Daniel Eran Dilger
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Microsoft’s Surface is Apple’s Ping

Daniel Eran Dilger

Imagine if Tim Cook based his “post-Jobs” future strategy around one of Apple’s biggest failures of the past, only because he lacked the time and resources to start over. That wouldn’t bode well, would it?
Imagine how badly this would be received by the tech media. Say Apple was embarking on expansion into something that it has historically failed in: social networks.

Now granted, everyone is failing in social networks, most notably Google+ but also the perceived leader Facebook, which is having trouble supporting its initial revenue expectations. Nobody can really say how will Twitter monetize itself, or why previous social network fads were unable to maintain users’ interest, from Friendster to MySpace and so on.

Not an ideal business to be invested in, but lets say, for the sake of argument, that somebody out there actually was making tens of billions on social networking and Apple was wanting to get in on that business. And to do so, Apple was building its entire strategy on Ping, rather than having quietly replaced it with Facebook and Twitter integration inside of iTunes.

In our imaginary world, Apple was instead building out a huge expansion of Ping that intended to add all the features one might associate with Facebook and Twitter, the very same me-too strategy that Google tried to accomplish with Buzz and then Google+. Wouldn’t that be stupid? And wouldn’t Apple deserve to be mocked in the same way Google wasn’t?

Apple’s Ping

But lets crank up the situation a little bit more. Because Ping wasn’t really a huge new effort by Apple, but instead was just a minor experiment that added a feature inside of iTunes to allow users to share what they were buying. It had a pretty simple user interface, because Apple didn’t devote much resources into creating some rich new environment to support what was essentially a way for users to advertise content within iTunes, something Apple pretty clearly understood was not a huge new opportunity.

Two years ago, Steve Jobs launched Ping with a line or two of introduction during a release that otherwise focused on iTunes and Apple’s commercially successful hardware products.

Now imagine if Tim Cook got up this week and explained that Apple isn’t going to release an iPad mini that everyone is expecting, but was instead launching a huge new effort to reboot Ping, using the same simple user interface that it was half-assedly launched with a couple years ago.

And that the company would blow out a billion dollar campaign to sign up even more users on Ping, which would serve as Apple’s new focus going forward, even as Cook admited that its Mac, iPhone and iPod businesses have reached their apex of maturity and that he knew Apple’s hardware sales would all be downhill from here and that social networks are where it’s at going forward.

Oh the humanity! Time to sell Apple, right?

Microsoft’s Ping

Except that’s exactly what Microsoft is doing. While the kowtowed tech media keeps fawning about how fresh and new and “exciting” Metro is, and how Windows 8 is fated to turn around the lack of interest in PCs as a mature market that peaked sometime around 2007, the reality is that Metro (or whatever they are calling it these days) is a user interface developed for the Zune.

And the Zune was a low budget effort to develop an iPod. And its user interface was designed, not just under the constraints of Microsoft’s limited funding apportioned for the Zune, but also under the very real constraints of a low powered device charged principally with playing songs and videos. Because that’s all Microsoft envisioned for the Zune up until the iPhone appeared a few months later, making it look like a joke.

And when the Zune HD appeared years later to take on the far more sophisticated iPod touch, nobody cared because it offered no compelling value. It wasn’t cheaper, it wasn’t better at anything useful, and was really just a bit behind in a variety of areas.

And then for the last year we’ve seen seen Microsoft try to retread the Zune interface to sell Windows Phone, with disastrous results. The user interface, despite all the expert marketing trying to position it as fresh and exciting, is really just the results of trying to deliver a simple layer of web based UI over the top of functionally limited mobile device hardware.

And now, inexplicably, Microsoft has taken this thin layer of web UI, which might as well have been crafted in Adobe Flash and targeted at Chromebooks, and made it the centerpiece of its Windows 8 strategy. Which is exactly what the Surface is: an HTML5 interface on an ARM-based netbook.

Yes, despite all the media wonks who are bending over backward to lend their credibility in support of Microsoft’s assurance that Metro is fresh, new and exciting, the reality is that the whole Metro UI is the product of a low budget effort to make something minimally functional on resource limited mobile hardware.

Microsoft betting the future of Windows on Metro is exactly the same as Apple ditching its hardware to bet everything on Ping as a social network: a billion dollar marketing campaign around a commercial failure designed to get some tread out of intentionally castrated hardware.

This makes it interesting to observe how the same people who are denigrating Ping (a feature Apple gave about 15 seconds of airtime to) are “excited” about the new, fresh look of Microsoft’s 2007 Zune and how it will bring the company’s Windows platform into the future by creating an iPad alternative.

