Microsoft Surface: How Relevant Are Legacy Apps and Hardware?

Yesterday, Microsoft lifted its embargo on product reviews for its flagship Windows RT tablet, called “Surface”. That means all the reviewers who were seeded early units get to now tell the public what they thought about their experiences. The reviews varied widely as I illustrate below, but I wanted to spend some time digging into one of the more controversial topics, Surface’s backward compatibility with legacy hardware and software.

Early Reviews Mixed
The headlines and results for the early reviews were mixed, ranging from ZDNet’s Ed Bott “enthusiastically recommended” to Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle “this is technological heartbreak” and everything in-between. Why the big disparity?

The big disparity comes from the different way reviewers approach their personal experiences, their projected experiences and the time frames in mind. Most of the positive review comments are coming from today’s sophisticated hardware and the potential for an improved software experience in future. The more negative comments involve the here and now software experience, primarily around the kind and numbers of apps in the Windows Store. Those reviewers who didn’t find the apps they wanted also pointed out that Surface cannot run legacy Windows apps. Some of those reviewers made it sound somewhat like Microsoft will make no future improvements down the line. This is a bit unfair in that Microsoft will improve the software experience, but, if a consumer does order a Surface today, this is what they are getting today. Thus we see the importance of having everything in place on day one of the reviews.

Product reviews reflect a snapshot in time of the reviewer’s personal experiences, sophistication levels, favorite software, preferred ecosystem and usage patterns. If you are like the reviewer, then it should work out well for you. Better yet, choose a friend you know who has the product and ask them what they think about it.

Is Windows Desktop Software Important?
One important thing for consumers to ask when considering Surface is whether they want to load any of the current Windows desktop apps they own today or if they will want to buy and install new Windows desktop apps in the future. Surface owners must select and buy all their “Metro-style” apps from the Microsoft store but cannot buy or load Windows “Desktop-style” apps.

Surface comes pre-loaded with full (not trial) versions of high quality Microsoft productivity apps Word, Excel and Powerpoint, so the basics of productivity are covered. Will consumers miss loading their older Windows software or buying new Windows desktop software? It depends. It’s not as simple as asking snarky questions like, “do iPad users miss this,” and moving on. It really comes down to perception and reality of what consumers will want to do with the tablet.

Shopper sophistication will run the gamut and the more sophisticated users will make a more surgical decision tree. All things equal, they will ask, “what programs do I run today and want tomorrow on my Windows 7 PC that I would want to run on my Surface tablet?”

All things equal like price, weight, brand and battery life, I want my tablet to run a few key apps that aren’t in the Microsoft Store or I just prefer in a desktop mode. For me, I want the following desktop apps to run on my tablet: Wizard101 and Pirate101 games for my son, Google Chrome web browser, and Evernote. Other consumers may want to run apps like World of Warcraft, iTunes, Microsoft Outlook, Picasa, VLC PLayer or Quicken.

The biggest challenge comes down to naming, unfortunately. When some uneducated consumers hear “Windows”, they could think they can load Windows software and “Windows”, albeit “RT”, will be splashed across every piece of marketing collateral. I believe some consumers will see “Windows” and buy Surface thinking it runs their older Windows desktop apps. Other consumers will view Surface more like an iPad or Kindle Fire and not care at all. I think this will be a short-term challenge until the entire ecosystem gets educated on the differences between Windows 8 and RT and consumer’s favorite apps become available in the Windows Store.

Is Legacy Hardware Important?
Another important thing consumers need to consider is whether they want to “fully” run all their currently-owned peripherals with Surface. These are peripherals like webcams, mice, printer-scanners, game controllers, label makers, receipt scanners, etc. At this point, no one publicly knows which legacy peripherals will work perfectly, work without special capabilities provided by desktop software, or not run at all. There will be new devices or relabeling of older devices as “Windows RT” compatible, but for other devices, it isn’t a known entity.

Let me use a personal example to illustrate my point. I have an HP printer/scanner/fax machine and a Neat sheet scanner for receipts, business cards and documents. On my HP today, I can scan a document in and it magically shows up as a PDF file in “My Documents” folder. Also, when I am printing I can set quality levels and the paper tray. My Neat scanner uses software where I repeatedly change features like color-BxW, dual sided, ignore blank sheets and collated scanning. Will these features work with Surface? I don’t know and I don’t know when or if I will know unless I have a Surface to use. For the record, neither my iPad or Nexus tablets support any of these special features.

Will this become an issue? The answer is the same as the one above on desktop software. It will depend on the user, their knowledge, their expectations of a device with a Windows brand and their experiences with other tablet devices. For those users who equate Windows with backwards peripheral connectivity, it will be an issue as they won’t know until they buy it and something doesn’t work as expected. Like legacy software, legacy hardware is a short term issue and should work itself over time.

What’s the Impact?
I believe even with all the Surface goodness, its lack of support for legacy Windows desktop software and legacy peripherals will continue to subtract from initial reviews and perceptions on the consumer side and particularly on the enterprise side. Enterprises use more of their head and less of their heart as IT is about business, not new and shiny objects. However, the legacy objections will die down on the consumer side over the next year as more high quality apps get added to the Windows Store and everyone gets proper expectations set. Right or wrong, given enterprise’s fixation on legacy everything, I can see a more protracted time-frame for them to get comfortable with Surface. I’m very interested to see the reviews in a few days on Intel’s Clover Trail-based Windows 8 tablets that compare the experience to Surface and other Windows RT-based devices.

As for impact to sales, that is a much more complex question. Reviews and chatter don’t always directly relate to sales. I will reserve judgement until I can use both Surface and an Intel based Windows 8 tablet, read the reviews and get the facts on pricing, availability, marketing and distribution plans.