Editorial

Looking back: Microsoft Surface, one year on

June 18, 2012 got off to a very odd start for me. I woke up bright and early in San Francisco – where, two days later, I would be covering the Windows Phone 8 announcement – and zoomed off to the airport, still half-asleep, to catch a flight for the short hop down to Los Angeles.

As I loaded up on coffee at the airport, my phone was starting to heat up from the number of calls, text messages and emails going back and forth between me and my colleagues at Neowin. All of these communiqués were more or less identical; I would be frantically asking “Where the hell am I going?!” and the replies would come back: “We don’t know! We’re trying to find out!”

On the TVs in the airport terminal, all the morning news shows seemed to be talking about the same thing, reporting what I already knew: Microsoft had invited the world’s media to LA for a major new product launch, but no-one knew what it was launching, and no-one had any idea of exactly where the event was being held.

I landed at LAX around half past 9. The coffee was kicking in and I was ready for action, but to my frustration, my inbox was still devoid of details about where I was supposed to be going. Defeated, I went to find more coffee, and slumped on to a bench outside the terminal, hoping that news would arrive before I got arrested by airport police for loitering.

I contemplated the significance of what Microsoft had achieved here. Without revealing a single detail about its new product, the company had managed to generate a huge storm of publicity around it. People were actually excited about what Microsoft might announce; they were talking about Microsoft with genuine anticipation and a curious sense of wonder. It was like the build-up to an Apple launch but somehow, Microsoft had made itself the object of people’s interest and excitement.

It was over an hour before I finally got word of where to go. I flagged down a cab and told the driver to get me to Milk Studios in Hollywood. The excitement must have been getting to my head, because I added “…and step on it!” to the driver; to my disappointment, he did not.

It was probably for the best, since the event wasn’t due to begin until 3:30pm. I got to the venue, and expertly reconnoitred the area, looking for banners, signs, some hint of what was to come. There was nothing so, again defeated, I found a Subway at which to recharge my batteries – and those of my devices – and waited.

When I returned to the venue, the media had descended en masse. Local news vans were parked around the block, and tech media from around the world were queuing to enter the building. I chatted with various journalists and bloggers, most of whom seemed genuinely impressed by what Microsoft had managed to pull off, without the leaks that frequently ruin the surprise before many major product launches - although that's perhaps not entirely surprising, given that it was partly developed by a team working in "an underground bunker with no windows". 

We were soon allowed to enter and take our seats, in a presentation space decorated with branding that would soon become familiar as Microsoft’s marketing machine took to the streets – literally – to promote its new product in the weeks that followed.

Steve Ballmer took to the stage to welcome us to the event, before Steven Sinofsky, Panos Panay and Mike Angiulo introduced an exciting new chapter in Microsoft’s history, as the company announced its first PC hardware in the form of Surface.

There was plenty to like. The design of the tablets was fresh and exciting; the ‘click-in’ keyboard covers offered more than just screen protection, and the kickstand was a thoughtful addition that hinted at Microsoft’s attention to detail in creating the devices. There was some disappointment when we were told that the Surface Pro would launch a full three months after the Windows RT model, but there was enough to be excited about for that not to seem like too much of a disaster.

The tablets themselves impressed with what little we were allowed to experience of them. Microsoft only had the Surface RT on show and didn’t allow much interaction; we were allowed to pick the tablet up, photograph it, play with the Live Tiles on the Start screen a bit, but no more. Even so, it made a positive first impression with its sturdy construction, VaporMg body, robust kickstand and vibrant screen.

The future seemed bright for Surface.

It hasn’t exactly been a runaway success story since then. Surface RT launched in the US alongside Windows 8 in October, followed by Surface Pro in February, but the company has been slow to launch the devices elsewhere. Surface Pro only made it to some other major markets last month, almost a year after announcement, and many countries are still waiting.

Mistakes have been made too. For example, Microsoft extensively promoted its pop-up 'Surface Experience Centres' in the UK press, but when we visited one of the advertised locations, staff there had no idea what we were talking about, with managers saying they hadn't even had any contact from Microsoft. 

The company has been notably silent when it comes to discussing sales of the devices; one can only speculate that, if its sales figures were worth celebrating, Microsoft would have shared something about them by now.

A major issue appears to be pricing. For a nascent platform with an immature app ecosystem, Microsoft’s pricing of the Surface RT (from $499) and Surface Pro ($899 and up) certainly raised some eyebrows, particularly when the keyboard covers that were the primary focus of the marketing campaigns ended up being costly extras at $99 for the Touch Cover and $119 for the Type Cover.