They seem to have forgotten how well that same strategy worked out for the Zune copying the iPod two years too late, the Zune HD copying the iPod touch two years too late, Windows Phone copying the iPhone three years too late, and now the Metro Surface copying iPad three years too late.

RIM and Nokia need to make room at the bottom of the barrel for Microsoft, because the Surface isn’t going to float.

  • Ludor

    So good. Damn it, Daniel. Nobody tells these stories like you do. And there is a need for them, that is very much ours.

  • broadbean

    I don’t think Microsoft could have afforded to NOT do it. You could argue starting a completely new ecosystem with no backwards compatibility would be the better way, and indeed it is to a certain degree – at least as RT. Microsoft needs a hook to not lose all of its user base to iOS and to a smaller degree, Android tablets.

    I think they could do well if the software and hardware ends up half as slick as their ads. Just can’t wait to see the confusion in the first few months.

    [The problem with Microsoft (particularly in consumer tech) over the past decade is that it keeps putting itself in this position of “not being able NOT to afford to do it” over and over, because it didn’t know what to do until it saw Apple do it. It then takes a reasonable amount of time to copy what Apple did (about 2-3 years). So it shows up to market with a copy of Apple’s stuff 2 years later and can’t sell it because its now 2-3 years old. That’s not a very good excuse for failing.

    If you always wait till the last minute to devise a strategy d’jour of course whatever you come up with will be your only viable option. That doesn’t make it a good option, or a good overall strategy – Dan]

  • http://www.van-garde.com adobephile

    MS could at least copy Apple’s stage lighting. That still of Balmer makes him look like Uncle Fester.

  • Peter A

    Sounds great if it speeds the day when Microsoft floats face down. After suffering through Windows ME so many years ago, I will forgive that company right after never.

  • http://www.mymacjournal.com/ David Chin

    This is exactly the kind of quality analysis that’s so very lacking in today’s tech coverage on Microsoft and Google. Thanks Daniel.

  • John E

    yup, i agree the Surface is really a re-run of the failed Zune strategy. but the Ping part of this post is pretty extraneous – it was a minor feature, not a major product launch. i get the point there is a double standard in the tech press where MS’ and Google’s big flops are overlooked while any Apple glitch, no matter how small, is a sensation. but that is just the price of being on top.

    you didn’t take the space and go on to note how this “Modern” son-of-Zune UI is being bolted on to Windows itself with W8. while Surface will just be another Zune-like flop, that will be a true disaster for MS – worse than Vista. the big break where a great many really start looking for permanent alternatives to do without Windows PC’s – including enterprise, MS’ bread and butter. even some tech press and industry leaders are seeing this coming. as Benioff just said, now there are REAL alternatives, lots of them, where there wasn’t four years ago.

  • Jim F.

    adobephile. ” MS could at least copy Apple’s stage lighting. That still of Balmer makes him look like Uncle Fester.”

    Perfect !!

    MS is no longer relevant. Financial results from Google shows that the fall is coming, this was just the starting “stumble”. In the spirit of the upcoming fall festival, the ghost of Mr. Jobs is laughing as he pulls the props from under a failing business model. Kudos for DED and Roughly Drafted for pulling back the curtain yet again.

  • slappyjoe

    I am thinking that MS’s area is to provide software that can readily be loaded onto every basic machine such that the worlds corporate desktop users and administrative assistants may process emails and edit Word and Excel documents.
    I don’t even think Apple or anyone wants to take that claim to fame.

    But where does a new semi-touch sensitive OS overlay , which requires a new plastic, fold-out keyboard-hybrid, touch screen hardware configuration, seek to further that basic mission strategy? MS doesn’t really invent things that are “cool” or “new” for any end user to specifically decide to purchase or use.. Isn’t that where Apple comes in?

  • iQuack

    I agree with the dual standards the press seems to have when it comes to Apple and the rest of the tech sector.

    Again, Daniel, you hit the nail on the head. It’s amazing how clear your thoughts come across with every report that you do. If it’s here or AI or even at Tech Night Owl. It’s refreshing to hear your points of view.


  • http://madhatter.ca The Mad Hatter

    Nobody can really say how will Twitter monetize itself, or why previous social network fads were unable to maintain users’ interest, from Friendster to MySpace and so on.

    In the case of MySpace we know exactly what killed it. News Corp. decided to fancy up the interface, and by doing so made it unusable. I know a lot of artists who abandoned the service for that reason.

    As to Microsoft, back in September 2009 I predicted that the company would file for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection in five years. Based on the current trends, I’m going to be pretty close.

