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Published 6 years ago with 0 Comments

Why Microsoft can't afford the Surface to fail

Microsoft's about to release Surface, the most important product it's made since the Xbox. So why is it freaking out right now? Because it can't afford to lose another decade.

  • And Surface may indeed have some priceless magic in it. But the question, ultimately, is whether Microsoft can get people to pay a price for that magic. There's a giant shadow looming over the launch of Surface and Windows 8: Windows Phone. The first salvo of the new Microsoft, meant to boldly relaunch Microsoft's mobile efforts, has pretty much been a failure in the market despite being an early hit with critics and having hundreds of m...pent on marketing it between Microsoft, carriers and hardware partners. (Gartner numbers put its marketshare in the US at just 3.9 percent.) And if you think a back a little harder, it was only three years ago that Microsoft launched the Zune HD, an earlier attempt at producing a totally integrated device that was truly one of Microsoft's better products, but a complete disaster in the market. Both great products, both bombed. So by far the most outwardly tense part of the day comes when we bombard Sinofsky with questions essentially about how Microsoft plans to get people to buy this thing.

    The answers weren't very satisfying or revealing — big ad campaigns and consumer education! That didn't work for Windows Phone, and the problem Surface faces is in fact more profound than the one Windows Phone faced. Not only does it have a similar problem in that it doesn't immediately sell how it could be better than the other things on the market, like the iPad, there's an inherent point of confusion built into the product. (If it could, I do not think we would've been standing in the heart of Microsoft.) Surface runs "Windows," but it won't run old Windows apps because it's running a different kind of Windows, called RT. Yet, another version of Surface, coming in a few months, will run old Windows apps because it's got a full version of Windows 8. Got all that? Sinofsky explains that you will get that, and that the context of Surface within the greater sphere of Windows 8 will be made totally clear by the titanic marketing strategy Microsoft has planned. The implication he makes is that Surface doesn't have to talk about Windows 8 in its ads because you'll have already seen Windows 8 ads and been sold on the fact that you need Windows 8. I would love to believe him, as I have all day, but it's the one thing he says that does not feel right.

    The extent of Microsoft's caution is fully revealed by the fact that it's only selling the Surface in its own stores — of which there are only 30 or so, with another 30 pop-ups opening for the holidays — and online. It not only allows Microsoft to carefully manage the experience of anybody buying a Surface, but by narrowing the launchpad so intensely, it also provides a fair amount of insulation from any criticism of Surface's sales, should they suck terribly. Which might seem like NBD, but given its past problems with Zune and Windows Phone, any perception of weak sales could be poison to Surface. Microsoft is looking for another Kinect, which became the fastest-selling piece of consumer electronics in history.

    What's incredible about the future for Microsoft is that for the first time in a long time, no one knows what that looks like. If Windows 8 and Surface — and to a lesser extent, Windows Phone 8 and Xbox — kill it, we could see a brand new kind of Microsoft, one that's become relevant again not through show of force, but by simply making good shit. If Surface and Windows 8 bomb, the word "Microsoft" may never carry the same meaning ever again.

    Walking out of Store Zero an hour later, I could only think that Surface is going to make some kind of history for Microsoft, one way or another.

  • Through videos like this, Apple's managed to construct a kind of thought monopoly on design and manufacturing sophistication, which is something Microsoft very much wants to change. It wants everyone to know that it GETS design. That it can be, and is, just as fanatical as any other company about these kinds of things. That it, a software company, can build new things. It's explained at length, and more than once, that the feel and sound of the Surface's built-in kickstand was laboriously designed and engineered, with three custom hinges — one of which is simply for controlling the sound it makes as it closes — and a pair of magnets, so it clamps shut in a precise way without ever rattling.

    There's a sly reveal at one point that Microsoft actually sent its (well, Foxconn's) factories scrambling by changing the height of the chamfer by an infinitesimal amount right after the June announcement, just to make it feel better... in the hands. Pains are taken to make sure we know that the stage at the Surface launch was chamfered at the exact same angle (22 degrees) as the edges of the Surface itself, and that the store displays will precisely mirror every angle of the product too. And that there are 180 steps in making the Surface, and over 200 custom parts.

    Microsoft refers throughout the day to secret sauce manufacturing processes it's developed for making Surface that it won't fully explain for trade secret reasons: The letters on the Touch Cover are laser-etched, the top layer of a colored, Microsoft-developed polyurethane material burned away to reveal a white layer underneath. As we watch a machine diligently blast away at a blank Touch Cover, and letters slowly start to form, it's remarked that we're not seeing the much faster, actual process because there's intellectual property involved that Microsoft can't share. Microsoft developed a new type of touch sensor technology for Surface's screen that is sort of like the in-cell touch tech used by the iPhone 5 to produce an incredibly thin display — a fact that received a fair amount of press coverage — but it wouldn't elaborate on what makes it different. And on top of the Surface, the RF window that lets in the internets is made out of a secret material, different from the rest of the injection-molded magnesium Vapor Mg case. It's jokingly called "unobtainium."

    All the while, in a room packed with CNC machines that smells vaguely of rubbing alcohol, as a Surface skeleton is being carved out of a block of metal by a high-speed machining center, it's casually mentioned how CNC machines aren't super special, an obvious reference to their notoriety thanks in large part to Apple's marketing for the unibody MacBook Pro.

  • The Surface launch commercial from John Chu — yeah, the Step Up 2 guy.

  • After stripping us of our cellphones and anything else that can take pictures, a Microsoft employee who does not stop smiling directs us into a blank, white rectangle of a room, where Panos Panay, the general manager of Microsoft Surface, explains that we're the very first journalists to ever set foot into Store Zero, the model for every Microsoft Store on the planet. We're there because Microsoft Stores happen to be the only physical locations on earth that you'll be able to buy a Surface tablet, which is perhaps the most important product Microsoft's created since the Xbox.

    It's around 6PM and it's not the first time we've been told today — which started when we walked into an auditorium and found Willy Wonka chocolate bars stuffed with golden tickets that read SURFACE in block lettering waiting for us, though my ticket was strangely missing — that what we're seeing is highly exclusive. That basically no one outside of Microsoft has laid eyes on the things we've been staring at, touched the pieces of plastic and metal that we've gotten to hold, or breathed the chemical-scented air in the rooms we've been led through. Microsoft's spent the last six hours pulling back the curtain on Surface, revealing how the tablet was designed, how it's built, the new technologies Microsoft invented for it, and why they think a $500 Windows 8 tablet can be sold to normal people.

    "We" in this case is myself and something like 19 other tech writers. You might wonder why Microsoft, after successfully keeping the Surface project a secret for years — this is a rare accomplishment in technology, if you've paid attention to Apple leaks over the last couple years — invited 20 highly predatory journalists into a building that's been locked down for a year, exposing covert workspaces and laboratories littered with confidential information, equipment and technology and the press-shy people making it.

    It's because Microsoft wants us to tell you how deeply it cares about Surface and every detail that went into it. It has to.


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