Surface 2 sends mixed messages about Microsoft's long-term Windows strategy

Microsoft's engineering executives recently said it would work on touch-based Office apps.

At Microsoft’s Surface 2 event in New York on Monday, Panos Panay, corporate vice president of the company’s Surface team, revealed the Windows marker is already planning the next three generations of its tablet line.

Panay’s announcement isn’t shocking, given how far ahead technology companies plan their products, yet the Surface 2 he revealed Monday sends conflicting messages about Microsoft’s strategy not just with the tablet itself, but also the company’s flagship operating system line. While Panay was busy touting desktop Office applications on the Surface 2, Microsoft hinted at a move away from the familiar interface on ARM-powered tablets.

Just four days before Panay hosted the Surface event in front of a crowded room of technology journalists, Microsoft confirmed it was working on Office apps for touch platforms, including the Metro interface found in Windows RT. Those apps would also come to other touch platforms, but a Microsoft-released roadmap emphasized that they will be released through the Windows Store in the company’s 2014 fiscal year, which ends on June 30, 2014 – likely months before the next Surface tablets are announced.

If those facts weren’t telling of the company’s direction, Terry Myerson, the recently named head of Microsoft’s operating system division, said there will soon be a common app platform – referring to Metro-style apps – across its devices.

“The first of [Microsoft’s operating system beliefs] is that we really should have one silicon interface for all of our devices,” he said at Microsoft’s Financial Analyst Meeting on Thursday. “We should have one set of developer APIs on all of our devices. And all of the apps we bring to end users should be available on all of our devices.”

Microsoft isn't sure what it wants to do with Windows RT's desktop

When Microsoft releases the new Office apps, there will be no applications remaining in the Windows RT desktop that lack Metro interface counterparts. Microsoft locked down the desktop in Windows RT, limiting its applications available to only Internet Explorer, the Office suite and any traditional software, such as Paint.

Essentially, Microsoft is sending potential Surface owners two very different messages: The desktop environment in Windows RT is amazing, but it’s not going to be necessary much longer.

Consumers aren’t the only ones who have noticed the odd dichotomy between Microsoft’s actions and statements. Windows 8 tablets have been plentiful, but Windows RT tablets are few and far between – largely because Microsoft’s hardware partners see little room for a tablet that has the traditional Windows interface but can’t run any desktop apps, save for the ones that come with it. Acer, Asus, HP, Lenovo, Samsung, Toshiba and more have all said they have no immediate plans for Windows RT tablets.

Acer President Jim Wong went so far as to say Windows RT has “no value,” and Toshiba executives have said Microsoft confused consumers with the ARM-based operating system.

A Microsoft representative told Neowin at Monday’s Surface event that silver was chosen as the sole color for the Surface 2 to differentiate it from the Surface Pro 2, which runs x86 applications and is black. Yet despite intentions to differentiate the ARM-powered tablet from the Intel-powered tablet, Microsoft’s done little to alleviate the confusion regarding their operating systems; in fact, the company may have created more.

While the version of the operating system found in the Surface RT was referred to as simply Windows RT, Microsoft’s taken to referring to the version found in Surface 2 as Windows RT 8.1, a name Panay used repeatedly during his presentation Monday. Why the name needs to be changed is anyone’s guess. Windows 8 – an operating system that can be installed on devices by users, unlike Windows RT – faced consumer derision because the Metro interface doesn’t lend itself to non-touchscreen desktop computers, an issue irrelevant to Windows RT, which isn’t found on any desktop computer.

Microsoft’s original Surface tablet failed in the marketplace, forcing the company to announce a $900 million write-down in July, primarily because it overestimated interest in the device. It’s unlikely Microsoft will make the same massive miscalculation again, but perhaps the company shouldn’t ask what consumers aren’t doing and instead ask what it’s doing.

Perhaps Microsoft should start by asking a simple introspective question: Why are two interfaces being pushed on consumers when each clearly excels, based on input method, on different devices?

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