At first glance, to most consumers, the Apple iPad and Microsoft Surface RT tablet computer look somewhat similar. They are both rectangular, have crisp screens and can boast a slick and clean design interface.
Yet on Thursday Microsoft announced that it was taking a $900 million write-down to reflect unsold inventory of the Surface RT. That’s a stark comparison to Apple’s iPad, which continues to break record sales and has sold more than 100 million devices.
So why is one still succeeding while the other has failed? I have a theory. But it begins with a story.
I often receive tech support phone calls from family members — my dad, grandfather, cousins — seeking help with a variety of computer problems. A few months ago I received such a call from my sister. She was having an issue with her iMac, and I started to walk her through a number of steps to diagnose the problem. Halfway though my narration, I asked her, “O.K., what’s the computer doing now?”
“My computer is restarting,” she said, triumphantly.
“Why, what happened?” I said, confused. “Did it crash?”
“No, I just got impatient so I unplugged it and plugged it back in.”
This is exactly one reason the Microsoft Surface RT failed to garner large sales: Impatience.
When Steve Ballmer, Microsoft’s chief executive, announced the Surface tablets last year, he stood on stage and touted a number of new and exciting features to try to separate the company’s offerings from the iPad. Among the new gizmos were additional ports, a USB drive, a microSD memory card slot, the ability to use a pen with the Surface Pro and a built-in flip-up stand. Pens sold by Microsoft also work with the Surface RT.
Just thinking about all those options is enough to make your head spin.
Today’s consumers don’t want options. They are impatient. They want to tear their new shiny gadget from the box and immediately start using it. They don’t have time to think about SD cards or USB drives or pens or flip stands.
The Surface RT didn’t allow that. Customers had to think about it.
Even the ads for the iPad and Surface RT are different. Apple simply shows the device, making the iPad the hero. Microsoft usually unveils snazzy ads that make the ads the hero, not the product.
Last year when the Surface RT was announced I wrote a post noting that one of the device’s new features did look appealing: the flap that doubled as a keyboard and might make it easier to type on a tablet. But Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst with Forrester Research who specializes in tablets, reminded me that too many options could easily overwhelm consumers.
“Microsoft will be its own worst enemy in this market,” Ms. Rotman Epps wrote at the time. “More so than Apple or Google. Apple gets this, and limits options to connectivity, storage and black… or white.”
Maybe it’s time for Microsoft to do the same thing. It could even skip the black or white option.