Microsoft’s announcement of its Surface Windows 8 tablet yesterday raises almost as many questions as it answers. One critically important unanswered question is: How will users get content for their Surface devices?
Microsoft is spinning the Surface as a content-creation device, but the expectation for content consumption on a tablet is too great for the company to ignore content delivery.
Based on the specs of the Surface, it’s clear that Microsoft will have to create some sort of cloud-based content delivery system, if only to deliver apps. The Windows RT Surface will include a microSD slot, USB 2.0 and a Micro HD port, and the Pro tablets will feature a microSDXC card slot and USB 3.0. That’s good enough to sideload personal media and files, but doesn’t necessarily make it easy to install apps.
Plus, even though you could sideload a movie or book onto a Surface, that process would be full of friction compared to the single-click ease of purchasing content on an iOS or Android device. To make Surface a success, Microsoft will need a delivery system for content as well as apps in place when the Surface finally arrives in the marketplace.
So where will that content come from?
A Role for Barnes & Noble?
Earlier in the day leading up to Microsoft’s glitzy press event in Hollywood, there was quite a bit of speculation that Microsoft would be announcing a tablet-based solution in conjunction with the company’s new partner Barnes & Noble. B&N quickly squashed those rumors prior to the Surface reveal, but that doesn’t answer the question of whether B&N will ultimately be the content partner for Surface.
The question has major ramifications. The first issue is the fate of B&N’s Nook device, the Android-based reader/tablet that Microsoft agreed to work on together with B&N when they jointly formed a new subsidiary in April. If B&N will be involved with Surface, it gives the bookseller another channel to distribute content, but it also sets up a competing device for the Nook. If B&N isn’t involved with Surface, then what does that say about Microsoft’s commitment to the Nook?
It is also possible that Microsoft will take care of the rest of content delivery on its own. Currently B&N provides only books, after all, and the Surface will also need access to movies and music. Microsoft already works with various partners and networks to deliver video content on its Xbox product line, and that model could be extended to the Surface.
Improvement to Windows Phone Marketplace?
Whatever the source of content, it’s pretty clear that a new delivery system will need to be created for the Surface. Relying on traditional PC methods for acquiring content and apps will put the Surface at a big disadvantage compared to tablets from Apple and Android.
Looking at Microsoft’s Windows Phone Marketplace, which is the closest analogy to what a Surface store might look like, there are plenty of improvements that need to be made.
Right now the site - which serves only apps - feels sparse, and there seems to be very little curation going on. Even Google Play, which is often accused of being too loosey-goosey, has a much more curated look and feel. Market curation might seem like a tiny point, but when mobile users go shopping, they want to be able to find what they want right away - or at least have a frictionless browsing experience. Windows Marketplace does not yet come close to delivering that.
There is also, as some readers have correctly pointed out, the pre-existing Zune Marketplace, which is still up and running despite the Zune platform being discontinued last year. Zune offers everything needed to be a content framework including a decent music and video library, and its Music and Video apps are already integrated within Windows 8. If Microsoft wants, all it needs to do is rename the service. It seems likely that Surface will use a rebranded form of Zune, possibly merged with the existing Windows Phone Marketplace for a single unified store.
While the goals of the new joint venture with Barnes & Noble are not known yet, this could be the start of a combined Zune/B&N marketplace with Surface as the flagship product. This will give the Surface (and Windows 8 users in general) more content to buy and B&N a richer library with which to complete with the likes of Amazon.
The answers to all of these questions - as much as the Surface’s innovative hardware and Windows operating system - will determine the device’s usability and ultimate success for both consumers and businesses.