What Microsoft needs to do to make the Surface a success

It’s safe to say that, when Microsoft announced the Surface tablet to a small gathering of press in LA in the middle of June, just about everyone in attendance was blown away. But despite all of the (well deserved) hype surrounding the device’s form factor, kickstand, and keyboard cover, we still know very little about the actual specs or pricing. Here’s what Microsoft needs to do to make the tablet a success.

Have the apps in place

The Windows Store is growing rapidly, but Microsoft needs to ensure that all of the major apps are available by the time Windows 8’s launch rolls around on October 26. This is crucial for the ARM-based Surface, which isn’t compatible with desktop applications. An early version of Office 2013 will be included with the Surface, but you won’t be able to install applications like Skype. As a result, Microsoft will need to ensure that Skype and other important apps are available in the Windows Store on day one. This isn’t as much of an issue for the Surface Pro, which will still support desktop applications.

Undercut the iPad, but don’t undervalue the Surface

Apple sells the iPad in three different versions – 16GB, 32GB, and 64GB – ranging from $499.99 to $699.99. If the Surface is to be a success, it needs to at least match the iPad’s price, if not undercut it. A 32GB Surface for $449.99 would be fantastic, but even $549.99 is reasonable. Pricing the Surface just below the iPad would help convince people to try out Microsoft’s first-ever tablet, so it would be smart for Microsoft to go this route even if it has to lose a bit on the hardware in the process. The key here, however, is making sure that the Surface isn’t too cheap, since you don’t want to undervalue the product. You know the saying: “You get what you pay for.”

Make it ooze quality

When Microsoft announced the Surface, the company went into great detail about how the designers lovingly crafted the VaporMg body, magnetic cover, and even the kickstand, which is supposedly as satisfying as closing the door on an expensive luxury car. This quality needs to extend to the electronics and software too. Some OEMs are notorious for selling devices which break within a year. That can’t happen here. It also needs to be bug-free, with excellent touch responsiveness and zero stuttering. This device will be going up against Apple, which has a very high perceived quality bar.

Specs matter, but only the Surface Pro needs to be ultra-powerful

The specs on the ARM-based Surface need to be powerful enough to be taken seriously but not so crazy as to negatively affect battery life or, worse, drive up the price tag. Windows Phone has often shown that you don’t always need an ultra-powerful smartphone or tablet if you have a well-written operating system. We don’t know much about the Surface’s specs at this point, but Microsoft has stated that it will include an NVIDIA Tegra 3+ processor, 32GB or 64GB of internal memory, a microSD card slot, USB 2.0, and Micro HD Video out. The device itself will be slightly thinner than the iPad at 9.3mm and it’ll weigh just 676g. As long as the battery life is good (at least eight to ten hours) and Microsoft doesn’t skimp on the processor and RAM, it should run Windows 8 apps quite well.

The Intel-based version of the Surface, on the other hand, won’t hit stores until 90 days after the ARM version, and for good reason: it’s supposedly equivalent to an Ultrabook. It will run Windows 8 Pro and support legacy desktop applications, so Microsoft needs to make it as powerful as it possibly can (within reason). It needs to be good enough to play games on at a decent resolution or use high-end programs like Photoshop. And yet, it also needs to have a long battery life and retail for a somewhat affordable price. As a result, the Surface Pro will probably be the more challenging of the two, since it has to balance portability and battery life with high-end performance. Intel-based devices also require fans, so Microsoft will have to ensure that the Surface Pro stays relatively cool in spite of its powerful specs. Currently, the Surface Pro features an Intel Core i5 “Ivy Bridge” processor, 64GB or 128GB of internal memory, a Full HD display, a microSDXC card slot, USB 3.0, and Mini DisplayPort Video. It also includes a magnetic pen and Palm Block, and it’s slightly bigger than the standard Surface at 13.5mm and 903g. In short, the Surface Pro needs to be a complete laptop (and potentially even desktop) replacement while still doubling as a tablet.

Make it easy to acquire

Microsoft plans to release the Surface on October 26, but it will reportedly be sold mostly in the company’s 30-some-odd retail locations. That’s the perfect place to sell the Surface, since Microsoft Stores can give it the placement it deserves, and it allows Microsoft’s partners to share the spotlight in other retail stores. While it would be great to have the Surface in every retail store, that doesn’t seem likely at this point. Microsoft also needs to ensure that it manufactures enough units to satisfy demand. While the average consumer might not run right out to their local Microsoft Store (or visit the website) on day one, tech enthusiasts are almost certain to. Shortages might be great for headlines, but you don’t want your most enthusiastic supporters to go away empty handed. Ideally, both the Touch Cover and the Type Cover would come with the Surface, but Microsoft might be forced to bundle one to keep the price down and sell the other as an optional accessory.

Show it off

It remains to be seen just how much, if at all, Microsoft will market the Surface. This, too, could play a major role in the product’s success or failure. Microsoft will most likely attempt to walk a fine line between promoting the Surface and helping its other partners; some of whom are already a bit upset about Redmond getting into the hardware business. One of the Surface’s many selling points is that it makes Windows 8 “finally make sense” to people who are on the fence about the OS, so Microsoft needs to promote the device and not rely simply on word of mouth and limited advertising. The Surface is a beautiful device and Microsoft needs to show it off.

If Microsoft can fill up the Windows Store and make the Surface affordable, high-quality, relatively powerful, and fairly easy to acquire, it shouldn’t have a problem turning the Surface into a very successful product.

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William Devereux

William Devereux is the former Microsoft editor at Pocketables, as well as a Microsoft MVP and SkyDrive/Outlook.com Insider. As his title implies, he wrote about all things from Redmond, including Windows 8 and Windows Phone. He is currently carrying a Windows Phone 8X by HTC and a Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.