Microsoft's Surface tablet is a little late to the party, and it has some serious challenges ahead of it. But there is one area where it could succeed, in spades.
The company rolled out its device this month in a hurriedly-arranged press conference that suggested it knows it can't wait any longer. It has already lost too much ground in the tablet wars. Apple's share of the tablet market with the iPad will reach 62.5% this year, according to IDC
Apple does one thing very well: it ships one product and one operating system in any given category. Microsoft gave us two (Windows RT and Windows 8), running on different processors (ARM and Intel) with different capabilities (the RT version only runs Metro-style apps). The rationale here is that one is for the consumer market, and one is for business users, but this already fragmented its offerings in a market where it needs to make its proposition as clear as possible if it is to stand any chance of catching up.
And we've seen Microsoft try to play catchup before, with less than favourable results. It launched the Zune as a competitor to the iPod. This never sold outside North America, and effectively faded from view. We've also seen it try to lead the market, and fail there as well. Its original tablet operating system, launched in 2002, was supported by various PC vendors, but never really caught on.
Add to this the fact that the company is competing with its own hardware partners, and it's easy to see the Surface failing. Microsoft will only sell the unit online, presumably to avoid the wrath of hardware partners who are competing with each other in retail outlets. This will make an already confusing product less visibile still.
But there is one place where the consumer version, at least, could succeed: the living room. Microsoft already has over a third of the worldwide gaming console market, and in the autumn it will launch Smartglass
, which is a software service designed to run on a phone, tablet, or PC. Smartglass acts as a companion to your XBox, providing additional information about whatever you're doing on the screen. Watching movies streamed through your XBox could throw up plotlines and character profiles, for example, while it could display strategy charts or player stats when watching the footy. And when playing games, your Smartglass device might display maps, or character inventory information.
This is all rather attractive, and the consumer Surface device could fit in very well as a Smartglass companion, if and when Microsoft enables it for that. Perhaps not coincidentally, Microsoft rolled out the first Smartglass SDK for XBox developers just a couple of days after the Surface demo.
Your Surface could then serve more information about your screen life when you're away, perhaps sending updated football information, or keeping you abreast of what's happening in a multiplayer game world when you're off doing something more healthy, like taking a walk.
On the other hand, Smartglass is said to be available for other devices, too - including iOS and Android - and of course there will be other Windows tablets to consider. So Surface is far from the only show in town.
Surface has a lot to prove in the tablet space, and Apple is extremely aggressive about fighting rearguard actions against tablet and smartphone vendors (hence the lawsuits trying to stop HTC and Samsung from selling their mobile devices). But integrated well, Smartglass could turn it into an attractive proposition for XBox-savvy consumers.