Microsoft Surface and why the industry still hasn’t figured out tablets.

The Industry Contrarian is a segment written by Pratik Bose Pramanik chronicling his reflexive contrary feelings towards multi-billion dollar industries and the silly mistakes they make in product and service design. 

Nobody would venture to call me a big fan of the iPad. A market of 55+ million likes it. I like it too but I personally feel it’s very far from the end-all-be-all of what tablet computing will become. So if Apple still has work to do, then the rest of the industry can’t rest on it’s laurels and churn out the current iterations of the tablet computer.

Why? Because they really don’t understand how to create a story for tablet computing that’s relatable to real users. As a result, their tablets are designed to impress consumers who simply don’t exist; likely they weren’t designed with consumers in mind at all.

Case in point, Microsoft’s Surface. The Surface is Microsoft’s attempt to show its OEM exactly how it wants its new Windows 8 operating system to be used. During the unveiling I immediately covered my mouth in embarrassment on Microsoft’s behalf. They created this:

I was a bit puzzled by the sheer lack of confidence the device exuded. Looking at it, I felt it was saying “Don’t hold me, use the kick stand.” “Don’t touch me, use the keyboard.”

Instead of crystallizing a vision of the next generation of the its products, Microsoft seems incapable of learning from the recent success of its competitors, former designers and its own 11 years of experience in the tablet industry. It felt less like “Let’s crystallize the ultimate experience for the next generation of Microsoft” and more like “let’s one-up the iPad specwise and run Windows on it.” Faster desktop-grade processors, kickstand, keyboards, full-size legacy ports, magnesium, desktop OS. Every bit of their presentation felt like I was being read a three page long specifications sheet. No stories were being told. As a company, they are averse to post-PC, post-Office visions and the Surface makes it show. What is disappointing is that nothing is stopping Microsoft from creating powerful stories outside the desktop experience as they did with the Courier.

What is even more disappointing is their allergic reaction to story-driven experiences that led to the Courier designers to create their own company, FiftyThree. The company ostracized these extremely talented individuals for trying to move Microsoft’s vision of computing away from the Office and enterprise-centric view of the 90′s. In 2010, Microsoft demonstrated that they are completely incapable of understanding when they have something that resonates with people by cancelling the Courier project. And now, in 2012, FiftyThree’s Paper moves iPads and (who would have thunk) high-end styli off shelves; all while bringing in a healthy cut for the App Store’s proprietors. Apple is eating their lunch with their former people, without having to pay those people. Apple is doing this with a device that has most of its development roots in a smartphone, another market where Microsoft had talented people and traction to do something amazing. Users don’t relate to spec sheets, they don’t even buy into what’s cool. They have to be able to place themselves into a story as the protagonist and that’s why things like this

present real message problems to the consumer. They read things such as this and can’t say “I like hands off entertainment in my life.” They can say “I’m capturing my memories clearer than ever.” So, yes, a lot of this is marketing. The difference is that there is such a disconnect between the design, engineering and marketing in Microsoft’s strategy that you get downright stupid phrases like “hands off entertainment” written in light-faced Calibri. The marketing team doesn’t understand the story the design team was building around; so engineering creates a device with enough specs a marketing content strategist can fit into a well-kerned document. Apple’s messages come across so clearly because they use the words in their marketing material at the very genesis of a product. This is why the Microsoft, Google and the OEMs have been and are still hitting a wall with tablets; their products don’t have believable stories in the marketing materials because they created them after the product is done.

Microsoft’s problem is shared by the rest of the industry. They fail to make that empathetic connection with end consumers that allow them to understand serious concerns about new tablets (and products in general). The general population has only just gotten used to regular computers and now something new is being pushed onto them while being told they aren’t cool if they don’t have one. That’s not very nice and the people who buy these products develop remorse; they don’t appreciate you for inconveniencing them and show it by buying competitor’s goods. Computer companies need to stop talking about tablets and start thinking about customers. Think about how these devices will sit beside the laptop, cell phones and mp3 players they have grown to love rather than creating a foreign ecosystem to drag them into. Think about the designers and engineers sitting on your campuses struggling to get funding for a project that really speaks to the public. Think about how those designers feel when they are cut off because your vestigial enterprise-solutions branch is afraid of the impact a new paradigm will have. Think about the joy those designers get when they freely develop what they wanted on your competitor’s platform.

These companies need people who think in contrast to the current paradigm within the company. Only then will you see how a product addresses problems that are real and how it will grow organically into people’s lives. You can’t force a mish-mash of your existing, unsuccessful products and services into a novel form factor and expect it to stick. If consumers don’t like something you did previously, they need to see that you are doing something contrary to what failed. And I’m very disappointed in the tech blogs who drooled over the Surface. They should know better as well. They fell for the hype; be objective!

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