Every inspiring comeback begins with someone falling way, way behind. This should provide some comfort for Microsoft (MSFT), which today unveiled the second generation of its Surface tablets at an event in New York. To wow a depressingly apathetic public, the company showed off new machines with a raft of improved specs, more-colorful screens, and faster software. There’s even a kickstand with better “lapability.”
Microsoft released a new Surface Pro, a $900 tablet aimed at professional users, and the more consumer-oriented Surface 2, priced at $450. The original Surface RT, thus far an embarrassing failure with shoppers, will remain available for $350. Microsoft says its new tablets are much faster and can hold a charge for much longer. For the Pro, the company claims a 75 percent improvement in battery life, while the Surface 2’s is touted as 25 percent better.
But Microsoft also appears to be convinced it can accessorize its way to success. The tech giant showed off seven new things you can snap onto the tablets, from a keyboard with its own 30-watt battery inside to … another keyboard that’s 1 millimeter thinner than its predecessor. There’s also a dock intended to turn the Surface Pro into a PC.
And for tablet enthusiasts who want a kickstand, Microsoft hasn’t overlooked you. The Surface has always prided itself on its kickstand, but previous versions put the tablet at the right angle for working at a desk. The new kickstand can also be moved to a second angle so it sits better in your lap.
Microsoft’s Panos Panay, a corporate vice president, was charged with sounding Monday’s rallying cry. He did an admirable job, telling reporters that 95 percent of the laptops they brought to the event were slower than the new Surface Pro, and showing how the tablets allow users to work in Excel and play Halo simultaneously. He even sent an adorable video message to his adorable young daughter.
“It’s better than I expected,” says Crawford Del Prete, IDC’s chief research officer. “I thought it would be the exact same thing. They’ve evolved slightly.”
Slight evolution might not cut it, given the situation Microsoft finds itself in. To review: Microsoft launched its first tablets last fall and went on to sell $853 million worth of them in fiscal 2013—less than the $898 million in additional sales and marketing costs the company reported spending to hawk the Surface and Windows 8. Over the summer, meanwhile, Microsoft cut the price of the RT and took a $900 million writedown on the new products. The Surface 2 will continue to use an operating system that isn’t fully compatible with Microsoft’s phone operating system, making it harder on developers who want to write programs that work on both devices.
Microsoft’s tablet troubles come at a time of opportunity, as the iPad’s grip on the market has loosened somewhat: Apple (AAPL) now sells about one-third of the tablets shipped worldwide, down from about 60 percent over the last year, according to IDC. But people aren’t choosing Surfaces instead, leaving Microsoft outside the ranks of the top five tablet manufacturers.
The company seems to be continuing its current strategy of hammering Apple by pointing out all the hardware features the iPad lacks. In one constantly circulated television ad, an iPad sitting next to a Surface delivers a fraught soliloquy in Siri’s voice as its inferiority is exposed: The iPad has no USB drive, no kickstand, no nifty cover-cum-keyboard, no heavily discounted price. The spot ends with the iPad desperately asking whether people still think it’s pretty.
The answer, of course, is yes. The iPad’s popularity is largely self-fulfilling at the moment, glaring lack of a kickstand notwithstanding. Microsoft’s pitch for its own tablets, meanwhile, come off as the attempt of a hopeless suitor laying out a hyper-rational case for why someone should accompany him on a date instead of the other guy. But when has that kind of courtship ever worked?