It’s perhaps telling that Microsoft is currently giving away these covers free with the tablets, albeit in a limited-time offer. Comparisons have also been made recently with ‘fire sales’ of BlackBerry and HP tablets, as Microsoft sells Surfaces at enormous discounts, to developers and those in education.

But while Surface has had a rocky start, that’s perhaps understandable, given that Microsoft is still finding its feet as it redefines itself as a “devices and services company”. There appears to be much to look forward to as well; rumours persist of an ‘Xbox Surface’, with a focus on gaming and media, while an 8-inch ‘Surface Mini’ is also expected to launch alongside Windows 8.1 later this year.

Next week, just over one year on, I’ll have come full-circle when I return to San Francisco to report from Microsoft’s BUILD conference, and I’ll certainly be hoping that we hear more about the company’s plans for Surface. It’s been an unsteady beginning, but Microsoft has laid some strong foundations on which to build a new generation of amazing devices.

Whether or not Microsoft can realise that potential more quickly and efficiently the next time around remains to be seen. 

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48 Comments

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From what I've read there isn't a second generation of Windows RT tablets being developed, short from Microsoft's own Surface RT. Clearly that's an indication customers just aren't interested in the product.

I installed Windows 8 once, it was a pain, so I downgrade to Windows 7 , definitely the metro interface is for tablets, also, bad move removing the start menu, and a 100 more things, LOL.

One thing about the Surface is the interface, seems really like you are working with windows 3.11, the apps are like published in beta or alpha phase. Most of the news readers in Surface really suck. Have you ever seen Flipboard for iPad or other Google reader? they are pretty nice and good looking.

Other thing is the price, for around 350~400 dollars you could get a cheap laptop with Windows 8 that can run all the programs (even metro apps), but in order to get the surface you have to pay $500 bucks, plus the cover, plus taxes.

The only thing I thought it was really cool was the keyboard, something like a smart cover, stand, dock, and of course, when you connect it, you get the "laptop experience", but that was the only thing I liked.

Ubuntu Tablet OS is more attractive to me than the Surface.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h384z7Ph0gU&hd=1

I think Windows 7 will be rocking in my big PC desktop for the years to come.

Edited by mjedi7, Jun 19 2013, 1:00am :

It is still a tablet with a tablet oriented OS. No amount of verbiage will change those facts. So, all the hoopla about being any kind of replacement for a laptop or desktop, especially those involved with content creation, is just so much hot air. Unfortunately, alienating the business community has not helped matters. Windows-7 will remain very viable for a very long time.

I have a Surface Pro and it has handled just about everything I've thrown at it: Gaming, development, general daily use. I totally love it. The only problem I had was Hyper V being limited to 1.5 gigs of memory for a virtual machine so I wish the Pro had come with 8GB.

I install most of my games on the MicroSD card and it works great and helps keep my main drive pretty roomy.

Microsoft has screwed up tremendously in Windows 8 Instead of building on the ultra popular windows 7 user interface that is built around the aero glass, where both processbar and windows are like glass. Apple has copied this in their upcoming new mobile IOS 7 user interface. In Windows 8 you must use a dull metro interface that do not fit together with the desktop interface. People are confused and unsympathetic towards Microsoft design which is skizofren and built up over tiles that just makes it worse rather than better.
In addition, the Office is not optimized for touch, still you need a mouse. And while it is totally confusing in touch that you need to run it with a 16-9 screen area. It is also stupid that is now standard in apps that you need to scroll from left to right instead of up and down .

kejser said,
Microsoft has screwed up tremendously in Windows 8 Instead of building on the ultra popular windows 7 user interface that is built around the aero glass, where both processbar and windows are like glass.

You mean the Windows Vista user interface.

After a year my Surface RT keeps running rock solid, if not better thanks to the updates, and I managed to use for work when traveling. The few applications I needed found RT replacements and I complement any remaining shortcomings with remote desktop or teamviewer.
People love my setup: I use it as a tablet to watch movies when flying, I pull the keyboard and a wedge mouse when working, and if I see an unused monitor I use it in double screen mode for maximum working efficiency. And it lasts a whole day of work in a charge.
The only thing that will replace my surface rt is another surface, maybe with Intel, now that they last all day as well on one charge, and I wish it had a nice dock so I can simplify connection to external monitor, keyboard, Ethernet, etc.

Who would have thought that a heavy, awkward, overpriced tablet with limited app support, a mess of an OS and horrible battery life would have failed? I am truly shocked!

swanlee said,
Troll Troll Troll, keep it up maybe your favorite corporation will give you a job.

I dont have a "favorite corporation", I just value open platforms and quality hardware.

Think of it as an expensive toy, and one's perspective remain intact. Any aspirations of it being a serious productivity device, can be placed in the "vain hope" department.

