Will faculty be interested in this Microsoft tech?

Only time will tell how the ripple effects of the wave of Microsoft’s Surface 3 cost will settle on higher education campuses

microsoft-surfaceWith the announcement of the Surface Pro 3, one can argue that Microsoft has effectively left the tablet market to the Apple iPad and Android devices, and seeks to create a market as a lightweight laptop replacement.

When Microsoft launched the Surface, it was promoted as a tablet device WITH a keyboard, implying that was an advantage over the iPad. Now that they have seemingly lost that battle to the nemesis from Cupertino, they are marketing the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop WITHOUT a keyboard. What once was an attachable feature is now a detachable one.

The second area where Microsoft has made a shift is in the area of price. The initial price of the Microsoft Surface RT was in the ballpark of the cost of the Apple iPad which was between $400 and $500. This was in line with its declaration of being an “iPad-killer.”

But with the introduction of the features in the Surface Pro, Surface Pro 2, and now the Surface Pro 3, the price point has reached close to $1000-$2000 retail with the keyboard. That places it more in line with a high-end laptop or MacBook Air than with other tablet devices like the iPad, Kindle Fire or Dell Venue.

So the next question is will the Surface Pro 3 succeed in this new niche?

(Next page: Is higher ed faculty interested in the device at the increased cost?)

My opinion is that it will not, simply because they have mis-identified their target user from the beginning and their needs. What Microsoft hopes is that there exists a large number of users that want to use a single-device when they are on the go, and want to shift from carrying a laptop and tablet, to just a Surface Pro 3. What customer use surveys have shown is that users, both business and personal, do not see those 2 devices as needing to be combined.

They each serve a distinct use case. A tablet is an on-the-go consumption device, used to read, watch video, communicate or browse the Internet. The laptop is the device they want to be a powerful work machine to create multimedia content, presentations, manipulate data or whatever business specific tasks they may require. For personal users, they want photo and video-editing capability. For these 2 common use cases, the Surface Pro 3 is too expensive to serve as the tablet, and too limited in functionality to be the laptop.

The Surface was the first attempt by Microsoft to be a hardware vendor, and as of the end of April 2014, it had lost $300 million on the Surface franchise. Microsoft attributed the losses to “a higher number of sales” which is disturbing, since that means the more they sell, the more money they lose. That cannot continue to happen.

Microsoft Surface was a hardware device intended to get them into the tablet market and show off the capabilities of Windows 8. What they found was a market very happy with the Apple and Android devices already available and a reluctance to accept the Windows 8 operating system. They tried to combine the functions of a PC and a tablet. That type of convergent innovation hasn’t paid off much since the invention of the toaster-oven, and this latest attempt still misses the mark.

So as institutions of higher education begin to create policies, adapt infrastructure and explore pedagogy, you now have a changing device base. The Surface that existed to date was making the occasional appearance with faculty and institutions have been searching in vain for that holy grail of connectivity that will deliver content to a projector or classroom monitor system regardless of vendor platform. Solutions exist for the iPad, Android or Windows 8 devices independently, but supporting multiple solutions stretches resources and port availability in many locations.

The question as to whether Microsoft has exited the tablet platform then has ramifications on the plans for learning spaces and active classrooms. Do you now place the Surface Pro 3 in the laptop category and handle it as such? Will higher ed faculty and departments even be interested in the device at the increased cost?

Will the change lead toward a more unified set of users, or will those that were considering the Surface, simply switch to another Windows 8 tablet and only the vendor names change? The market will decide of course. Microsoft has made the impacting change, only time will tell how the ripple effects of the wave will settle on higher education campuses.

David Huckleberry is an Educational Technologist in Teaching and Learning at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.

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