Why Microsoft Surface tablets could be shortlived

Will Surface be a game changer or just another tablet? Time will tell

Microsoft Surface looks cool, much like Courier, Zune, Kin, Origami and, to a large extent, the original Microsoft Surface that came in a table and cost a billion dollars. I can't wait to see what its engineers come up with after losing interest in this too. Cynical? Sure. That's kinda my 'thing'.

In this case, though, it's more a general problem with all the big technology companies right now, all except Apple, that is, unless you count its hilarious attempts to get into social networking with Ping.

These companies are simply too big to put the necessary weight behind these kinds of projects, which is often coupled with a general arrogance that they don't even have to try and that people will baa appreciatively anyway. Google, I'm looking at you in particular there.

Surface in particular seems, at least on the, er, face of it, an odd product for Microsoft to put out; one that puts it in direct competition with some of its biggest customers, the manufacturers who license Windows for their products.

Apple doesn't have this problem with the iPad or OS X, thanks to controlling the entire technology chain, while other manufacturers don't have an operating system that's ever likely to take off. Given the relatively low margins on most portable technology right now (for everyone's mockery of how much the Macbook Air costs, Windows equivalents are comparable), it doesn't seem like it's going to be a major revenue stream.

No money, no work

If it's not bringing cash through the front door in giant skips, it's not going to see much R&D once the initial shine wears off. Most likely, we'll only see a couple of Surface releases from Microsoft, with the main push being to show other hardware manufacturers the advantage of having Windows on a device that's not quite a laptop and not quite a tablet.

Other manufacturers will then be free to license many copies of Windows and run with it, and face the obvious potential problems with the system, users expecting their apps to simply work on the new system, despite most not having been built around touch controls with that form factor (especially on expensive models that aren't limited to Metro), and confusion over specs. Ask the Android development community how much fun that is.

Say what you want about the iPad, but having a fixed target to work towards absolutely leads to better quality applications, especially when it comes to more system intensive tasks. Any new system will also be stuck with dealing with the in-fighting that dilutes every competitor to Apple gear, while Microsoft takes the credit for the concept and technology, and moves on to making some other shiny thing for Ballmer to hold up on a stage somewhere.

Surface may of course work out great. While I haven't played with the hardware myself (and shudder at the sight of that keyboard in a laptop capacity, convenient for tablets or not), it does look like a very carefully worked out, desirable piece of kit.

Individual decisions don't work for me, like the kickstand being geared towards landscape use, and the fact that I have no idea how you're meant to use it as a laptop when on the move, but never mind. Assuming it all works as Microsoft promises, it'll definitely be interesting, even if I'm suspicious about the lack of pricing information from the launch.

Up-front Apple

For all Apple's sins, at least it's upfront about how much things will cost, not to mention immediately having full information and the ability to order. After showing off Surface to the world, Microsoft's official site about it was still restricted to just 'Coming soon'.

Despite what it might sound like, I do actually want Surface to work out. The iPad experience is amazing, and the PC badly needs an equivalent that's not merely acceptable, but exceptional.

Microsoft is the only company with the clout to make that happen, thanks to its influence over the software and licensing. True, the last time we saw a major Windows based product, the netbook, it instead used it to kneecap the market with limitations like netbook PCs only being allowed 1GB of RAM and single core processors, but pffft. That was way back in 2009. I'm sure things will be different now.

Will Microsoft Surface specifically be the device we all use though? I doubt it. The Xbox remains Microsoft's only really successful hardware platform, and getting to that point took a great deal of blood, sweat, tears, and of course money.

For a PC, whatever the form factor, it would seem to make much more sense to just try and 'inspire' the market with this, then sit back and rake in the free money via both Windows licenses and a take of software sold in the Windows 7 app store.

The real test, though, will be whether Microsoft continues down this line the next time Apple does something cool, and whether it can take its success here to create the next big product the rest of the industry wishes it had thought of first.