Microsoft and the Surface RT: Can’t Touch(Pad) This?

Last month Microsoft took a massive $900 billion writedown on the company’s disappointing Surface RT tablet inventory. Microsoft’s biggest hardware initiative since the original Xbox more than a decade ago, the Surface line of devices – both the RT and Pro models – were designed to bring Windows into a new age, an age of tablets, phones, and accessories as the center of the digital world rather than the PC.

However, the Surface RT was unable to penetrate either the tablet or laptop market. With a convertible form factor that encouraged users to purchase one of the two keyboards designed to click into place, which featured prominently in commercials, the Surface RT tried to be a laptop and a tablet. For the Surface Pro, which ran traditional Windows 8 and used conventional Intel processors, this worked OK. For the Surface RT, using a ARM processor, existing Windows software isn’t compatible, so only new software from Microsoft’s app store runs on it.

The Surface RT was a vehicle for the Windows 8 “Metro” style interface, but also included the classic desktop, albeit one that couldn’t run classic Windows apps. It also is unable to run Windows Phone 8 applications. So when marketed together, Windows 8, Windows RT, and Windows Phone 8 share many outward similarities but are very different under the hood. Apple makes Mac OS X and iOS, but the large portable device, the iPad, runs the same iOS as the iPhone and iPod Touch. Adding one more app store to the suite of device may have simply been one too many.

But if Microsoft is going to account for $900 billion in unsold Surface RT tablets, why not get them into customer’s hands? Just under two years ago exactly HP was faced with a similar dilemma. In 2011 HP TouchPad was the WebOS-based tablet competitor to the iPad. In the days before the Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire, non-iPad tablet that were good, inexpensive, or both were few and far between and HP decided that rather than continue to take their lumps trying to evolve the OS and hardware they would pull the plug. The 16 gigabyte model was slashed to just $99. SlickDeals had a field day. BestBuy was swamped. As someone who drove to seven stores before tracking down one of these rare beasts, it was quite the scene for a product that was completely irrelevant just 24 hours earlier.

Apps were downloaded, Android was installed, WebOS and the wireless charging capability were shown off to the mass market for the first time. Microsoft is not abandoning the Surface, including RT. Microsoft sees itself as a “devices and services” company now with devices including Xbox, Surface, and maybe their own phone someday too. While building out their retail stores one of the comments has always been “what can they sell?” because unlike Apple, Microsoft finds it’s software on third party devices more often than not.

But if a second Surface RT is in the works, why discount the existing RT to $349 and not just $99 and clear out the inventory? Microsoft could get units into the hands of both developers and the users who might give it a chance, except for the lack of apps. Even the secondary market for the TouchPad is surprisingly robust, with tablets still selling for about $99 dollars.

The Surface RT could be a thing if it’s really clearance priced to go. At least it would be in the hands of people outside of Microsoft stores.


Mr. Bezos or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kindle Fire

There has been a series of “iPad killers” and alternatives since the Apple announced it in January 2010. Windows tablets, the HP TouchPad, Blackberry PlayBook and, of course, a number of Android-powered  tablets from a large pool of manufacturers. Some of these devices were launched with great hopes and hype but failed to catch on with consumers for one reason or another. When faced with an array of products similar in price to the iPad but without the platform Apple has built around iOS the other tablets have been a tough sell to the general public.

Consumers specifically looking for an Android tablet or who snagged a TouchPad in August can be perfectly happy with those devices as touch-based netbooks with a bit more customization than Apple will likely ever offer. But in many cases this is a niche market: the big bucks (not to mention market share) will be won by the company that targets the masses. The Kindle Fire wants to be that marquee non-iPad product.

For those who just cannot stand Apple products, the Kindle Fire is not an iPad killer. For those who want a tablet to replace most of what a laptop or netbook can do, the Kindle Fire will be a disappointment. While the hardware in the Kindle Fire is quite similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook and it runs Android as the underlying OS, the Kindle Fire is not a full-featured tablet and it’s implementation of Android is a heavily skinned Gingerbread, not Honeycomb or Ice Cream Sandwich. It is however very interesting for what it is: a portal into the Amazon marketplace.