Great article. If there's nothing ne shortcoming of the tablet, it's apps. Windows 8 is lacking, and Microsoft doesn't seem to be doing a thing about it. Hopefully, Windows 8.1 will introduce first party apps to plug the holes.

Dot Matrix said,
Great article. If there's nothing ne shortcoming of the tablet, it's apps. Windows 8 is lacking, and Microsoft doesn't seem to be doing a thing about it. Hopefully, Windows 8.1 will introduce first party apps to plug the holes.

They got about 900,000 holes to plug there...good luck with that.

This headline makes it sound like Surface has been in the market for a full year. Surface RT did not ship until October 2012 in North America, and Surface Pro about 3 months later. Some regions are just now seeing availability for both devices. These devices are still "new" to a lot of people.

I would agree that it's "one year on" since the launch of the revamped Surface brand, however. In that sense, your headline makes sense.

I don't regret my decision for getting a Pro, I do know now the way I use my Surface I'm pretty sure I could get by on an RT.

Maybe an 8 inch RT device for 250$ would be a good addition?

I remember watching this stream live with my jaw dropped to the ground. I told my wife, we're getting that!

We pre-ordered two Surface RTs, with the plan for me to replace mine with a Pro when it was released.

To this day I haven't found the need for Pro for me. I think the RT is an awesome little device and my wife loves hers as well.

Can't believe that was a year ago though!

Many say the Surface RT, specifically, Windows RT was a mistake. It isn't. I think it was right of Microsoft to be ballsy and do what they did, and they did it because they needed it. Without the RT, we wouldn't have the lower powered and lower end Windows tablets. Because RT is essentially the core of what Windows is, that is what the future of Windows is going to be. So when their app store is finally that of quality to rival others, they can just chop off the desktop, because the apps are available already, and older apps are not needed. Thus, making RT easier to maintain since it already has it's food in the door.

I bought the Surface Pro because I wanted a PC, powerful, lite weight and portable. So far it has met all of my expectations. It is fast and reliable. Truthfully I mostly surf on the device through the past year so I could have saved money and bought and Android but at least I still have options of a Windows PC. I do remote into my other PCs occasionally and I have some development software installed. The reason I only surf is because most of the time my wife has the Surface. She pretty much only surfs with it too. lol

There are constant updates and the device is smooth and fast. I really do not have any complaints with the hardware. I would like to see some tweaks to Windows 8 but I like it too. I am really looking forward to Windows 8.1 and hope that we can upgrade to Windows 9 for free or a small fee. I would like to see the Surface do great but if it fails and goes away I would not care because I already have mine. We both love my surface.

They stunted the excitement and the growth of this device when they released it at too high of a price. I was hoping for a running start, but the core apps were pathetic, and the device was unstable.

We did not get a running start, what we got was the realization that us early adopters were in fact beta testers. I have been through this with MS before, so I don't mind but I can certainly see why adoption was slow to start.

Now the device is almost what it should have been to start. What is missing are all the improvements to come with 8.1. Just having all the settings in one unified place will greatly improve the moron-proofing of the device, and the core apps are now very nice. The stability is right on as well, and I am stunned to this day that there were no tutorials on the Start Screen to start with, as there will be with 8.1. So smart and so stupid at the same time, that is my MS.

My only issue with Surface as it exists today other than the missing 8.1 update, is that when it is purchased by an unsuspecting consumer, there are a mass of Windows updates, firmware updates, and Office 2013 updates, that need to be done in order to get the device where it should be. The poor consumer who doesn't not know any better simply starts using the device "as is" and immediately is faced with a sub par experience due to no fault of there own. MS needs to clean that mess up asap. Staples will update the device for you before you walk out the door, but I have received several directly from Microsoft store that have not been updated. And these are supposed to be "Signature" devices.

Microsoft learns from their mistakes, but no one makes more than them and it is up to the user base to keep letting them know what they believe is wrong. They do listen in the end.

I love my Surface RT.

What do you mean by "Missing" 8.1 update, it hasn't been released anywhere yet, and the surface gets it on the 26th? Just curious your line of thought here.

I got a Surface pro at launch and it is without a doubt the most useful and versatile computing device I own and have probably ever owned.

Don't care about company fanboy wars or how much more Android or Apple sold of their tablets. Surface pro is a great pc\laptop\tablet and I would not trade mine for any other product on the market right now.

I use it about 97% in metro so if an RT version came out with a tegra 4 and a 1080P screen I'd probably get one.

Edited by swanlee, Jun 18 2013, 4:11pm :

I own both a Surface RT and an iPad Mini.

