Thoughts on Microsoft’s Surface Tablet and Their Marketing Rhetoric

The reports that I have read of Microsoft’s Surface tablet product announcement yesterday have been overwhelmingly glowing and starry eyed. An emblematic example is Jesus Diaz’s post on Gizmodo today in which he writes, “Microsoft has guts,” and “Microsoft is the underdog because no matter how many hundreds of millions of people use its software, the cool and the future belong to Apple” (par. 1). Actually, Microsoft dominates the computing market–that’s how they can swing the market toward the Windows 8 interface paradigm despite its shortcomings for power users–and they have gobs of money to throw at any perceived problem–in this case, their diminutive tablet marketshare. Furthermore, Microsoft is certainly no underdog. Their market dominance in desktop and laptop computing combined with their shift toward unifying the user experience across those platforms with their phone OS and tablet OSes. I believe Microsoft is playing into this kind of underdog rhetoric, because the image of the Surface above–taken from Microsoft’s website–has the filename, “hero.jpg.”

I certainly like the idea of a tablet that duplicates the power, file management, and options of a laptop computer, but I cannot get behind this particular product from Microsoft. Here are some reasons why.

1) Why did Microsoft have such a controlled release? The reporters/bloggers invited to the release yesterday afternoon–well after the markets had closed on the east coast–were given a very limited time interaction with the demo models. Also, they were not able to use the purported revolutionary features of the Type Cover and Touch Cover (more here on the limited time and actual experience with Surface)? It all seems like a bunch of promises without anything substantial besides the loud demo to back it up.

2) Why believe Microsoft can produce a good hardware product? Their other flagship product, the Xbox 360, has based on a survey conducted by Game Informer magazine a 54.2% failure rate (with 41.2% of those experiencing one failure experience another). Can Microsoft produce something that works as reliably as Apple’s iPad 1 with a 0.9% malfunction rate and Apple’s iPad 2 with a 0.3% malfunction rate, according to this report on SquareTrade? Also, ArsTechnica reported that Ballmer switched demo Surface units during the introduction because “the first one had trouble.” Oddly, I have not seen other reports from the event report this demo failure.

Image3) Why does Microsoft marketing need to use eye-scratching rhetoric in its Surface spec sheet? Instead of “Weight” or “Mass,” the spec sheet lists “Light.” Instead of “Thickness,” it lists “Thin.” Instead of “Display” or “Screen Type,” it lists “Clear.” Instead of “Battery” or “Power,” it lists “Energized.” This kind of over the top bending of the conversation to their marketing rhetorical spin. This all seems like Microsoft is desperately trying to get the world to see its product in their way instead of letting people look at the measurements and think to themselves, this is thin or this is lightweight.

4) Why make such a terrible commercial for the Surface? It doesn’t tell me anything about what it can do or how I can do things with it. My immediate reaction was that this was some cut footage from a late 1990s Trent Reznor music video about magnets and tiny ball bearings revolting against a computer keyboard. More high concept car commercial than useful product introduction, it is something that is You can watch the video below.

It actually reminds me of Microsoft’s first Xbox commercial, too (Note: Microsoft pushed the word “Surface” relentlessly during the introduction yesterday–here, they push “X”):

5) A more fundamental question: Why Windows 8 and Metro? This is also a question about the convergence of iOS and MacOS X. If I were strapped to an operating system that didn’t let me arrange application windows in a manner that suited ME, I would not have been able to complete my dissertation as quickly as I did. It was imperative that I could create a workflow that was as unobtrusive to my thinking and computing habits as possible. Microsoft’s Metro and Apple’s iOS are well suited for smaller screens, limited computing power, and touch interfaces. However, not all kinds of personal computing tasks and workflows are well suited to the design constraints of touch interfaces–much less small screens and limited computing power. We need an ecosystem of operating systems and corresponding programming APIs for applications that facilitate the needs of different platforms. I do not believe that the trends at Microsoft or Apple are viable long term solutions, unless of course we computer users simply have no choice or voice in the matter.

What do you think about the Microsoft Surface? What are your thoughts about Windows 8 and Metro? Sound off in the comments below.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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One comment on “Thoughts on Microsoft’s Surface Tablet and Their Marketing Rhetoric
  1. […] stand by my earlier thoughts on the Surface here, but I recognize that Microsoft seems to have thrown its monolithic weight behind Surface and […]

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Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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