    For anyone who wants to argue the point based on Microsoft’s cash holdings, let me remind you that most of that money is held outside of the Excited States, and that Microsoft can’t bring it back without paying taxes. Microsoft is allergic to paying taxes. Chapter 11 only applies to the U.S. part of the business, but that is where a lot of Microsoft’s expenses are…


  • http://madhatter.ca The Mad Hatter

    Oh, and here’s something that may interest those who are into Mobiles. Tomi Ahonen has written a post covering Nokia’s Third Quarter Results.

    For those who don’t spend as much time reading Corporate Financial filings, add this to the sales drop experienced by Dell, HP, Acer, et al, and the enforced reduction in the number of copies of Office (Office is Microsoft’s biggest profit center), and you end up with a company that is imploding.


  • daryl4d

    Daniel, were you refering to just the RT (arm) surface tablets in your article or the x86 versions as well? I have no comment on the RT version cause I’m not interested in them, but I’m not seeing failure in the x86 versions… I think they’ll fly. I’m getting a transformer-like Win 8 x86 tablet (or possibly the Surface Pro) for reasons I’ve stated in previous posts… not that I don’t love my iPad2, but it just can’t do the things I need to do for business related tasks. I’m just praying that the Windows UI doesn’t bog down after 6 months of updates, and that it truely has that buttery smooth performance you see in the videos, something we take for granted in our iOS devices.

    One feature I love about Apple devices is the calendar app and how my appts can be entered on any of my devices (iPod Touch3, iPad2 and upcoming but not yet received iPhone5) and how they wirelessly share that info. When I bring a Win8 tablet into the mix it puts a bit of a wrinkle into my world… I wonder if Apple will put out a calendar app that works on Win8 or if Microsoft would be allowed to write a Win8 calendar app that would work on iOS devices…

    [I was writing with the RT ARM Surface in mind, but also more broadly Windows 8, both of which have been given a layer of Zune to “modernize” (Appleify) the Unix-alternative from the 90s (which is the product Windows PC users want, not a Zune). The x86 version of the Surface is just a netbook/Ultrabook with a poor keyboard, nothing new there.

    On the subject of Windows calendars: can’t remember if you can sync via CalDAV on Windows yet, but that’s a problem Microsoft should be able to address with ease. Google recently added it to Android (at least for brand new devices). Apple isn’t likely to ever develop Mail/Calendar/Contact apps for Windows. – Dan]

  • stefn

    Isn’t it fascinating that with all the PC players sinking up to their keesters in quicksand of their own making, it’s Apple that takes the hits continually on Wall Street. Always knew it was nuts.

  • airmanchairman

    “Embrace and Extend” as a strategy to outflank any competitor used to work like a dream for Microsoft back in the day when its desktop domination was near absolute. It was enough to just emulate the trend-setters and leverage its desktop domination to get software developers and OEM device manufacturers to follow the MS implementation of any new technology, stranding the early pace-setters in the process.

    But for the reasons Daniel has so succinctly outlined, this doesn’t fly in the consumer-driven mobile computing landscape. To LEAD the way here requires more than emulation; speed to market and pivoting agility to modify strategy and change direction as and when required is of the essence, and these are traits that MS never acquired and possibly never will – victims of their own staggering success earlier on.

  • http://Www.bitburn.org bitburn

    Great article Daniel, as usual. It is indeed interesting… when Apple makes a faux-pas, such as with Maps, tech pundits are quick to thrash talk them, but nobody talks about the failed Google+ platform which is going nowhere or Microsoft’s boring Windows Phone that no one buys.

  • enzos

    @Daryl: Thanks for the segue to Calendar! Been relying on it for 20 years.

    Calendar is the successor to Smart Alarms on the Mac. A programme that was created by my Math professor at the University of Sydney. He became a software designer for Nutscrape and was involved in the project to make it the basis of an operating system. That was before MS Internet Exploder was foisted on Windows users (the rest being history).

    >… (1991) All Earth-observation photography scheduling on the nine-day Atlantis mission was handled by a Macintosh program called Smart Alarms.
    >Smart Alarms was originally developed in Australia to help doctors and medical technicians handle the complex logistics of scheduling patients, operating rooms, equipment and personnel. In this case, it kept track of events both in Earth reference time and mission elapsed time. But it can be used for simple reminders, like “Meet Max at 1 p.m.” or “Final income tax extension expires Thursday.”
    >It is essentially a computerized nag. As soon as the computer is turned on, Smart Alarms reminds the user that something must happen at a given time on a given date. It will repeat its reminders periodically until the user tells it to stop.

  • http://madhatter.ca The Mad Hatter

    Isn’t it fascinating that with all the PC players sinking up to their keesters in quicksand of their own making, it’s Apple that takes the hits continually on Wall Street. Always knew it was nuts.