The Kindle Fire is first and foremost a Kindle. Amazon has expanded the Kindle brand from e-ink reading devices to include a color LCD content consumption device that can run audio, video, apps, and the web in addition to text.

As an iPad user for more than a year I have begun to rely on the tablet as an indispensable tool. It has become my primary means of using Twitter, a gaming device, a bottomless notebook powered by Evernote, a recipe book, Netflix viewer, and more. Using a bluetooth keyboard it can function adequately for typing, though primarily as an input device. Editing is still easier with a traditional computer, but is not impossible with the touch interface. After reading some early reviews of the Kindle Fire, I was afraid the iPad use had colored my expectations in a way that would make Amazon’s toe-in-the-water entry into the tablet market.

Instead, I find myself enjoying the Kindle Fire immensely. It’s the first Kindle I have owned, given my reservations concerning e-books, and has created a dilemma for me regarding what device to travel with.

The Kindle Fire provides a pleasant enough reading experience. Although it uses an LCD screen instead of e-ink I have not found myself wishing for the latter outside of battery concerns (the Kindle Fire is good for “all day” use, but it needs to be charged every day or two even if just used for a little light reading). I have read Kindle and blog content extensively on my phone and on the iPad, so the LCD is not a change from my normal reading habits when I’m paperless. With its seven-inch display, the Kindle Fire fits easily in my hand and the user experience is similar to holding a heavy paperback book. If it were a little lighter and had a bit more battery life I would probably never wonder if I could be happier with an e-ink reader instead.

Watching video from the Prime Instant Video library is painless, although like Netflix (whose app supports the Kindle Fire) the free streaming selection is limited. Of course, Amazon matches the iTunes store here with their additional selection of movies and TV shows available to rent or purchase. The screen isn’t as large as the one on the iPad, but it’s good enough for a device that can fit in a large pocket and is either used on the go or while sitting somewhere without a larger screen. The music capability is similarly functional: tight integration with the Amazon MP3 store and the ability to upload your own tracks to Amazon’s cloud and either stream them over WiFi or sync a number of tracks to the Kindle Fire for offline playback.

Audio, video, and e-books are and should be the Kindle Fire’s strengths: they are strengths of Amazon’s cloud and digital offerings. What sets the Kindle Fire apart from Amazon’s other devices is the Appstore. Given how the store has expanded over time in terms of Android phone apps, the relatively limited selection of apps for the Kindle Fire at launch is not necessarily a sign failure. As the first Android tablet aiming to catch on with a mass market, the Kindle Fire could spark developers to build tablet apps for Android in the first place. Because the Kindle Fire can be perfectly usable just with the Amazon content available, apps can be an afterthought, but are very nice to have for anyone wanting the tablet functionality in addition to the pure content consumption.

By downloading a few apps: Evernote, Seesmic, and Wolfram Alpha, in addition to the pre-loaded Pulse, the Kindle Fire feels enough like a tablet to leave home with it and still have some computing power at your fingertips. With a few productivity apps, including several office suites, a few games, and music and video content, the Kindle Fire is sitting between a traditional e-reader and a full-fledged tablet. As a WiFi-only device priced at $199 it is almost targeting iPod Touch owners more than those who have taken, or want to take, the tablet plunge with the iPad.

The Kindle Fire is smaller than an iPad, less powerful, and not really better than Apple’s device for anything outside of the e-book experience because of its size. It might be clunky browsing the web, the keyboard is good-not-great, and the document syncing and magazine experiences don’t feel as fully baked as the areas where the goal is simply “purchase from Amazon” but the Kindle Fire is primarily a device to drive sales to Amazon after all. 

When it comes down to it, when leaving the house without a bag, I can stick the Kindle Fire in a coat pocket or carry it as I would carry a single book on the train or outside the house. The iPad is a file folder of infinite capacity that can contain all your information and transform itself into a number of devices through apps. The Kindle Fire by contrast is a limitless Moleskin notebook that can do a few other things as well.