After almost a year of use of both devices, I can affirm that the browsing experience is far superior on Windows 8 than on iOS. From navigation (gestures) to render quality, the Surface RT really comes out superior.

The ecosystem is another story. Windows 8 Modern apps are still lagging in both quality and number.

I strongly hope Microsoft is going to release newer RT hardware with some additional horsepower since the current Surface RT does show occasional signs of exhaustion. A Tegra 4 or latest Snapdragon based tablet would really make the experience even smoother.

Also, LOWER THE PRICE. Although the hardware does have SOME similarity with the Apple offering, it is still inferior and the ecosystem if FAR from similar. Therefore, pricing the devices according to Apple's strategy book IS A MISTAKE.

Cant imagine mobile computing without the RT. You can import your domain certs and a security policy using secpol.msc, powershell and mmc into windows servers. Xbox Music and Movies are great if your collection is standards complient (aac mp3 or mp4) and stored on a windows box with indexing they can pull your entire collection down and display the tagged content.

The only thing I miss is RSAT and Outlook.

They need to find a solution to the keyboard covers dangling below the Surface. You should be able to secure it when you fold it back, eg with magnets, rather than having to hold it in place yourself, makes it a really unattractive design.

Then how do you hold your device? That's sort of a solution looking for a problem. Your hand is the magnets; you really gain nothing from your "solution" at all that your hand isn't already doing.

If you're letting it flop below the device, then the issue isn't lack of magnets, but user error.

Great article Andy and:

I flagged down a cab and told the driver to get me to Milk Studios in Hollywood. The excitement must have been getting to my head, because I added “…and step on it!” to the driver; to my disappointment, he did not.

LOL!

I can't wait for Build '13. However, I don't think they are going to announce a new Surface, on the other hand, I think they will. I'm actualy not sure what to expect from it.

este said,
Surface Pro is excellent, not sure I would ever purchase an RT device though.
As soon as the content distribution applications make their way to the RT it will be a great buy for those who are going to consume primarily from it. HBO/Showtime/Amazon etc. need to port their applications. Disney needs to start building their apps too. If those 4 can make the move then the RT is a no brainer for the price.

Hell. It supports flash... that alone makes it pretty damn nice. That said, I'm buying a SurfaceProv2

I don't think it's primarily designed for power users, rather, your casual users who would consider ditching a Windows PC in place of an ipad or android tablet.

It has the core functionality of a Windows PC that casual consumption users would enjoy, with portability and tablet form factor support.

In other words, while it certainly wouldn't be useful for me, my grandparents who play simple games, and do light web browsing, emails and Word documents would most certainly get a lot of use out of it, especially when Windows Blue and Outlook rock around. They don't need Core i5 processors, and they don't really need backwards compatibility, so they can stay within the Windows ecosystem, and have a great functional device relatively cheaply.

Wow, I remember that faithful day , one of the biggest days in tech news or at least for Microsoft , for once they managed to get really excited and curious about their product.
Well next week's BUILD will be thrilling.. Surface 8 inch tablet, or 10 inch with Haswell , or even perhaps a Surface notebook.

The problem with Surface adoption is that it's kinda new to the mix. Ipad had the iphone as a foundation to follow suit and Android took years for people to buy them and even then they are still not widely use despite the fact that people buy them. But I am sure Surface will gain traction soon enough.

I've had a SurfaceRT since last December. I really like the device (hardware). It's main shortcoming is Applications and those holes are getting filled in quite nicely. Outside of that Windows Blue will fix most of what I could complain about on an operating system level.

The main "fix" that has been applied to the device to make me start really liking it was the firmware update that gave the speakers some balls.

I do wish my touch cover satisfied me more. It's a great shot in the dark. Still better than typing on screen w/o a doubt. But I wish I would have bought one with a type cover as those are just plan fantastic.

Good comment. I am not one of those "it's all about the apps" guys but with Surface RT, it kind of is. Since there is no legacy support, it needs quality apps in the Store and as you said, it is getting there...(checked out the new BLINK app today???)

I have a Surface Pro and my wife had a Surface RT. I opted for the Touch Cover. It is nice but the touchpad showed "rub" ware within a week...makes it look less sleek. I normally use my Bluetooth Mouse when I use it on a table top, especially with Skyrim!

I'm not an App guy either. In fact it hasn't really bothered me a bit. But there are huge holes that exist for content consumers and in the kids games department. Those two things are holding back the Modern App experience for the average user.

yardmanflex said,
"Personally I really liked the keyboard cover but that's about it"

one of the most useless comment ever...lol

Your comment is not very useful either..

mjedi7 said,
Well, then this comment isn't useful either and is useless!
You should have just let the joke die before you killed it.