The New Microsoft Surface is out, and some people are asking, “Is the third time the charm?” The new Surface, number three in that series, and surnamed the Pro model, is, however, strangely reminiscent of apples…the kind that grow on trees. There are 7,500 different varieties of apples but, in the final analysis, they all turn out to be pretty much the same, a small to medium-sized round fruit, between two (for crab apples) and 10 (for the Japanese Hokuto) inches in diameter, with a thin skin, a sweet, pulpy flesh and a small, seeded core. There are thousands of varieties of apples, like the mix and match colored keyboards for the Surface but, in the final analysis, they are still just apples…or computers, as the case may be.
Apple trees are generally trimmed down to 10 to 12 feet when they are in production but, in the wild, they have been known to soar to 40 feet or more, although the quality of fruit declines. Apples have one other interesting trait. They are pretty nearly immortal. Some die from fire, drought or disease, but apple trees usually just keep on trucking and, if one happens to be knocked over in a storm, the trunk will take root and start growing again. The oldest apple tree on record only dates back to 1887, because that was when they started keeping records about apple trees, but no one goes around cutting down old apple trees to count their rings if they are still producing, so there are probably much older ones out there waiting to be discovered someday.
While the differences between the Microsoft Surface and an apple are readily apparent, their similarities might evade a cursory examination, because it is hard to pin down the manner in which Microsoft keeps recycling the same old ideas. Think about grafting one apple’s stem on another apple’s branch, and the picture becomes self-explanatory. Microsoft has been trying to get consumers hooked on their cloud based application software since the beginning of the century, long before marketers started hawking the dubious merits of the cloud to consumers. The same goes for Microsoft’s tablet obsession which, indeed, dates back even further to the period when Microsoft was trying to interest consumers in diskless computers that were really little more than brainless work stations.
The diskless, network-bound personal computer concept goes back to 1985, when Wang Laboratories bet the farm – and their company – on their version of a diskless network workstation. Wang lost that bet because no one wanted to buy an orphan computer with no local storage. Microsoft’s updated version of the network station, now known as the Surface Pro, has local memory, and a lot more computing power than its predecessors, but remains pretty helpless without a network connection, because it is only with an active network connection that you can sample some of the tasty features the software company has tacked onto its latest hardware product.
The similarity between apples (in this case, the organic kind) and Microsoft Windows computers becomes more apparent when you look at the efforts that various manufacturers put into trying to reinvent the laptop computer by combining characteristics of the keyboard based laptop design with the touch screen tablet, which is rather like the process with which new strains of apples are created, by grafting stems from one variant on to the branches of another variant in order to get a unique new flavor. Nevertheless, in the end, an apple is still an apple, a laptop is still a laptop…and a tablet is still a tablet and the twain almost never meet.
There are some folks out there who absolutely need a tablet for one reason or another, such as graphic artists, illustrators, photographers, video editors and other people who do things with graphics. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the world’s computer users will never stop using their keyboards to enter data, and the Surface’s chiclets style keys simply cannot keep up with a seriously fast touch typist, because the chiclets keys (named after a brand of chewing gum that almost no one chews anymore) do not give touch typists enough tactile feedback.
Nevertheless, the computer industry, in general, and Microsoft, in particular, will keep trying to convince computer buyers that it is possible to combine the best features of a laptop computer with a touchscreen tablet because they need a new product line to drive lackluster sales. Many computer users have reached a plateau at which their present computers do everything they need to do, so it becomes incumbent upon the industry to push new products that do even more to bring buyers back to the stores.
The tablet has revived buyer interest because tablets do things that stand alone computers do not. Touch screens are very cool, which is why Hewlett-Packard (HP) introduced them to the market in 1983, but they were not cool enough to drive up HP’s market share, which was why HP backed off on touchscreens for a long time, until the tablet revived interest in that option.
There is, however, another reason that Microsoft has embraced the hybrid tablet, which is what the Surface is. The real reason behind Microsoft’s compulsion toward forcing the Surface onto the marketplace is that the Surface justifies the release of Windows 8.0, with its touchscreen orientation because, without that shiny new thing, Microsoft was going to find it extremely difficult to get computer users to upgrade from Windows 7, which has been the most successful version of the Windows operating system to date.
Unfortunately for something like one billion computer users who own older computers, Windows 8.0 is very difficult to use on anything other than a touchscreen computer. Those time-saving sweeps and taps that are used to navigate on the extended virtual desktops on a touchscreen system do not work if you do nor have a touchscreen, making Windows 8.0 an awkward product to use for anyone who wants to upgrade their operating system on an older computer.
