(Getting Out from) Under the Surface

by Brett Thomas on September 27, 2013 in Editorials & Interviews

Microsoft has been making a lot of weird moves lately, but the strangest of all has been its release (and now re-release) of the Surface tablet. With Steve Ballmer now out of lives, we take a look at his strange vision of Microsoft’s future – and how it has affected the company.

I come from the Atari and Nintendo generation, and I owe a lot of my success to that.  Born and bred of green-and-white mushrooms, asteroid storms and alien invasions, I’m a completionist. See, some people are perfectionists – they are so scared to fail that they rarely step into a new challenge, for fear of being bad at it.  A perfectionist likes to hit it just right on the first try – but not me.  I will tenaciously tackle the same set of jumps over and over, until I get it juuuuuuuust right.  And if I’ve got 99 lives, that means 98 of them are disposable… but you can bet I’ll stretch that last one all the way ’til Bowser’s eating lava.

This attitude has followed me into many avenues of my life – no matter what the particular interest at the time, I will follow the same steps:  I research, I try, I stand back in awe at the spectacular failure, analyze, regroup and retool, and try again… and again, and again, if need be.  You probably know a few people like this – the “old-school” platformers before the days of save-states and endless lives.  I’d like to say it fueled a generation, and I may be on the tail end of that group myself.  I look at the tech leaders in our industry and I see many of the same tenacious risk-taking that resonated through my childhood with plasma-blasters.

Of course, there came a point where I no longer lived my life by the Konami Code, and tempered the lessons and personality traits from my “gotta beat this… ” youth.  Failures happen – and when they do, they can be a lot more punitive than just losing a continue or a nice digital sidearm.  Which is why it dumbfounds me when people who are older and wiser than I am, who helped build the world I devoured as a growing child, cannot process the very same lessons that their software helped me learn.

Dead Mario

I am speaking, of course, about Steve Ballmer and the Microsoft Surface – which I had meant to write about just last week, after Microsoft kindly began the “trade-in” program for iPad owners.  For all intents and purposes, the Surface was always designed to illustrate, if not be Ballmer’s legacy – a ‘devices and services’ vision for the future of Windows, of Microsoft, and thus the future of the PC as a whole.  Windows 8’s “Metro” interface and touch sensibilities, for example, were built from the ground up to accommodate this concept… and specifically, this product.  Ballmer’s vision was so strong, so big and so powerfully forced that several of the top minds at the company were let go or resigned to make way for it.   

The Surface was the crown jewel of that policy.  It is what should have been the ass-kicker of the iPad.  Microsoft’s plodding, thundering response… because it takes a lot to wake a giant, but heaven help whoever falls under its feet once it gets moving.

This particular giant, however, tripped over its own feet and broke its back in the fall.

Don’t get me wrong – the Surface Pro is the tablet computer that we always dreamed of.  I’ve rooted for this technology for years – a proper computer that I could carry and use like a pad of paper.  Its initial attempts by ASUS back in the day (remember the laptops with a rotatable touchscreen?) on Windows XP were a teaser, but the dream was never truly realized by Apple’s iPad or any Android variant because of the app ecosystem.  Even Mike and Jerry from Penny Arcade fell in love with Microsoft’s incarnation enough that it made multiple appearances in the comic… and not as the joke!

The Surface Pro (for all of its charms) has always been damned to lead a pained, forlorn existence thanks to its idiot brother, the Surface RT.

However, the Surface Pro (for all of its charms) has always been damned to lead a pained, forlorn existence thanks to its idiot brother, the Surface RT.  See, the RT (short for Really Terrible) is just about everything Microsoft never should have created.  It’s the iPad, only so late to the party that it missed the entire event, like the long-avoided drunk uncle who crashes your twelfth birthday party with a card saying “Happy Eighth!” and a pre-scratched losing instant lottery ticket. 

