How to sell Microsoft Surface: The tablet for getting things done

Microsoft recently announced “Surface”, an oddly-named tablet family designed to compete not only with Apple’s iPad and numerous devices running Google’s Android operating system, but also tablets from its own hardware partners. Microsoft built its empire by selling Windows and Office software to multiple hardware partners, effectively commoditizing the hardware, and reaping the lion’s share of the profits. Now that tablets and smart phones represent a threat to that core business (Apple’s iPhone business is now larger than all of Microsoft), Microsoft decided it could not wait for partners to develop compelling alternatives. It went into competition with its partners, and it knew it needed to differentiate.

So what was the great differentiation? A keyboard that was never demonstrated, and a built-in stand. Seriously. This was worth such damage to critical partner relationships?

Differentiation is critical to value. If you can’t differentiate, you’re a commodity, and you’re at the mercy of the low cost/low price provider. Since in (almost) all cases, this is not you, you have a big problem.

Microsoft, of all companies, didn’t think about software differentiation. If you want to differentiate from the iPad, create a tablet that replaces the laptop plus the iPad, at least for a core set of office workers who don’t need a high powered machine. This is Microsoft’s core market and one that they (should) understand well.

Surface: The Tablet for Getting Things Done

Imagine they had showed a demo of a “day in the life” of a knowledge worker. You wake up to your favorite song, watch the news, read some email, write some email on your awesome keyboard, all on your tablet. You go to the office. Except it’s your home office, where you do a video chat via Skype with your colleagues, while working on a spreadsheet shared in the cloud. While you do that, you realize you need to update a PowerPoint slide, so you seamlessly copy and paste some new data and create a nice chart in PowerPoint. You whip out an email with a link to the cloud document. Next, you review a bunch of changes to a Word document, and create a finalized version. As your work, you have your to-do list app open next to your editor, perhaps swiping it out to check off the next item. Your day done, you open up a movie, or perhaps the kids steal your tablet, after you switch to the “Kids” user account, and they start playing games. This story highlights “Surface: The tablet for getting things done.”

The idea is that the IT department doesn’t need to choose laptop and/or iPad, they can just get Surface, and that’s what everyone wants because it makes their lives easier.

Instead, Microsoft focused on trying to be like Apple, without understanding that Apple considers software important, too. That’s not worth stabbing your partners in the back. (If you’re going to throw your most important partners under the bus, Microsoft knows how that is done: see the story of Redmond ditching OS/2 to focus on Windows, leaving “partner” IBM holding the bag.)

Microsoft is full of really smart people. Why did they do this?

  • Internal politics?
  • They really have no clue.
  • The software isn’t ready yet. My money is on this one, although sometimes I wonder. When Microsoft dominated tech, they would make vaporware announcements to gauge market reaction and freeze out competitors. That doesn’t work so well when you don’t actually dominate the market.

What does this mean for your own proposals? Make sure you are looking at your customer’s pain points, not just your own offerings and features. Make the story compelling. If your pitch is “it’s just like the one that you like, only not ready yet”, or “just like what you like, but cheaper”, very few people will want to switch, unless you can make it so much cheaper for a segment of the market that they have to switch. What kind of story are you telling? And how easy is it for your customers and prospects to imagine themselves as heros in your story?

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