Is the Surface the next Xbox?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on October 26, 2012

From The News Desk

For the longest time, Microsoft was all about software. Sure, the company dabbled in PC accessories, but for the most part it was content to focus on its Windows operating system or the Microsoft Office productivity suite, which came pre-installed on many a computer since its introduction in 1989. And then the Xbox happened.

Microsoft's first major game console, the Xbox was a black-and-green monstrosity that looked less like a videogame console than a prank product co-developed with Mountain Dew. Despite all that, and with a little help from the popular "Halo" franchise, Microsoft sold 24 million Xbox devices between its debut in 2001 and 2006, a year after the company introduced the Xbox 360, a sleeker, more powerful, and better-designed followup to the original.

After the Xbox, Microsoft started selling the Zune, its iPod competitor, dabbled with its Kin phones, and has now developed the Surface, its first tablet. Unfortunately, two of those product lines – the Zune and the Kin phones – are dead. Now the question is, does Microsoft have another Xbox in its Surface tablet?

The Xbox 360 has shown that Microsoft is able to build good hardware. There have been a few bumps along the way – whisper "Red Ring of Death" to an Xbox owner and you'll see the ghosts of consoles past come to haunt him – but, by and large, Xbox 360 is proof positive that Microsoft is more than just a software company.

By all accounts, Microsoft has applied this expertise to the Surface tablet. Reviews from The VergeEngadgetAllThingsD, and BuzzFeed all praise the Surface hardware, noting that the device is solidly built. Consider this GIF of Wired's Mat Honan trying to break the tablet's kickstand:

Honan had to, by his account, put all of his weight on the Surface tablet before the kickstand would give in. Microsoft's Panos Panay further demonstrated Surface's durability during Microsoft's event earlier today, dropping the tablet on the stage in front of a room full of reporters who would have gladly written a story about the Microsoft employee who broke a new gadget during a product announcement. (Unfortunately we don't have a GIF of that...yet.)

Surface can, according to Panay, be dropped in 72 different ways without suffering signficant damage. "We drop 'em until we know how perfect they are, so that when you have them, you can take them home and have every bit of confidence that Surface is going to work for you," he said. From there he talked about the design of the Touch Cover, placing a lot of emphasis on Microsoft's attempts to get the "click" of the cover meeting the Surface just right. From a hardware standpoint, Microsoft sweated the details.

Unfortunately, Windows 8 (specifically the RT version, which doesn't have the legacy desktop environment installed) was a sticking point in many reviews. The software, while conceptually interesting, has a few kinks – a charge that has been levied against Microsoft before, with Windows Phone 7. The Verge's Joshua Topolsky noted in his review of Nokia's Lumia 900 that "while the hardware — at least externally — delivers, the phone as a whole does not." His problem, largely, was with Microsoft's software, not Nokia's hardware.

As Microsoft's Steven Sinofsky put it: "With software, we like to say you can do anything. All you're limited by is creativity and time." Microsoft, for better or worse, believes that it has the time to fix its software. (The argument that it's too late to the game has been made too many times before for me to reiterate it here.)

To be fair, the Xbox 360 didn't ship with the greatest software either. I remember encountering countless bugs while I played "Call of Duty" with my friend, who got the console around the time when it came out with personalized thumb sticks as an option. (The platform is much more stable now, but getting here required a series of iterations.) We were willing to forgive these errors for one reason: the content. I think you know where I'm going with this.

The Xbox 360 is, as PandoDaily contributor Farhad Manjoo put it, the king of the living room, and the brand has become popular enough to lend the Xbox name to its streaming music service, its video streaming product, and anything remotely related to gaming. If Microsoft stays on this path, "Xbox" could become to music, videos, and games what "Office" is to productivity.

By acting as more than a game console and serving as a bridge to other content verticals, such as Hulu or Netflix, the Xbox 360 managed to make a name for itself despite a few bugs. Want to watch a movie? Turn on the Xbox. Want to watch a TV show? Turn on the Xbox, and so on.

Microsoft can leverage this mindset with Surface, which is why it's built the previously mentioned Xbox content services into its first tablet. The company is betting that good hardware and compelling content will be enough to make consumers stick around, software bugs be damned.

Surface is, like the Xbox, a series of contradictions. It's a hardware product built by what was previously a software company, it's a post-PC device that Microsoft continues to call a PC, and it's late to a race that many already believe has been won by Apple. Hell, even Apple CEO Tim Cook got a few pot shots in during Apple's earnings call, saying "I think people, when they look at the iPad versus competitors, they will conclude they really want an iPad and they will continue to do that." Again, Apple isn't afraid to pick a fight.

It was the same way – though perhaps without snide remarks from Apple – with the Xbox. Microsoft decided to enter a market that it had no experience in against two companies – Sony and Nintendo – that had already forced one company (Sega) out.

Now, according to the company's first quarter financial statements, the Xbox 360 is the top-selling console with 49 percent of US marketshare. If the company is arrogant enough to believe that it can still win, or at least benefit from, the tablet race, it's because it already managed to do so in another product category.

By using the Xbox 360 as a homebase of sorts, Microsoft could use the Xbox's dominance in the living room as a stepping stone for the Surface tablet itself. The company has already started tying the two brands together with the previously mentioned Xbox Music and Xbox Video services, and it's shown signs of further integrations appearing down the line.

Xbox SmartGlass, for example, is a "second screen" application for Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 devices that blurs the line between what can be done on an Xbox and what can be done with another Microsoft product. The app can be used to browse the Web via the Xbox, display information about music or videos playing on the device, or offer hints to help gamers find their way around a difficult obstacle. SmartGlass complements the Xbox while simultaneously taking the brand out of the living room.

In some ways this puts Microsoft ahead of both Apple and Google. Both companies have introduced vaguely similar products – the Apple TV and the Nexus Q (as well as Google TV), respectively – but neither are as fully-featured or popular as the Xbox 360. While everyone is busy wondering when Apple will make a real play for the living room, Microsoft has already planted its flag and is looking forward to future conquests.

To make that happen, however, Microsoft had to take what it learned from building the Xbox, both the console itself and the brand, and use that as a guide for building Surface. For all of the company's talk about the Surface as a "stage for Windows," the most important aspects of Surface come from a game console, not an antiquated operating system.

[Image courtesy craigmdennis]