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Another Microsoft Failure In The Making

I wanted to wait a while and let the dust settle before wading in with my own not-so-unique comments regarding Microsoft's Surface tablets/slates/whatever-you-want-to-label-them. Current commentary is deeply divided over the obvious business perspective about how Microsoft had to do this because the OEMs had failed vs the perspective of labeling what Microsoft did as "one of the largest and most unethical industrial espionage campaigns of the last few decades." I'm not here to take one side or the other, but to point out examples from Microsoft's long history why I believe these new machines are doomed to failure.

I have long experience of Microsoft products stretching back to MS-DOS and further back to the original Altair Basic for CP/M and the Microsoft Z-80 Softcard for the Apple II, forward through a whole series of mice, keyboards, and X-Box gaming consoles as well as their ill-fate Zune player.

But I also remember, from the software side, Blackcomb and Longhorn, leading up to the biggest disappointment of all time, Vista. Features that had been originally slated for what became Vista were dropped left and right while the release date was pushed back years. When it was finally released it was met with considerable blow-back from both consumers and businesses, requiring Microsoft to release Windows 7 just to wash the bad taste out of many customer's mouths.

But the biggest example of what Microsoft can't do is Microsoft Courier. Courier, when it was initially leaked/introduced in 2009 was described as "an astonishing take on the tablet." Less than a year later the Courier would be canceled by Steve Ballmer. As James Kendrick on Gigaom wrote at the time, "The cancelation of the Courier “concept” project, confirmed by Microsoft, is a shame. This device showed the potential of being the most innovative thing to come out of Redmond in years."

Microsoft could have had a real game-changer three years ago if they'd really wanted one, but they killed it through systemic mismanagement. As far as I can see nothing's really changed.

What bothers me about the introduction of the Surface is the lack of availability information; when it will be available and for how much. Add to that a lack of real feature information, and the disturbing way the units were not allowed to be really used (if they were usable at all) during the introduction and I'm personally led to believe that the Surface will follow the same path as so many other high-profile Microsoft projects, into eventual obscurity and oblivion.

The Surface has started followed the same path as the Courier in my little bubble of the universe. As one of my co-workers said at the announcement, the Surface had want written all over it. It's the same emotion we all felt when we first read about the Courier. In both cases, if Microsoft had had product to sell on the day of the announcements we would have pulled out our credit cards and ordered one immediately.  But they didn't, in the process losing out to Apple on the Courier and the rest of the market on the Surface. If and when the Surface is finally released I doubt any of us will feel the same desire to buy our own copy like we did when the Surface were first introduced. We will have instead been sated by products from Apple, Google, and Samsung, to name but three.

I look forward with morbid interest to the date that the Surface is supposed to be sold. I'm also looking forward to see how Microsoft's OEM partners will treat Microsoft going forward. Microsoft's introduction of the Surface gained it no good will whatsoever with either consumers or business partners, and I strongly believe it will ultimately come back to hurt them overall as a business.

Update 6 July

Microsoft Win8 Tablet Is NOT a Game Changer


  1. The best thing about the 'Surface' announcement was Ars Technica quoting Steve Ballmer: "Things work better when hardware and software are considered together." I've thought that about my Apple products for years.

    I hope they do well. I hope there's a source of new ideas, designs, and competitive pressure. Microsoft seems to have done okay with their game console, which suggests that they can compete in a market that's already dominated by successful companies. But the odds that this is going to be the ZuneTab are pretty strong.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that "[t]hings work better when hardware and software are considered together." The problem is with Microsoft's history of halfhearted product development, of which my most modest post only documents an infinitesimal amount. Their announcement of the Surface isn't an announcement of new product so much as it's a classic example of vaporware, "a product, typically computer hardware or software, that is announced to the general public but is never actually released nor officially canceled."[1]

      In my opinion Microsoft did this primarily to staunch the flow of "critical decision makers", especially in corporate settings, to their chief rivals Apple (iOS) and Google (Android). Wherever those "critical decision makers" go, so go the rest of an organization, along with future orders and money. Unfortunately Microsoft has always been welded to Windows and WIMP, and cannot see beyond a portable device as nothing more than a small delivery system for windows, trackpad/mouse and keyboard (WIMP). And that's not where a lot of folks want to be anymore.

      This moment in history also shows the complete failure of the Microsoft business model, which is to take ideas from others, tweak them a bit to be just different enough to claim as their own, then add them to the overall Microsoft offerings and make piles of money for Microsoft. Microsoft did this with MS-DOS (CP/M), Windows (Apple, IBM's Topview, Xerox, et al) and Office (Word Perfect, Lotus 123, Harvard Graphics, et al). There's been a fundamental shift in how we approach and interact with computers, and as imperfect as the new "paradigm" is, it's viewed as being far better than the prior paradigm dominated by Microsoft and the personal computer. And it's so fundamental a shift that it's something that can be neither quickly copied nor easily tweaked to be made Microsoft's own. And thus does Microsoft find itself in a technological cul-de-sac throwing out anything that might stick.


    2. The XBox 360 might have taken over the market but I don't believe Microsoft did a good job with the hardware, just google XBox 360 red ring of death, the hardware is not reliable.

    3. I had forgotten about the RROD. Microsoft launched the XBox 360 a year early in order to beat Sony's PS-3 to market. In the process the system's flaws wound up costing Microsoft over $1Billion in writedowns due to warranty repairs, and extending the XBox 360 warrant to cover the RROD.

      Microsoft lost $1.26 billion launching the Xbox 360
      Xbox 360 technical problems


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