The big flaw with Surface is branding, not pricing

Note: An edited version of this post was first posted as a comment to the "Surface: Microsoft, Microsoft, Microsoft… WHAT are you thinking?" post on Ewan MacLeod's Mobile Industry Review site on Oct 17th 2012.

Once the Surface launch pricing positions entered the public domain, it was never going to take long for the bloggers to pile in with their opinions. And to a post, they range between slightly negative to completely scathing. Brad Reed's piece from BGR sums up the mood, and on the UK side, Ewan MacLeod was equally scathing about the pricing execution

In terms of the future success of Surface, I think Microsoft have a bigger problem on their hands with than device pricing. They should be more worried about the branding, because brand strategy is the fatal error with the Surface concept.

I find the constant comparisons between Microsoft and Apple border on tedious, but as Surface is clearly a reaction to iPad, unfortunately we need to go there.

We’re in a computing platform war, and in this war Apple has two franchises: OSX for the personal computer range of laptops & desktops, and iOS for their mobile computing range of iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches. Out of there two franchises, iOS is clearly their dominant one. It’s a pub debate as to whether Apple’s success over the last 10 years is 95% or 99.9% due to the contribution of iPhones and iPads. The Macs are nice, but they shelter and grow under the halo effect from “post pc” mobile devices running iOS.

In my simple take on Microsoft's computing  strategy in 2012, I see them as having two basic platform franchises - standard desktop / laptop “classic” Windows that you interface with a mouse, and mobile “Metro" style tiled Windows that your interface with your fingers.

In Microsoft's vision on the Windows 8 ecosystem, laptops will run “classic” Windows, (you can use them in “Metro” mode, but who will?), phones run “Metro” based Windows Phone 8, and the Surface tablet run Metro on the RT version, and both "classic" and "Metro" mode on the Windows Pro 8 version of Surface.

Phones and tablets are the sexy, growth part of Microsoft’s Windows 8 vision. Microsoft desperately needs success with these device categories hard to get a slice of the runaway iPhone and iPad market that has eluded them to date.

And here’s the problem. This key growth category of phones and tablets is branded “Windows”. This is a big mistake.

Microsoft have done a great job with the Metro interface. It looks distinctive, modern, fun and stylish. On a phone, especially a Lumia,  it’s really easy to use. Arguably easier to use than an iPhone. I've not yet tried a Surface, but I’m sure the Metro experience will be equally good on a tablet. The key design element of Metro is the colourful "live tiles" .  The attractive appeal of the Metro interface has driven some bloggers to form an argument that Microsoft now has better taste than Apple in software design. The key point is that Metro interface is based on "tiles", not "windows".

When Microsoft branded Metro running tablets and phones as “Windows” devices, a new user was signalled they should project their past experience using PC based Windows onto the new mobile phone or tablet in their hand.

Yet consumer's past PC based Windows experience bears no relevance to how they will interact with a Metro based operating system. It makes the experience confusing. Going back to Apple, when iOS was launched with the first iPhone, Apple made no attempt to signal that using an iPhone is like using a Mac. In fact they did the opposite, emphasizing that using an iPhone was a new experience unlike using any other a person may have had with a prior consumer electronics device.

“Windows” as a brand carries baggage. I’d wager that for potential phone and / or tablet buyers - i.e. your average consumer electronic consumers - their sentiment towards “Windows” as a brand is at best neutral and at worse negative. What does your average punter think about when someone mentions “Windows”? Being at work in an office? The clunky work laptop that takes 30 minutes to boot? The malware ridden XP biohazard they or their parents own or once owned? It’s just not a brand that projects simplicity, enjoyability, fun, great design, style, being cool etc - all the things that come across in an Apple iPhone or iPad campaign. It's not a brand that conveys a fresh start and a new approach to computing, which Microsoft wants to convey with Surface and Windows Phones.

Microsoft should have branded the phone and tablet operating system as Metro, not Windows. Microsoft have enjoyed success with creating new consumer electronics brans with their Xbox franchise (would it have been successful if it was called “Windows Gaming Edition?), and even showed foresight to brand the tablets as “Surface” (as opposed to “Windows Tablet Edition”). Metro branding would have proudly differentiated the growth mobile computing franchise from the legacy desktop and laptop Windows brand.

And that’s the tragedy. Microsoft has built bold, great, fun, easy to use software with its Metro o/s. The new software should give them a strong chance to transition from the declining PC market towards the phone and tablet growth markets. Yet the decision to stick with the Windows brand will be a drag on their ability to drive trial and takeup of these devices with a public who use Apple as the benchmark in this category.

Unfortunately Microsoft won’t re-brand because Microsoft sees the Windows franchise as their reason for being. They see no other strategy but to use Windows 8 in all its guises as a way of re-booting the Windows franchise for a new generation.

The risk is that the consumer market will reject Microsoft’s attempts to a refresh their attitudes to the Windows brand. Windows as a brand may already be dead to them, and there is no chance of resurrecting it. Their negative attitude to the brand may act as a blocking factor to them trialling or considering a Metro phone or tablet.

The Windows brand should be kept for corporate customers where the brand carries reassurance. It should be killed off as far as possible (and as soon as possible) for consumer customers where it carries the risk of negative baggage.

If Microsoft fail with Surface, the primary cause will be a major flaw in their branding strategy. Apple talk about the computing ecosystem moving into a “post PC” universe, and their success with phones and tablets seems to confirm their view. So why on earth would you choose to use PC era branding in a post PC world?

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