Can Microsoft Beat Back Surface 2 Bad Buzz?

Better In Round 2?

Microsoft is facing jeers -- and some cheers -- from tablet experts for its Surface do-over. On Monday, Microsoft introduced the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 tablets with better battery life, beefed-up processors and a bevy of business-friendly accessories.

However, that may not be enough to quash critics from griping Microsoft is doubling down on the same failed Surface strategy that led to a nearly $900 million writedown on unsold tablets. They say despite tweaks, the Surface 2 is still saddled with the same weak value proposition and hum-drum Windows RT operating system as the original Surface RT.

What was announced Monday was no "holy cow" upgrade to the Surface. It wasn’t supposed to be. Surface Product Manager Panos Panay said it himself Monday at the launch event in New York. "Reinventing the wheel is not the goal. Making it better is."

So why the bad buzz?

Same Old Crippled Surface RT

With the update to the Surface 2 tablet, Microsoft improves over its predecessor, but it still runs the half-baked Windows RT 8.1. Lowering the price of the Surface 2 by $50 to $450 helps, but it's not enough to overlook the fundamental problems RT creates for users the first time around.

With ARM processors, the Windows RT OS can only use Microsoft’s touch-friendly modern apps. Microsoft now boasts 100,000 apps in its Windows Store, but even with a growing app count, the catalog lacks popular and new titles available on the iPad and Android tablets.

Worse -- with the exception of Office 2013 RT -- with Windows 8.1 RT, traditional desktop apps are a no-go. Perhaps there is a reason that most third-party PC makers stopped making Windows RT tablets over the past year.

Pricing Problems

Priced at $900, the cost of the Surface Pro 2 hasn't changed. And shaving $50 off the price of the Surface 2 "may not be enough to change buyers' minds," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner.

She said pricing the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 alongside the iPad sets expectations too high for what the Surface can deliver, and doesn’t do enough to attract budget Android tablet shoppers that have decent options starting at $200.

"Pricing is an obvious issue," Milanesi said. She said part of the reason people are willing to pay a premium for Apple’s iPad is because of a mature ecosystem of devices, apps and content. Right now, Microsoft’s ecosystem value-add pales in comparison to Apple's, Milanesi said.

Identity Crisis

Richard Doherty, an analyst at Envisioneering, a tech research firm, says with prices hovering around $1,000 for a Surface Pro 2 (with a cover), buyers won't think of the tablet as less as an alternative to Nexus 10 or iPad but more a competitor to a thin and light laptop.

After you price a Surface Pro 2 with a $130 Type Cover 2 or a $200 Power Cover, you’ll end up spending more than you would for a popular Lenovo hybrid laptop/tablet with prices that start at $770.

Weighing in at 2 pounds, the Surface Pro 2 (same as the original Surface Pro) is too heavy for a tablet. By comparison, the Sony Vaio Pro 11 laptop weighs 1.9 lbs, and Apple’s latest 9.5-inch iPad weighs 1.44 lbs. Because the Surface Pro 2 feels more like a laptop alternative, rather than an iPad alternative, buyers are more likely to either buy a thin-and-light notebook or convertible, say experts.

Lack Of Apps That Matter

Microsoft now boasts 100,000 apps for Surface tablets, but if you’ve spent more than 30 minutes browsing the Windows Store library, you’ll realize there are way too many big-name app no-shows.

A lackluster app collection is less of an issue on the Surface Pro 2, thanks to a full Windows 8.1 OS implementation. But on Surface 2, which can’t run anything but modern UI apps, a dearth of apps is going to be a deal-breaker.

Failed Channel Strategy

The addition of a $200 docking station and a $130 Type Cover 2 that adds "a better lap-typing experience" effectively turns the Surface Pro 2 into a desktop replacement for enterprises. But what’s lacking is an effective go-to-market strategy with the channel.

With the release of Surface 2 tablets, Microsoft said it has no new policy when it comes to playing ball with resellers that have been champing at the bit to sell Surface tablets since they were released last October. Currently there are only a handful of authorized Surface resellers.

"Microsoft’s enterprise-direct Surface sales will depend on building an enterprise sales strategy that incorporates direct sales reps, channel partners, application development services, cross-sales [for example, of Office licenses at a discount], and world-class, responsive support," wrote JP Gownder, an analyst at Forrester Research.

"Partners are the ones that talk to customers," said Majdi Daher, co-founder and CEO of Denali Advanced Integration of Redmond, Wash. "If Microsoft can't be bothered with the channel, that's to their own detriment."

Sizing Up Surface

Outside of Office 2013 RT, the 10.6-inch Surface 2 has limited content-creation options. Windows 8.1 RT is designed for touch-friendly modern apps, and traditional desktop software is a nonstarter with Surface 2. Because of this, Surface 2 has limited appeal.

That’s why some say Microsoft blew an opportunity to release a smaller 7-inch Surface miniversion of the tablet. Not only would it allow Microsoft to shave some money off the price, but it would give tablet shoppers one less reason to pass over the Surface when shopping for an affordable and portable tablet.

Finger-friendly Windows 8.1 RT is perfect for consumption, and content-hungry tablet users like smaller sizes, said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner.

Research analyst Jack Gold, with J.Gold Associates, sums up popular opinion well:

"It doesn’t look like Microsoft has done much compelling with the Surface 2 to overcome negative perceptions. Microsoft is just maintaining the traditional PC mantra -- keep upgrading the chips and hardware a little bit every year at a slightly lower price. Microsoft needed to do something innovative beyond the first gen, and I’m not seeing it."