Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Microsoft surfaces Surface tablets, but why now?

Yesterday, Microsoft announced two new tablets in Los Angeles: The Surface for Windows RT, which uses an Nvidia Tegra ARM-based processor and runs Windows RT, and the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which uses an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor. Everyone's been focusing on the "what" of the new tablets, but I want to focus on the "why." Microsoft's event yesterday seemed to be thrown together at the last minute--the company only gave a few days of lead time to the press, the site it chose for the announcement was a little "no-name" studio in Los Angeles, and the press that covered the event couldn't even get in until more than a half-hour after the scheduled start time.

Once they got in, Microsoft showed them two tablets, both largely clones of the iPad with a bit bigger screen (but even the more sophisticated Intel-based model's display's resolution is far below that of Apple's Retina Display.) The most innovative features were the thin covers with integrated keyboards and trackpads. More importantly, Microsoft announced neither prices nor availability dates for the two tablets. All we know is that the Windows RT version will ship around the same time as Windows 8, and that the Windows 8 Pro version will ship three months later.

Why throw together a last-minute announcement of tablets that Microsoft has obviously put a lot of work into, and not even bother announcing prices and availability? Here's my totally uninformed speculation: Last night's event was a "Hail Mary" pass aimed not at tablet buyers but at app developers. Microsoft knows that it has to have a solid library of apps if it wants to have any chance of competing with Apple. Interest in the Windows RT platform by both tablet builders and app developers has been lukewarm at best: Very few Windows RT tablets were shown publicly before last night, and developers aren't going to write apps for tablets that don't exist. In addition, Microsoft knows, through take-up of its development tools, how many developers are working on Windows RT apps, and the number has probably been very disappointing. The company saw what happened to HP's TouchPad and RIM's PlayBook, and it didn't want the same thing to happen to its tablet business.

Microsoft needed to show app developers that Windows RT is a viable platform, and the best way to do that was to show it running on an attractive tablet. That's what Microsoft did last night. In addition, Microsoft's plan to release the Windows RT tablet at the same time as Windows 8, while delaying the Windows 8 Pro version of the tablet for three months, tells developers Microsoft's priorities: Write tablet apps for Windows RT first, because we can always run existing Windows PC software on Windows 8.

In short, Microsoft is very worried that it's not going to have enough Windows RT apps to compete with Apple. That's why it announced its Surface tablets well before it wanted to, in order to encourage app developers to get on board.
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