Switched On: The Blind Men and the Surface Pro

Ross Rubin
R. Rubin|12.09.12

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Switched On: The Blind Men and the Surface Pro

Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.

DNP Switched On The Blind Men and the Surface Pro

When Microsoft announced the Surface RT, it seemed clear that the ARM-based product -- with its precious adornments such as the kickstand and, of course, typing covers -- sought to appeal to those wanting to do more than is typically done with tablets. Microsoft, straight-faced, calls the Surface RT a PC, but with a connotation that it is trying to transform. There's less ambiguity around the Surface Pro. It has a capable Intel processor and runs virtually any Windows app. While someone from an earlier time might not recognize it as a PC turned off (especially with a closed Touch Cover), booting it up into Outlook would provide a convincing case.

In the story of the blind men and the elephant, the protagonists each discover some element of the majestic animal and draw conclusions about its nature without understanding the bigger (literally, in that case) picture. Now that we know the size of the Surface Pro's elephant in terms of how much it might feed from our wallets, its relative value and competitiveness will vary greatly depending upon which assumptions prospective buyers have when considering the product.

The Tablet Buyer

If someone has been sold on the idea of a tablet, they are likely looking for a larger device primarily to have a personal media experience. Microsoft has put a lot of implicit emphasis around Windows 8 devices offering "the best of both worlds" of tablet and notebook computing, a ploy that may play out in the success of various notebook / tablet hybrids. But it is trying to quickly re-educate a market that is still being primed on what tablets are. At least in terms of where the market for tablets is today, the Surface Pro looks expensive and app-poor in terms of the touch experience with half the battery life of standard-bearer alternatives. Its display resolution is high compared to that of the Surface RT, but still below that of much less expensive competitors such as the latest iPad and Nexus 10.

The Notebook Buyer

The Surface's Touch Cover is one of its most cleverly conceived compromises -- powered by the Surface itself to avoid any pairing setup or separate battery. It is significantly better than typing on glass, but not much thinner than the tactile keyboard that provides a much better typing experience.

Still, while the Surface may have best-in-class keyboard options, using it with the kickstand extended actually creates a relatively large footprint, and balancing the duo on your lap can be awkward (as it is for many iPad keyboard cases). The Surface Pro, of course, brings compatibility with the huge library of desktop Windows apps, but its trackpad is almost comically small. At $899, it's not particularly cheap compared to some Ultrabooks and its battery life still doesn't overwhelm, but it's far more competitive, particularly for a touch-enabled model.

The Windows 8 Buyer

Microsoft's rationale was to create a device that showcased Windows 8 and the Pro model embraces Windows 8's aspirations better than any of its competitors. When compared with Surface RT, it's less of a bet on the future; buyers will probably spend much of their Surface Pro time with the keyboard outstretched, but will be ready to take advantage of the new generation of touch apps as well as Windows 8 niceties such as Live Tiles and Charms. Then, of course, there is stylus input. It is also not unique in the tablet world as Samsung has made a big bet on it in its Galaxy Note products. But Microsoft's ability to integrate such input as opposed to Samsung, which must layer on, is key to Windows' proposition.

Unfortunately for Microsoft at this point, apps are more key to selling devices than operating system features. But the picture isn't nearly as bleak as it may seem. As with the original fable, none of the individual perspectives are quite right; and Surface Pro is more than -- or at least different than -- the sum of its individual parts. Microsoft's first tentative step into its own Windows PCs obviously leaves much ground uncovered. Along the tablet / notebook spectrum, Surface RT is a tablet on which you type; Surface Pro is a PC on which you swipe. But even if Surface doesn't jibe with notions of what a device type should be or can be, Microsoft can point those buyers to myriad other Windows options and still win.

Ross Rubin is principal analyst at Reticle Research, a research and advisory firm focusing on consumer technology adoption. He shares commentary at Techspressive and on Twitter at @rossrubin.

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