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From Windows 8.1 to Surface 2 and beyond: What Microsoft's ecosystem needs to thrive

Mark Hachman | Oct. 23, 2013
We look at the areas where each Microsoft product line needs to improve.

From a design perspective, Microsoft's original Surface Pro was Microsoft's challenge to hardware partners: Windows is becoming a dynamic, modern operating system, so you need to break away from cookie-cutter designs and envision an equally dynamic, modern piece of hardware. As such, the new Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 (like their Surface predecessors) function as ecosystem lures. They're designed to entice people to join Team Microsoft, and to focus attention on Windows 8.1 and its associated apps and services.

To this end, the basic Surface 2 includes Office; and Microsoft will also toss in 200GB of SkyDrive storage for two years, plus a year's worth of free calls on Skype to any phone, anywhere. Microsoft has also doubled down on its message that Surface tablets are engines of productivity, emphasizing the utility of its Touch and Type Covers, and giving Surface Pro 2 a docking station.

Microsoft's face of the Surface, Panos Panay, would like you to think that the Surface app ecosystem is thriving.

But where do Surface tablets stand as entertainment-driven "consumption" devices? Is Microsoft just going to cede that market to Apple, Amazon, and Google? Well, a "mini" Surface tablet is expected next year. If and when it arrives, Microsoft would be well served by rearranging the basic Start page to position consumption apps like Xbox Music, Video, Reading List, and (especially) a SmartGlass app front and center. Eventually, some observers predict, the Windows RT—based Surface 2 will blend into Windows Phone. That sounds like one possible evolutionary outcome for the Surface mini, creating a "phablet" that would bridge the mobile and desktop worlds, as Android and iOS have done.

Microsoft obviously hoped that the Surface tablet would be a "halo" device like the iPad, but that hasn't happened. So now, Microsoft seems interested in reaching out to specific customer segments via hardware experiments like its new "blade" peripherals. Will we see a video-editing blade? Branded World of Warcraft blades? An E-Ink blade for dedicated e-reading? We should.

Crazy ideas, sure, but Microsoft's developer corps hasn't delivered unique, compelling software experiences. So Microsoft's hardware teams need to step up instead.

Windows Phone
Of all Microsoft's recent updates, the one for Windows Phone seems to cater least to the idea of a unified ecosystem. It adds support for quad-core processors and larger screens—evidence that some sort of phablet is in the queue—but Microsoft has been diffident about using Windows Phone to promote its broader ecosystem.

The system's reconfigured screens now permit six Live Tiles across one row, instead of just four. Ironically, if Microsoft had the booming third-party developer support that iOS and Android enjoy, this change might be a significant new feature—a way for Microsoft to promote the diversity of its apps ecosystem. As it is, however, the multitude of Live Tiles does little more than turn the Windows Phone home screen into Times Square, third-party apps or no.


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