Microsoft's Surface tablets have failed to make a dent in the dominance of the iPad in the market, but is that because of Apple's superiority of Microsoft's confused messaging? Photo: AFP
In March 2006, a parody video asked, What if Microsoft made the iPod? The clip began with an image of the real packaging for an iPod, that familiar white box with a single picture of the music player. Then, bit by bit, it added what would happen if Microsoft got involved.
By the end of three minutes, the dainty music player had been renamed the iPod Pro 2005 XP Human Ear Professional Edition With Subscription, and the stark box was sullied with stickers and jargon promoting almost every technical feature on the device. A design inspired by modernist architecture (think the Guggenheim Museum) was turned into a gaudy billboard (think a trinket store in Times Square).
In recent years, Microsoft has been trying to shed its reputation for trumpeting features over simplicity, but old habits are proving hard to break. Yes, Microsoft has released products like the Xbox and Windows Phone 7 that were intuitive to consumers and marketed with a fair amount of finesse. But far too often, the company has tried to create products for the modern consumer with a mindset from the information technology back room.
And there are consequences for this disconnect beyond satirical videos. Microsoft said this month that it was taking a $US900 million write-down for unsold inventory of the Surface RT tablet, which went on sale less than a year ago.
Just thinking about the Microsoft Surface tablets is a head-scratcher. The company offered two products, the Surface RT and the Surface Pro. One came with a pen. They both had USB ports, microSDXC card slots, HD video ports, flip-back stands, different screen resolutions and two types of Windows software.
If all that confused you, you are not alone. While the technologically savvy most likely lapped up those features, average consumers did not.
"Windows is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail to Microsoft," said Ryan Block, a former editor at Engadget and a co-founder of Gdgt, a gadget website. "You can look at the Surface, which is the best example; they created this totally blown-out tablet based around Windows and Windows-like experiences that didn't translate for most people."
Microsoft enthusiasts and some pundits came to the company's defence last week, saying that the Surface had failed because the iPad hit the market years earlier and had too much of a head start.
Maybe. But I have a different theory: the Surface failed because Microsoft confused consumers who didn't want to think about RT or Pro or what version of Windows their new gadget would run.
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