Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about consumer technology.
In a Microsoft strategy that embraces contradiction -- licensing software while trying to build its own devices -- it is unsurprising that goals for the Surface support competing priorities. On one hand, it is a showcase, a pure Microsoft experience in a role that the Nexus phones and tablets serve for Google. On the other hand, it is part of a line of business that must deliver profit over the long term. It is a product that Microsoft has bet big on in terms of development, marketing and inventory. And when its first iteration failed to meet sales expectations, Microsoft felt the pain.
Surface has had a third, subtler role as well. In the world of traditional personal computing, it is one thing for Apple to do away with a modem or an optical drive. It is another for Intel to enable longer usage times and thinner form factors. But Surface has enabled Microsoft to set trends for a product's design in ways it could not when it was simply dictating hardware from the sidelines. Remember, for example, the SideShow second screen it advocated with Windows Vista?
The Surface RT's well-designed keyboard covers were so well-received and well-promoted that they masked many of the design deficiencies common in first-generation products.
In contrast, Surface, despite its struggles, has pioneered ideas that are gaining traction. Witness the type covers of the Dell Venue 11 Pro or the Nokia Lumia 2520, each of which support their tablets in a different way than the Surface's. Surface hasn't quite given these products "permission" to exist, but it has certainly made the case for their development easier.
In fact, the Surface RT's well-designed keyboard covers were so well-received and well-promoted that they masked many of the design deficiencies common in first-generation products. These included the Surface's screen resolution, its camera, its battery life and the limits of its kickstand poses. These have all been improved with Surface 2, with the most significant improvement coming from the new two-position kickstand. Microsoft touts this as making the product easier to use on one's lap and it does, but the extra viewing angle is useful in other scenarios where your head is far higher than the display.
But even this is ultimately a tweak in comparison to the real Surface RT impediment: software. Outside the hands of the Surface team, we've seen improvements in the number of Modern/Windows RT apps as well as significant improvements in Windows RT itself with the update to Windows 8.1. And while third party app wins are rightfully celebrated, the company controls the most compelling app of all for many potential customers: Office. The arrival of that Modern suite would have profound implications for Windows RT and thus Surface 2.
Surface, as its team leader, Panos Panay, explained, represents a melding of the best of Microsoft. The company has made that more manifest in the Surface 2 by including premium extended-service plans for Skype and SkyDrive and rounding out the Office offering. Unfortunately, though, it must also contend with the worst of Microsoft, deficiencies that the company is working hard to improve, and on which it is making progress. As Switched On discussed last year after the introduction of the first Surface, it's in Microsoft's best interest to prime the pump for Modern apps by creating suitable hardware, and at some point hope for a virtuous cycle to gain momentum.
Particularly after the release of the iPad Air, though, the new Surface stands apart from Apple's offering more than ever.
The new Surface 2 may not represent a big leap over its predecessor (at least compared to Surface Pro 2) and Windows RT app support may still not translate into much first-party sales success for Microsoft. The tablet market, after all, is being flooded with cheap, small Android slates that the company dismisses as commodity entertainment devices. Particularly after the release of the iPad Air, though, the new Surface stands apart from Apple's offering more than ever. And the kickstand-equipped device bridging tablet and laptop -- as well as the competitors it is inspiring -- is better positioned to host the future of Windows that Microsoft is so furiously building.
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.