The problem is that, sooner or later, Microsoft is going to discontinue support for Windows 7, as they recently discontinued support for Windows XP in a move that was quite blatantly designed to force the 500 million plus XP users to leapfrog right over Windows 7 and move on to Windows 8. The blatantness of Microsoft’s move illustrates the company’s growing indifference to the preferences of their customers, because Microsoft still supports Windows XP…for the federal government. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS), in particular, has a multi-million dollar support contract with Microsoft, necessitated by the fact that the IRS’s proprietary enterprise software would not run on newer Windows operating systems.
Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of other companies are in the same boat, but they do not have the clout to compel Microsoft to continue supporting a discontinued operating system, as only an agency that can audit your books does. This means that thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of companies will be forced to upgrade to Windows 8 and, more likely than not, they will have to purchase new computers to go with their new software in order to take advantages of the shiny new features they never really wanted in the first place because Windows 8 will not be a prime user experience without those touchscreens. So, in the end, millions of computer users will end up spending thousands of dollars per seat, and spend thousands more to upgrade or replace purpose-built software that will not run properly on Windows 8, or do without the functionality they had before. It also leaves them with next generation hardware with capacities they do not need, that will do essentially the same job they were doing before.
It is important to note here, however, that there are reports that Windows 8.1 runs quite well on older hardware configurations, as long as you ignore the features designed to take advantage of the touchscreen imput systems. That is something else that Microsoft would prefer their customers remain ignorant about. You do not need a Surface to use Windows 8.1, but there’s really no good reason to upgrade to the new version of Windows if you do not have a touchscreen computer.
Microsoft’s marketing strategy has a name. It is called “enforced obsolescence,” and it was a mainstay of the American automobile industry for decades. Back when Detroit built cars that did not break, through the 1950s, the automakers came up with a plot to drive buyers back to their showrooms by revising the sheet metal around their vehicles every year, putting the same components into fresh wrappers, and using the annual new model year unveilings to make owners of older cars feel inadequate.
In the 1960s, automakers added “predicted failure” to their repertoire of tricks, downgrading the components of their vehicles to insure mechanical failures would commence soon after the warranties expired so that, by the time cars hit the magical 60,000 mile odometer reading, the cost of maintaining the old junker would be more than the cost of buying a new one on credit. The logic was inescapable. Consumers were encouraged to believe that they were being foolish if they kept pouring money into their old wrecks, when they could have brand vehicles in their driveways for the same monthly payments.
That worked…until Japanese car makers started importing cars into the United States that would click off 200,000 problem free miles, according to their advertisements, at any rate. Starting lower than Detroit’s price ranges, foreign car makers’ list prices rose gradually to match, then exceed, the prices of American made cars although, by then, it was becoming increasingly difficult to discern what was an American made car and what was really an import.
Now, things have come full circle in the computer business, as it follows the old Detroit playbook. Now that the vast majority of all computers are assembled overseas from parts manufactured overseas, the perception that a particular brand is as American as, say, IBM, which sold their personal computer business to Lenovo in 2004, or Microsoft, which has handed over the manufacturing of the Surface to a Taiwanese company called Pegatron, is simply wishful thinking. Strangely enough, Lenovo is now manufacturing some of their computers in North Carolina, making it one of the first Chinese firms to outsource manufacturing operations to the United States.
Microsoft’s business model depends upon forcing billions of computer users into buying successive versions of the same basic operating system. With Microsoft’s application software under increasing pressure from Google Docs, and its system integration business being challenged by Google and other cloud sitters (companies marketing cloud based software to business users), Microsoft is not nearly as sanguine as it used to be about its future.
Unlike Apple, which has come back from the grave at least three times now, Microsoft has never faced a significant challenge to its domination of the operating system space, but there are limits to growth for any business enterprise, and the next 24 months might determine whether Microsoft remains at the top of the heap in the operations system space.
The synergism of a new user interface paradigm with a new operating system marries Microsoft to both products. The resistance to Windows 8 was so strong in the corporate sector that Microsoft had to rush out its first revision to the new system to provide dissatisfied upgraders with an option to make Windows 8 look and feel like Windows 7, a tacit admission that, so far, at least the Microsoft Surface Pro has failed to move the market toward embracing that new paradigm.
If Windows 8.1 is an attempt to cull a second harvest from millions of Windows 7 users to generate sales from its new operating system, the company is also going all-in with its Surface Pro 3, positioning it against the MacBook Air, and taking advantage of Apple’s curious reluctance toward adding touchscreens to their systems. Stealing a march on Apple in hardware innovation is a feather in Microsoft’s cap, but it may still be too soon to tell whether the third time is indeed the charm for Microsoft’ incursion into the hardware space.
Opinion By Alan M. Milner, National News Editor