And Surface may indeed have some priceless magic in it. But the question, ultimately, is whether Microsoft can get people to pay a price for that magic. There's a giant shadow looming over the launch of Surface and Windows 8: Windows Phone. The first salvo of the new Microsoft, meant to boldly relaunch Microsoft's mobile efforts, has pretty much been a failure in the market despite being an early hit with critics and having hundreds of millions of dollars spent on marketing it between Microsoft, carriers and hardware partners. (Gartner numbers put its marketshare in the US at just 3.9 percent.) And if you think a back a little harder, it was only three years ago that Microsoft launched the Zune HD, an earlier attempt at producing a totally integrated device that was truly one of Microsoft's better products, but a complete disaster in the market. Both great products, both bombed. So by far the most outwardly tense part of the day comes when we bombard Sinofsky with questions essentially about how Microsoft plans to get people to buy this thing.
The answers weren't very satisfying or revealing — big ad campaigns and consumer education! That didn't work for Windows Phone, and the problem Surface faces is in fact more profound than the one Windows Phone faced. Not only does it have a similar problem in that it doesn't immediately sell how it could be better than the other things on the market, like the iPad, there's an inherent point of confusion built into the product. (If it could, I do not think we would've been standing in the heart of Microsoft.) Surface runs "Windows," but it won't run old Windows apps because it's running a different kind of Windows, called RT. Yet, another version of Surface, coming in a few months, will run old Windows apps because it's got a full version of Windows 8. Got all that? Sinofsky explains that you will get that, and that the context of Surface within the greater sphere of Windows 8 will be made totally clear by the titanic marketing strategy Microsoft has planned. The implication he makes is that Surface doesn't have to talk about Windows 8 in its ads because you'll have already seen Windows 8 ads and been sold on the fact that you need Windows 8. I would love to believe him, as I have all day, but it's the one thing he says that does not feel right.
Speaking of Steven Sinofsky's bold plans for Microsoft, Matt Buchanan has a brilliant look at an invitational Microsoft event revolving around Windows 8 and the Surface.
Of the utmost interest is the sentiment of deep-seated worry in even the most thoroughbred of Microsoft executives and engineers. Beneath their (presumably) sincere optimism for a re-definied Windows experience, there is a clearcut feeling of reticence and concern.
Insofar as Microsoft's plans are bold, they are conversely fraught with risk. Should the company fail to educate its consumers effectively, breach the lucrative enterprise market, or ensure the proliferation of its own hardware, Microsoft faces some very difficult decisions, indeed.
I, for one, tend to regard this risk with a smile. For years, Microsoft has allowed itself to become the embodiment of aging and uninteresting computing. But, rather than settle with this narrative, the company has embarked upon a path of introspective disruption. Not only is that a rare quality, but it's one that I can unquestionably get behind.
Whether it will pay off or not has yet to be seen but, for now, I can at least say that — for the first time in years — I'm truly fascinated by Microsoft and its potential to change the technology landscape for the better.