Microsoft is holding a press event on May 20th to introduce the Surface Mini tablet, the Surface Pro 3, and whatever other new tablet products it has in the pipeline. But less important than the new hardware itself will be the shift in strategy that new CEO Satya Nadella reveals when it comes to his company’s long-fledgling mobile strategy. The press event will represent his first public opportunity to begin cleaning up the mess that former CEO Steve Ballmer left behind.
Sadella’s first challenge will be to find a way to make the Surface relevant. In a tablet market that’s dominated by the iPad and a coalition of various Android based hardware, Microsoft’s Surface has found itself slotted as the third platform in a two-platform race. That’s due in equal parts to Ballmer’s slowness to embrace the tablet market in general, the public’s distaste toward the Windows 8 system software that powers it, and the fact that many consumers view the Surface as less of a tablet and more of a pseudo-PC Frankenstein monster of sorts.
It’s too soon for Sadella to scrap the platform completely just yet, as Microsoft can’t realistically launch an entirely new tablet platform until at least the launch of Windows 9. Instead he’s stuck making incremental moves for now. Last week he displayed a flexibility that his predecessor lacked when he unbundled the Kinect from the Xbox One, effectively lowering its price by a hundred dollars and belatedly making it competitive with its primary rival PS4.
But Microsoft already tried cutting Surface prices last year, and the move failed to generate significant interest. Those consumers who want a cohesive tablet platform tend to choose an iPad, while those who value pricing and hardware flexibility tend to gravitate toward Android. So where does that leave the Surface? That’s the long term answer pushed Ballmer into retirement, and it’s the one that Nadella will need to find an answer to. While he’s stuck with the Surface mess of a platform for awhile and he knows it, the May 20th Surface Mini event will at least give him the opportunity to show the tech world that he understands the mobile market a little better than the last guy did. Then again, considering the single digit marketshare numbers the Surface has clinged to for its entire existence, that bar is set rather low.