For one brief, shining night, it appeared that Microsoft's first tablet would be a success. At a super-surprise press conference in California last June, at which no journalist had any idea what was about to be announced, CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled the Surface, a slick-looking iPad competitor with an innovative kickstand, solid construction and clean Windows 8 software.
It was Microsoft's first true piece of computing hardware, and the Internet went wild: It was upvoted to the moon on Reddit; millions watched the mesmerizing first advertisement on YouTube; "Shut up and take my money!" was the rallying cry that greeted the Surface on that first night.
It was the kind of reception that is usually reserved for Apple products and the occasional beastly Android phone, but this time -- for the first time -- a gadget running Microsoft Windows was the rage. Microsoft, for the first time with a product that wasn't a game console, had an honest-to-goodness hit on its hands, and it appeared as though it might actually be able to compete with the iPad and Kindle Fire.
After that night, it seemed like everything fell off a cliff, and then kept rolling and fell off another cliff, beneath which was a bottomless pit: The rollout of the Microsoft Surface was as badly-botched as any product launch I've ever seen. The Internet was shouting "Shut up and take my money," but, astoundingly, Microsoft wouldn't take its money: the company did not announce a price or a release date or a pre-order website for the Surface until an absurd four months after the event; by the time they did, all of the buzz behind the Surface had died down, all of the excitement had fizzled and so many articles had been written dinging the armor of the Surface and questioning its appeal that far fewer wanted to buy one than on the night it came raging out of the darkness. Couple that with a disastrous advertising campaign featuring the cast of Stomp -- an ad campaign far less appealing than the teaser commercial above -- and the Surface was as doomed as a stick of dynamite.
So we should not be surprised at all that Microsoft just took a $900 million charge on unsold Surface tablets, given just how poorly the launch -- which was really more of a slow crawl toward death -- went. Not only did it take Microsoft months to announce price and release date and battery life and 4G connectivity -- it also chose to sell its tablets exclusively in Microsoft stores, and online through their own site. At the time Microsoft announced this, it had but 20 stores in the entire universe. This is not a good strategy to sell millions of consumer devices worldwide.
The Surface RT is not dead, but given its horrendous beginnings, there will need to be a dramatic turnaround in order for it to be deemed anything but an expensive, ponderous failure. And if Microsoft wants to know why the Surface it's a failure, it shouldn't look at the product itself -- which I find totally adequate as a personal tablet -- but rather at the launch of the thing itself. It didn't announce a price, it didn't announce a release date and it sold the device at a location that has only now, over a year later, made it to barely over half of the United States.
Microsoft is new at this whole selling-hardware-thing, so it should take a lesson from Apple and Google: When customers want you to shut up and take their money, you should shut up and take their money.