Mike Krahulik / Dabe Alan

Microsoft is killing Surface with breakdancing, and it’s going to hurt Xbox One

Microsoft is killing Surface with breakdancing, and it’s going to hurt Xbox One

Microsoft wrote off $900 million due to unsold inventory of the Surface RT, a product with few supporters. Even the Surface Pro, the version of the tablet that uses real Windows programs and could hypothetically replace both a tablet and a laptop, has been released to middling reviews. It’s hard to find people with a good thing to say about the platform.

Well, other than Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik.

We talked about this issue briefly in Melbourne during PAX Aus, and he spoke in glowing terms about how easy it’s been to draw and save work on the go. The Surface Pro also plays a good selection of games, so it’s doubled as a portable gaming device while he travels.

During the “Make a Strip” panel, an institution at PAX, he was able to connect the device to the theater’s projectors with a single HDMI cable. In the past he’s used a combination of hardware, it took a long time to set up, and the results were not as good as what he could create in the office.

Jerry Holkins, the other half of Penny Arcade, told me that the results with the Surface Pro were just as good as a standard strip, while taking less time than previous portable solutions. The work is saved in the cloud, where Krahulik can access it when he returns to the office.

This conversation amazed me. I’m still not that interested in a Surface Pro, as I’m not a digital artist and prefer to game on my 3DS or Vita while I’m traveling, but someone was finally able to explain in clear, real-world terms how the hardware had made their life and work better. The Surface is an impressive piece of hardware for artists. For reference, this is a commercial that Microsoft released for the hardware:

What the living shit is that supposed to sell? I don't want to breakdance, I want to know how the hardware I buy will allow me to work better, faster, or offer an enjoyable experience. Mike's quick explanation of how he's able to work on his art with the Surface is worth about a dozen of those commercials. Someone finally came up with a great use for the hardware, and I heard about it from a co-worker, not Microsoft's marketing department.

Microsoft thinks the best use for the Surface is to throw paper up in the air and beatbox during meetings.

 

Oh, for fuck's sake.

This isn't just the Surface

This isn't an uncommon problem, and it affects every company that sells hardware. How does the product make my life better? What does it do better than anything else? How will it fit into my life?

It's Saturday as I write this, and I'm watching Phineas and Ferb on Netflix with my kids through my Xbox 360. Bringing Netflix to consoles was a great thing, and increased the value of the 360, PS3, and Wii.

At no point during my afternoon did I think that this experience could be improved by waving my hands around like an asshole to make the next episode play. That's the pitch that Microsoft made during the Xbox One's reveal: That the mandatory Kinect would make your life better because now you can talk to your television. Why hit a button on your remote and do something quickly and easily when you can wave at your TV or talk to it to try to get to where you need to go?

Microsoft is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist with hardware that is expensive, required, and is less reliable than a controller or remote control. Oh, and it's going to take longer to achieve basic interactions. That's a shitty pitch.

This was before the disastrous announcement of the system's DRM, which was filled with neat additions like the family sharing plan, the idea that you could access your games from any console, and removed the necessity for the disc altogether.

Microsoft could have released a series of videos that showed all the benefits of this system, and they were many, but instead they shat out a cold, impersonal web page that basically listed all the things you couldn't do with the new system. Even executives could barely explain what would be good about these policies, and their answers were often contradictory.

This allowed Sony to not just kick Microsoft while it was down, but slit the company's virtual throat and leave them bleeding out at E3. The messaging at the press conference was perfect: They're focused on games, they're less expensive, and you can trade games with friends. While Microsoft struggled to explain why you need three operating systems to call your family while watching sporting events, Sony released this.

 

Sony has been making noise about how it's better for developers by inviting well-respected indies onstage during the E3 press conference, throwing parties for the press and smaller developers during industry events, and trusting their developer friends to say great things about Sony to the press. They ensured this would happen by doing a tricky, underhanded thing: They treated developers well. Microsoft breakdanced, Sony explained how they'll make your life better than the alternative.

Microsoft's executives gave the press vague platitudes about publishing agreements staying the same as they had under the 360. These are the policies that have caused developers to gush to the press with horror stories about how Microsoft had hurt their business. The one high profile Windows 8 exclusive, Skulls of the Shogun, that came from an indie developer caused the developer to run screaming the other way.

When Microsoft finally caved on allowing developers to release games without a publisher, they did so via a brief, text-only announcement with no details, no press release, and many developers expressing skepticism to the press. The company is running a clinic on how to push the bad news as hard as you can while burying the good stuff.

On the other hand, Microsoft did a great job of showing off the software at E3, and offered the press a great event where we could play the games, mingle with the developers, and maybe have a beverage… before they brought out the Shins to play so no one could hear what was being said. Fuck your games and the actual use of the hardware, Microsoft needs to make sure you understand that it's hip. It has to breakdance in front of you.

This is Microsoft's biggest problem

Microsoft's inability to express what's great about its own hardware, while leading with its own weaknesses, is baffling. Mike did more to sell me on the Surface in five minutes than the $1 billion marketing campaign for Windows 8 and the hardware. How did Microsoft sell us on Windows 8? By focusing on how you can touch images as a password.

Goddamnit.

The mandatory Kinect doesn't just make the Xbox One more expensive than its competitors, it also seems to be the work of advertisors and the marketing department more than a peripheral that gamers actually want or need.

If Microsoft had bothered to show a single game that is actually made better by the Kinect for the Xbox One, it would be one thing, but such a game doesn't seem to exist. Microsoft's marketing department is going to make the Kinect happen whether you want one or not, and it's going to break out all the Shins, breakdancing, and awkward ads that it takes to make that happen.

What Microsoft needs is a game, video, ad, something that explains why the Xbox One is the best at what it does. The company is banking on the idea that we've been waiting for a box that acts as a middle manager for our cable content so we can wave our arms at it. Having an HDMI input in a console isn't a feature, it's a failure. That port is a press release that says the cable companies are more powerful than Microsoft. It's the only box you need, after you hook up all those other boxes you need.

I keep thinking of Mike explaining how great the Surface is for artists, and then I think about all my friends who would likely buy the hardware after hearing his stories. I wonder why Microsoft is unwilling, or unable, to share what makes their products so special. Then I look at the Xbox One, and all I see is breakdancing.