LOS ANGELES - More than two decades have passed since Microsoft first made its foray into tablet computers. Now, just two years after Apple released its first iPad, the stalwart of desktop computing finally has a vertically integrated response to Apple’s runaway success. Microsoft unveiled a pair of new tablets on Monday - Surface for Windows RT and Surface for Windows 8 Pro - that will be released in the fall. In the meantime, developers, advertisers, and brands are all beginning to wonder if Microsoft will finally break the mold and create a viable third option in tablet computing.
While the company pulled out all the stops to hype up the media event beforehand, it largely failed to discuss how brands and developers could leverage the features and new ecosystem that Surface will deliver. But behind the scenes, Microsoft’s advertising unit is already testing new ad concepts for Windows 8 and giving some advertisers and publishers a sneak preview of the new ad formats at this week’s Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in France.
To collaborate on every aspect of the new ad formats before they are released for commercial use, Microsoft is taking a fresh approach by seeking the advice of six agency partners, including AKQA - just acquired by holding company WPP - Big Spaceship, Razorfish, Team Detroit, UM, and Y&R. Microsoft has shared code with all of the agencies and asked them to “expand the boundaries of what is possible for engaging and relevant experience for consumers,” Stephen Kim, general manager of global creative solutions, advertising, and online at Microsoft Advertising, wrote in a blog post.
“True to our belief in fostering growth in the ecosystem we’re partnering with some great creative agencies to ideate and visualize beautiful display experiences across a multitude of marketer goals for the Windows 8 apps ecosystem,” Jenn Creegan, general manager of display advertising experiences at Microsoft Advertising, wrote in a separate post.
Most marketers don’t cite vertical integration as a killer feature for Apple’s devices, but since the end result is often a better - albeit, more controlled - user experience, Microsoft could convince the advertising industry that its approach to Surface will net similar results for brands and consumers. “We believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when hardware and software are considered together,” Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said as he unveiled the new Surface tablets in Los Angeles on Monday.
He also reflected on the company’s early “bet on software” and how the dynamic nature of hardware and software has pushed and pulled Microsoft into building its own devices from the ground up. The company will no doubt continue to license its software at a massive scale, but in the case of tablets the company “wanted to give Windows 8 its own companion hardware innovation,” he said.
“This product line marks a crucial pivot in Microsoft’s product strategy. It blends the Xbox first-party hardware model with the Windows ecosystem model. It puts the focus on the consumer rather than the enterprise. And it lets Microsoft compete with vertically integrated Apple on more even ground,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a senior analyst at Forrester Research focused on consumer product strategy and tablets, wrote in a blog post following the event. Forrester predicts more than 760 million tablets will be in use worldwide by 2016 and that one out of every three Americans will own a tablet by that time.
Though Microsoft hasn’t reached the massive scale that brands will need to justify any substantial investment in building apps for Surface, there is a unique opportunity for some big brands to build some of the first major apps on the platform, Eric Wise, president at ISBX, told ClickZ in a phone interview. ISBX has built more than 150 apps and developed digital marketing campaigns for a variety of brands in the automotive, consumer packaged goods, action sports, and lifestyle markets. The company receives about 20 to 30 inquiries for new apps every week, but every single one of those brands wants to develop for iOS and Android, Wise said.
“Nobody’s killing themselves to get an app developed for Microsoft’s platform.” Existing clients of ISBX have begun to show interest, but nothing Wise would quantify as a noteworthy shift or trend.
“We dance around quite a bit with Microsoft,” he continued. But because most enterprises, IT managers, and professionals are already comfortable working within the Microsoft ecosystem, Wise said he wouldn’t be surprised if that led to widespread adoption of the Surface tablets, particularly for enterprise-level applications and productivity apps that can take advantage of connected peripherals. “It’s sad that they’ve taken this long to get this out,” he said. “Obviously there’s a demand.”
Though Microsoft still has a long way to go before it matches the success of iOS and Android in the tablet space, the Surface devices and some of the design features will generate interest among app developers, Andrew Mains, COO at Mobile Roadie, wrote in response to questions. Mobile Roadie doesn’t support Microsoft’s operating system today, but its do-it-yourself app building platform is powering apps for more than 3,000 brands on Android and iOS with more than 20 million end users to date.
“We have definitely seen an increased interest from clients in the tablet platform over the last year as it offers a richer display of media and interactive content,” Mains continued. “For brands who want a richer visual design experience, the tablet is a valuable asset and we think it will continue to be a powerful medium as companies are increasingly looking for ways to expand their mobile presence and reach consumers.”