Microsoft's meaningless RT license could sink Surface

Microsoft's boneheaded Office RT licensing strategy holds an essential lesson for improving IT decision making

Microsoft's new Surface RT "laplet" is now on sale. It doesn't look as cool as the late, lamented Courier, but give Microsoft credit for not creating yet another iPad clone. The Surface is designed for a different target marketplace and a different purpose. It is, first and foremost, a business machine, intended to support actual work, unlike the iPad, which is first and foremost a media gadget.

Nonetheless, Microsoft is poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Why that'll happen is a lesson in leadership -- and an uncomfortable one. But first, some thoughts on what makes the Surface a possible business-user winner.

[ See InfoWorld's hands-on review of Microsoft's Surface RT and find out whether Windows 8's and RT's bundled Metro apps are as good as the iPad's. | J. Peter Bruzzese explains Windows RT's security options. | For more of Bob Lewis' continuing IT management wisdom, check out his Advice Line newsletter. ]

What makes the Surface cool?

Two features in particular boost the Surface's cool cachet. First, there are the well-publicized integrated keyboards (two versions). Typing is essential when people are working. Using the iPad's onscreen keyboard is hunting and pecking at its far from finest, and while there are decent keyboard add-ons for the iPad, they're just that: add-ons.

Second, there's the stylus. Unlike the iPad, which has index-finger resolution, the Surface has subpixel resolution for stylus use, a separate stylus touch mode that disengages skin-sensitive touch (so you can rest your hand on the screen and still write or draw), and -- a nifty touch, no pun intended -- an eraser on the other end of the stylus from the writing tip.

(Truth be told, none of this comes from in-person use. Apply the appropriate skepticism, and for a full hands-on review see Galen Gruman's "Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry.")

Microsoft's Surface demise

Why will Microsoft snatch defeat from victory when it comes to the Surface? Here's one reason: Even the iPad gives consumers enough choices to be confusing, with three memory configurations multiplied by two networking alternatives: Wi-Fi and Wi-Fi plus cellular.

The Surface simplifies this by not having a 4G option and just two memory choices. But Microsoft offsets this simplicity with its decision to offer two devices, with different processors, running two different versions of Windows (RT and 8), only one of which will run existing Windows software. That's a near guarantee to confuse just about everyone.

Except IT, which, luckily enough, is (or should be) Microsoft's primary sales target, because:

Still, why make IT's job harder? Having to explain why it has to give employees the more expensive Surface Pro when they can buy the Surface RT for a lot less (BYOD!) is going to aggravate just about everyone involved.

But it's Microsoft's worst decision that holds lessons in leadership for all of us. That's the decision to bundle the Office Home & Student edition of Microsoft Office with Windows RT.

No, that isn't the problem. It's a terrific idea that adds a lot of value with no extra manufacturing cost. The problem is having a Home & Student edition of Office in the first place -- one that includes the restriction that you can't use the software for business purposes without your company paying for a second (enterprise) license that adds absolutely nothing of any value other than making business use legal.

Tradition vs. market sense

Tradition trumped market sense here. The tradition: selling multiple products at different prices based on the value they provide, even though the products are molecule-by-molecule identical to each other. It goes back at least as far as the 1970s, when Data General sold a printer line with three models that differed only in printing speed, price, and which position a three-way switch was set inside a locked access panel.

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