Technologizer

Why Microsoft’s Surface Unveiling Was So Vaporous

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Bill Gates and Bert Kelly demonstrate a Tablet PC on June 22, 2000--more than two years before the first Tablet PCs shipped

The blogosphere is still buzzing over Microsoft‘s Monday bombshell: the biggest name in software is going to start selling its own Windows 8 tablets. The reactions to Surface are all over the map — depending on whose take you read, it’s either incredibly impressive or dead on arrival.

But many pieces by both Surface optimists and Surface skeptics have one thing in common: they note the shortage of important details at Microsoft’s Hollywood event. (Here’s Daring Fireball’s John Gruber doing it.)

Microsoft says that the Windows RT version of Surface will ship when Windows 8 does, and the Windows 8 Pro edition will come along 90 days later, and that both will cost about the same as roughly comparable products. But we still don’t know the exact shipping timetable or pricing. Or whether the keyboard cover, which Microsoft touted as a breakthrough but didn’t actually let anyone try, is pleasing or painful. Or what Surface’s battery life will be like, or the specifics on its specs. The event offered too incomplete a picture of the product to let anyone come to any definitive conclusions, pro or con.

Just about everyone who accuses Microsoft of promoting vaporware brings up Apple‘s unveiling of the original iPhone in 2007, perhaps the most iconic technology-product debut of all time. Steve Jobs demonstrated the handset months before it went on sale but disclosed plenty of final or almost final facts (including the price and release month). Apple also let some journalists get real hands-on time with an iPhone prototype — an opportunity that Microsoft, as far as I’m aware, hasn’t provided to anyone yet with the Surface.

I do think that if you’re going to compare the iPhone launch with the Surface launch, you should note one point in Microsoft’s favor: Surface’s software, Windows 8, is hardly a mystery. Microsoft announced it last August and has been offering public preview editions since February. We don’t know for sure when Surface will show up, but it’s already possible to have a well-informed opinion about its software in a way that wasn’t true with the original iPhone until it shipped.

But there’s another point that some people may be missing about the Surface launch. It would have been unprecedented if Microsoft had provided anything other than a half-baked picture of the product. It simply isn’t in the company’s nature to delay an announcement until it’s willing and able to spill all the beans.

Steven Sinofsky demos Surface

Harry McCracken / TIME.com

Comparing the Surface event with an Apple keynote is irresistible, of course. More than any other Microsoft event I’ve been to over the past couple of decades, this one followed Apple’s template, including the basic format (recap of recent successes, dramatic announcement, video of employees praising their own work, adjournment to demo room). Surface itself isn’t a trite Apple knockoff, but stylistically, its debut sure was.

In terms of the specifics, though, the event was pure Microsoft. When it starts talking about a product, there are always huge holes in its story.

A few examples:

  • Almost two years elapsed between the time Microsoft started showing off a crude version of Windows 1.0 in 1983 and its final release in 1985.
  • The company started demoing prototypes of the Tablet PC in mid-2000, more than two years before the first models — bearing little resemblance to the 2000 version — hit the market.
  • It started generating hype for a product code-named “Longhorn” at least as early as 2002. (Here’s a story I wrote about it then, based on an interview with a Microsoft executive.) The company gave Longhorn the official moniker Windows Vista in 2005, and shipped it — without some of the features which it had been bragging about — in 2007.)
  • When Microsoft first talked about Internet Explorer 9 in 2010, a year before the browser’s release, it didn’t say anything about its features and indeed released a series of test versions that barely had a user interface at all.

In all the above cases, Microsoft showed extremely rough drafts of products it didn’t intend to ship anytime soon. It switched around its plans and filled in details later. Much of the time, by announcing early it put a crimp in the plans of rivals who, when they announced their products, found themselves competing with Microsoft wares which didn’t even exist yet.

Only rarely has Microsoft suffered any negative repercussions for this strategy. And over the past few years, it’s tightened it up. It generally releases products more or less on schedule — way back when, it was famous for blowing deadlines — and its metering out of information seems more calculated.

Google is holding its Google I/O conference next week. Among the announcements that everyone’s expecting is some sort of Google-branded tablet. If Microsoft had enough details about Surface nailed down to put together a coherent presentation — and it did — it would have been notable if it hadn’t gone ahead.

Important note: Microsoft behaves this way not only because it’s Microsoft but because it’s a software company. With software, incomplete announcements are not an oddity but standard practice.

For instance, when Apple announced OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion last February, it talked about only certain features, released a developer preview that was missing some of the stuff it did talk about, gave a vague release timetable (“summer”) and didn’t reveal the price. I don’t recall anyone writing off the upgrade based on any of these factors.

The bottom line on Surface right now is obvious: it’s intriguing, but it would be nutty to come to any definitive conclusions until we know more about the platform and at least some folks outside Microsoft have had a chance to use it. But I don’t take Surface’s somewhat vaporous status as a sign that Microsoft doesn’t know what it’s doing. Or that Surface is more of a concept than a soon-to-ship product. Or that it’s destined to fail. This is just Microsoft being Microsoft — the same Microsoft it’s been for as long as there’s been a PC industry.

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