Everything that the Surface Pro got right, the RT managed to get horribly, horribly wrong.  Rather than an established platform running peoples’ current software, it had a locked-down app store that required developers to recompile and redistribute a new version to current clients for free (which is bad), or (even worse) gouge them for a new license.  The Windows storefront was and is years behind (to put it kindly) the already developed App Store and Google Play, leaving a $349 brick that had nothing useful on it but Microsoft Office – which, coincidentally, didn’t have all the features of regular Office (available on the Surface Pro) or even some of the features that were being emulated by Office-like products on iOS and Android.

I’d forgive you, at this point, for thinking that the Surface RT sounds much like another doomed Microsoft project that stepped in the market far too late – the Zune.  There’s only one difference – the Zune was actually a really good music player… the Surface RT just plain sucks. 

It sucks so badly, in fact, that Microsoft was left to write down $900 million in inventory of the failed product, a move that most people in the industry herald as the end of Steve Ballmer’s dramatic tenure as Microsoft’s CEO.  After all, Surface (and the touch-screen agenda) was Ballmer’s baby – he even pushed the other divisions toward his fevered dreams.  I’m not just speaking of Metro here – I’m talking about the whole “new interface” slapped across every Microsoft product and several other tie-ins to “unify” Ballmer’s push for touch interfaces and subscription services across the board, even to poorly matched products like Server 2012, Visual Studio and Office.

Microsoft Surface RT

The woeful despair that was and is the Surface RT, in my opinion, will drag the entire line down with it.  Any purchaser of the device will quickly find its lack of applications makes it essentially useless – applications which exist on every competing platform in spades.  However, enticing developers to now code for the RT instead requires more cash to be paid by MS for the end goal of putting lipstick on a pig that nobody wanted to buy in the first place – not because it was an ugly pig, but because it was anemic and sick compared to the brother from the same litter.  The only humane solution was to offer a recall on the RT and credit the purchase towards a Surface Pro – quietly sacrificing the weak one to properly promote the worthier brother. 

Instead, Microsoft doubled down once with a buyback program for iDevices.  The sales pitch could have read, “Here – trade in your capable, well-recognized and supported tablet for a new Microsoft branded paperweight!”  Were it targeted totally at the Surface Pro, with a tag-line like “Find out what your tablet could truly be capable of,” or maybe even “App store?  How about App universe?!” I think the program could have turned some heads.  Helping people find the extra few bucks to truly upgrade to the nearly $800 entry point of the Surface Pro could be enough to kick start the brand’s potential.  But, no such luck – MS seems to have pushed the program to simply clear away some of its backstock of Surface RTs, which would finally be enticingly priced at about $150. 

Imagine what will happen when those trade-in users turn on that shiny new system, filled with hope for a better way of working with their tablets, all to find… nothing but a neutered MS Office.  None of the software they already bought from their Windows systems will be compatible, and none of the software from their previous tablet will work.  None of the stuff in the Microsoft Store will be worth purchasing.  Not much new will be released because the apps already exist on other platforms with broad user bases and ready markets.  Come on, Microsoft… do you think they’ll run out and buy a new version of that?  Would you? It’s a whole product generation of lost customers.  Add that group in with the technophiles who have already stood far from the Surface line because we knew it would never be successful enough to warrant a refresh, and you have a whole bunch of people who want nothing to do with the whole brand. 

Any purchaser of the device will quickly find its lack of applications makes it essentially useless – applications which exist on every competing platform in spades.

And this is where my original point was going to leave off last week.  See, the Surface RT will never compete with iOS or Android – their brands have years of establishment, and both of them have always lived on mobile chipsets so compilers, nuances of mobile computing (battery/ram usage, etc.) and development tricks are well-known, trusted and tested.

In my simple end-notes, I was going to point out how Microsoft really had two choices – either publicly distance itself from the embarrassment that was the RT, or let the whole Surface line die quietly in the corner.   With its choice for an iDevice trade-in, I figured (sadly) that it chose the option to screw both the consumers and the good product in an effort to shovel its manure out of its own living room, and let the line die as a whole.

