Microsoft badly wanted its Surface RT to succeed, and yet it managed to do everything possible to ensure the tablet's demise.
As a product of technological innovation, the Surface RT is underpowered and ill-equipped. And as a retail product, it was too expensive and poorly marketed. No wonder the company wound up taking a $900 million write-off for unsold Surface RT inventory. As it stands, it's now officially a spectacular sales flop, a totally expected piece of news that seems to have taken only Microsoft by surprise.
Good things can happen when smart technologies meet savvy, customer-centric retail strategies, but there's little chance for success when both are lacking. Although Microsoft's mission to make itself relevant in the post-PC market has been a disaster, at least the experience yields a few lessons for the rest of the industry.
Consider this a master class on how not to debut a new consumer technology.
One of the biggest obstacles to wider consumer adoption of the Surface RT was that the average consumer didn't really get what the heck the device is.
It looks like a tablet, yes, but it's also more than a tablet. To unlock its full functionality, the Surface RT needs a snap-on keyboard, and it also boasts mouse integration, suggesting it should be used like a laptop. It runs the Windows RT operating system, which looks very much like Microsoft's Windows 8, and even runs versions of familiar Windows applications such as Office.
But that compatibility was just on the, er, surface, because most Windows apps won't run on Windows RT. (Windows RT is also known for its sluggish performance on the Surface RT.) And even though it may superficially offer some laptop-like functionality with the keyboard/tablet form factor, it can't hold a candle to the Surface Pro, the company's other, more advanced device with a computer-worthy Intel Core i5 processor and hybrid tablet-desktop OS, Windows 8 Pro.
It's a baffling mess, one with a disappointing payoff. Users can't directly download software; instead, they're stuck with the Windows app store—which may be growing quickly, at 100,000 apps now, but still has a reputation as a dumping ground for app detritus.
To be fair, a few of these arguments could also be made about the iPad, but there are some very important differences.
First, Apple didn't unveil a fleet of OS variations and hardware to baffle consumers. Second, for the single tablet it announced, Apple marketed it clearly and effectively. This, more than anything, made would-be customers drool over the prospect of owning an iPad. And when they came in droves, the company's retail arm was ready.
In Need of Retail Therapy
Don't confuse your target audience. That's not only the cardinal rule in Web usability, as detailed in Don't Make Me Think, but also retail. Stores know they only have seconds to capture a would-be shopper's attention before he or she goes on to another brand or supplier.
In Microsoft's case, this was a crucial missing piece. The Surface RT, which was already late to the tablet party when it launched last October, needed to make a big impression right out of the gate. And it did. But it wasn't one the company hoped for.
Microsoft's entertaining, but ultimately pointless, commercials failed to show what the Surface RT really had to offer users. Instead of demonstrating the cool, creative things people could do with the tablet, the commercials focused on the detachable keyboard cover (which didn't even come with the device) and the dance choreography of the actors.
The price point didn't help either. The $499 matched the iPad, which was and still is the market leader. But that seemed high for an unproven device that couldn't even explain to people why they should want one. Furthermore, the final cost ballooned when you added $100 or $130 for a Touch or Type keyboard cover.
Microsoft just brought down the price—to a more humble $349—and focused on marketing its features (pitting it against the iPad in comparison ads), but it was too little, too late. The reason for the aggressive nature of these ads may be so that the company can dump its overstock as quickly as possible. In other words, we're looking at the equivalent of Microsoft's fire sale.
Even had the Surface RT overcome these various retail and marketing fails, there was one logistical issue it couldn't thwart. Last year, there were only 20 Microsoft retail locations. That means, even though the Surface RT was available online, there were fewer than two dozen physical stores where consumers could see, feel, handle and potentially fall in love with the device in person.
That never quite happened.
A New Role: Microsoft, The Underdog
It sure seems like the company did everything short of taking the Surface RT out behind its Redmond campus and shooting it. So why was Julie Larson-Green, the co-leader of Windows, just promoted to top dog of all hardware devices, games, music and entertainment? This is a high-profile spot, considering Microsoft is trying to reinvent itself as a devices and services company, and her previous division's hotly hyped new product just tanked.
Perhaps the reason is because she's still needed to help the PC giant keep its tenuous foothold in this increasingly mobile world. Right now, headlines like "Microsoft Isn't Doomed Yet" and "Why Microsoft Will Win" grab attention because they're so contrary to the sentiment spreading among the pundits and bloggers: Stick a fork in the company, it's done.
But Larson-Green could change the conversation. She has the engineering chops to manage the back end and her famed people skills makes her effective at uniting teams. And if she's as kind and personable as her reputation suggests, she could help the company win over fans and make people root for poor old Microsoft.
Imagine that: Microsoft recast as an underdog in need of support. It's amazing what you find when you scratch beneath this Surface.
Feature image of Microsoft commercial, screen captured from "Microsoft Surface - Commercial HD" from YouTube account pixelplanet. Image from Microsoft launch party courtesy of Flickr user Vernon Chan. Image of comparison ad, screen captured from"Windows 8: Surface RT vs. iPad" from YouTube account Surface.