prioritization on enterprise features. Things like complete encryption, local marketplaces, and enterprise server linkage. All features that are currently ownded by the failing Blackberry. Microsoft has done something truly smart here. They are placing Windows Phone 8 s a great device for consumers and enterprise alike. A phone that can be as secure as a company needs it to be, but still be fun and attractive to the masses. They are angling to make this a three horse race, and knock RIM completely out of the picture. They might not be number 1 or even number 2 in the immediate future, but angling to be number 3, while they shore up all of the lose ends and continually make their product better and tie it tighter to home computing and enterprise will give Microsoft a lot of leverage with this platform.
All in all, a strangely bittersweet week for fans of Microsoft products. A lot of really cool stuff on the horizon, but that horizon is a ways off and isn't even nailed down. Microsoft is coming through as innovators after years of being followers of tech trends. They have shown that they have a better idea of what people ant, but haven't figured out the art of presentation as of yet. IT may not be cool to love Microsoft products as of yet, but they are well on their way of making their products less lame. And that is a great start for this company.