Boy, am I glad I didn’t publish it, because I completely forgot this is still Ballmer’s Microsoft, and we still have the option to just make the whole situation worse.  Microsoft has indeed doubled down again with a Surface 2 – both a Pro and an RT model – showing that you just don’t always learn your lessons well (or at all).  Again, I’m ecstatic to see the Surface Pro (the refresh is as enticing as ever)… but paired with it is the same idiot brother, this time with an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chip and… oh yeah, still nothing to run on it. 

And so, I stand amazed at the spectacular failures – but much more so at the lack of learning, retooling or regrouping.  See, when I would try and try again at a tricky point in a video game level, I would look at each death as a learning experience and figure out how to do jump better or shoot at the right moment.  I’d accept that I failed last time, because I lost a life.  Microsoft lost $900 million just in the inventory alone, which doesn’t even include the R&D, advertising, and other non-capitalized expenses, and yet hasn’t figured out yet just why the Surface RT failed so dismally… or maybe just doesn’t want to.  The company (or maybe just its CEO) has blindly ignored every critic, including the consumer that voted with his or her wallet.

What we’re left with is a fractured organization that seems to be headed by someone intent on chasing the tail of his competitors, while ticking off every partner Microsoft has in the process.  Hardware companies, long supporters of the OEM Windows model, are now having to realize this new ‘devices and services’ Microsoft wants to be their direct competitor.  Employees who refused to toe the line on this vision have been forced out, no matter how bright a star they were.  Developers are being asked to self-fund a changeover to a platform that nobody uses and nobody asked for, so that MS can take a much greater portion of profits from their future app sales than on Windows currently.  Consumers are being baited to switch over to a brand without support, which will assuredly leave them with a distaste of future MS brands… and to get them for the brief time that they will be customers, Ballmer is spending down the war-chest and leaving the future Microsoft with even less money to clean up his mess.  That ought to make shareholders really thrilled.  

I think it’s fair to say [Ballmer has] turned into Bowser, the lumbering obstructionist that got so big and ungainly that it can’t even get out of its own way.

I’d love to say that Ballmer is about ready to make his proverbial ‘last life’ be a hailstorm all the way to Bowser’s front door – that he’s learned his lessons and is ready to make the right jumps.  But in this analogy, I think it’s fair to say he’s turned into Bowser, the lumbering obstructionist that got so big and ungainly that it can’t even get out of its own way.  In chasing his vision, Ballmer has taken a Microsoft that was an awe-inspiring, muscled Cerberus poised with powerful heads in PCs, gaming, development and even (finally) servers and IT infrastructure, and turned it into a dim-witted, multi-headed giant that can’t pick which way to drag its huge body between its many small brains. 

Right now, Microsoft is living up to the butt of every joke since Gates left, and its only unifying edict is one that didn’t fit most of its current business model.  That’s a real shame, too – the vision Ballmer had is one that could have been pulled off with aplomb and grace if he was willing to look more at the back-end (unification of file formats, user settings migration between unrelated devices, development libraries, communications and coding) instead of the visibility aspects like color schemes and hardware branding.  Windows as an OS was a testament to how well you could transparently unify so many different parts to provide a cohesive developmental and user level.  If Ballmer’s vision would have been a truly transparent tie-in of C#, Office, ActiveDirectory, SQLServer, Xbox and Windows, the Surface Pro would have been the icing on the cake of the next Microsoft Revolution at both the personal and professional level… and the Surface RT wouldn’t have ever even been required.

Unfortunately, there’s a real difference between being a completionist willing to take a few risks for that top score, and becoming so fixated on a spot that your friend did better than you on, that you never win the game.  It’s clear that Ballmer is out of extra lives – what’s not clear now is how many that the company as a whole may lose in figuring out how to get past him.

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