Microsoft's iPad killer, the Surface RT tablet, looks to be on its last legs, leaving only Android tablets to challenge Apple for the tablet crown. Where did the Surface RT go wrong?
So farewell then, Microsoft Surface RT. The last rites may be some way off, but we've seen the first clear signs that Microsoft's Surface RT, the firm's would-be iPad killer, is mortally wounded. We seem to be back to a duopoly, with tablet buyers facing a straight choice between Apple's iPad and lower-priced Android-based tablets.
(Actually, Microsoft will still technically have a horse in the tablet race even if the RT disappears; its Surface Pro sibling is a more popular option and shows no signs of distress. But that device offers more of a laptop/tablet hybrid experience.)
A one-two punch came last week, with Microsoft first announcing that it was slashing the price of the Surface RT by up to 30 percent, and then admitting that it had overestimated demand for the device so seriously that it had taken a $900m charge for "inventory adjustments". It's hard to see the Surface RT coming back from that, even though Microsoft boss Steve Ballmer has made optimistic noises about a new model.
Microsoft Surface RT vs iPad: the key battles
As my colleague the Macalope pointed out gleefully this morning, certain tech journalists greeted the Surface RT's launch with joyous optimism, praising Microsoft for its strategic savvy and anticipating a ding-dong battle with Apple. And almost everyone agreed that the build quality was at least solid; Chris Martin on our sister site PC Advisor opined that the Surface RT "feels every bit a premium product when you take it out of the box. Attention to detail and build quality is reminiscent of Apple's iPad."
Nope, the problem wasn't the hardware. It was the software. I've written before about the importance of iOS itself to Apple's mobile strategy, but here we have another demonstration of the principle that while a beautiful device may convince a user to buy, a beautiful software platform can turn them into a lifelong supporter.
For a start, Microsoft's mobile software strategy was confusing, and confused. When Windows 8 was being developed, the message was that this was Microsoft's OS for tablets; if it was optimised for tablets, why did the company feel the need to create a cut-down version, Windows RT, for (part of) its tablet line-up? And that's without taking Windows Phone into account. Compare that to Apple iOS, a single (flexible) operating system for all of its mobile devices.
Whereas Windows 8 has its cheerleaders, the RT operating system is widely felt to be too limiting; most seriously, it can't run conventional programs, and is dependent on Windows's app store, which remains critically short on good third-party software for the Metro interface. Apps are the lifeblood of a mobile ecosystem, and while it struggled gamely to catch up on the head start it had given to Apple and Google, Microsoft's didn't cut the mustard.
Microsoft Surface RT vs iPad: a question of apps
As Chris Martin wrote last year:
"With Office and IE10 pre-installed, getting work done out of the box is no problem. However… since you can't install the programs you use on your Windows desktop you'll be heading to the Store for apps, just like you would on the iPad or an Android tablet.
"As it stands, this is the area where the Surface RT falls down. There are a few big-name apps like Netflix and Microsoft's own like Skype and Xbox SmartGlass. However, there's a lack of the apps most iPad and Android tablet owners use every day including Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Maps, Dropbox, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, IMDb, ESPN Goals and Sky Go. Games not available include Bad Piggies, Words With Friends and World Of Goo - the list goes on."
Steve Ballmer said it best. Microsoft (along with all other operating system makers) is dependent on the quality of its developers. And it simply hasn't made sense for enough mobile developers to port their apps on to Windows after iOS and Android. It's a vicious circle; little third-party developer interest means little user interest; little user interest means little third-party developer interest. Some of those gaps mentioned above were filled, but it was a case of too little, too late.
Competition is good for a healthy market, and even the iPad lovers here at Macworld hope that Microsoft can find a successful mobile strategy and keep Apple and Google honest. But if it's to do so, we'd propose that it needs to start with its apps. Get that right, and everything else will fall into place.
@pricivius bought one, tried going all-in on using it, but found I couldn’t. Vicious circle of no apps so no developer interest.— Graham Lee (@secboffin) July 23, 2013
Our thanks to Graham Lee and the many others who responded to our tweets about the Surface RT this morning. Like others he felt that Microsoft fell short in its ability to attract developer support.