    Don’t forget that a huge amount of market traffic is computerized automated trading.

    Say you decide to buy 100 Apple shares. What happens is the trading house uses its automated system to attempt to buy the shares as cheaply as possible, so it can then sell them to you. It then charges you a fee on top for the transaction.

    So both the seller and the buyer are being taken advantage of. This is not ethical in my opinion, but it is legal.


  • Damfino

    LOL! This is a rare bird: A Roughly Drafted post that takes it easy on Microsoft! I thought I’d never see the day…

    I think the folly of Windows 8 is far more serious than the post conveys. It is the grand blunder-of-blunders. The weakness of the post it is that Daniel is comparing what Microsoft really is doing to what Apple might have done but didn’t. Since the comparison to Apple is imaginary, it doesn’t get the scale of it right. We can’t feel the weight of the epic fail since Ping was a little blip — and I’ve forgotten about it.

    In reality, Apple is a hugely innovative company. They try out a lot of new ideas; many of them work out but a few fail. Ping is one of the failures, like Mobile.me, that Cube Macintosh, and a few others. Sometimes they withdraw the failed idea, regroup, and try again with something that works much better.

    After all, if you live on the frontier, occasionally you will strike out. But the great victories vastly outnumber the strikeouts. This is plainly not the profile of Microsoft. If they can’t get the copy of Apple right, then they strike out. This time they are so far behind that they’ve panicked.

    Microsoft really is right on the precipice, ready to jump off the cliff. Apple doesn’t release products or services like that. I thought about it a lot and only came up with one example of an Apple epic fail of this proportion. It was when Steve decided to hire John Sculley to run his company. That mistake practically killed his beloved — and it might have if Steve hadn’t returned to bring it from its deathbed and make it the most valuable company in the world.

    I’m saying that this is the right scale. I wrote a rant of my own that attempted to get the scale right and to characterize the epic blunder. It’s at http://www.secondcellar.com/scared-spitless.

    What’s about to happen is unbelievable. Steve said that the competition was “flummoxed.” Microsoft is the best case of a flummoxed corporation. Windows 8 is the maladaptive combo of two failed strategies:

    1) That “Metro” interface has already failed in the smartphone market, yet they are marching forward into the tablet Wateroo. They are marching forward despite the fact that none of the tablets priced to sell at a profit have done anything against the iPad. They are still imagining that they will re-establish the old Microsoft dominance in the new market.

    2) Metro is yoked to a flawed and incomplete version of Windows 7. Somehow, their version of “no-compromise” means that the customer can have a tablet but still run Windows! As if that’s just what the market is demanding. This is delusional. By now, there’s there’s a huge mountain of data that shows that the iPad is killing comparably-priced netbooks and laptops. The iPad is not undercutting cheap PCs on price! Hey, Microsoft, those customers can afford a cheap PC but chose something that DOESN’T RUN WINDOWS. Get it: They don’t want to run Windows!!!

    I have more to say in my post, but that’s the flavor of it.

  • gus2000

    I’m looking forward to witnessing a “iPad vs. Surface” encounter at my nearest coffee shop. Every day I see people with a Macbook or iPad enjoying their java (but not their Java™) and I gleefully anticipate the OS-envy of the beleaguered Surface user.

    Of course, I never actually saw anyone using a Zune in public, so my schadenfreude craving may go unrequited.

  • taojones

    the tao says that the difference between a dark room and a light one is the first match ,after that a thousand candles only makes the room brighter the first light changes the NATURE of the room . in philosophy this is called a difference of kind as opposed to a difference of degree .
    Apple changed the world with the first pocket sized communication device . to ask it to come up with another idea is ludicrous . it would imply that change for changes sake is wiser than refinement of a good idea. you don’t make square wheels because the idea is 10,000 years old and its time for something new . The point that “android” phones is really a dozen or so handset makers splitting up the 25% of the profit left on the table by apple is spot on and revealing. the realization that google is not giving you the best results when shopping but the result that pays the most for placement will eventually erode the ubiquitousness of the platform . I am already looking for alternate search engines. Maps are fine on the i phone google maps has gotten me into many pickles some because of its goofy interface (why is the blue route line on top of the name of the road i am on )
    selling units with no profit is eating soup with a fork . which company using android has all this market share? and what does it get them . walmart stopped selling the Amazon product when it realized it was selling a subsidized competitors catalog. my young sons friends delighted at their android phones at first grew tired of their limitations after a month or so of use . all these chickens will come home to roost at one point . I expect the analysts to then say apple can’t grow because its cash can no longer fit in a bank . tonight will tell great article ! lets hope it is the first match in the room .