Welcome to Surfacegate

Posted on January 22, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

Welcome to Surfacegate

Microsoft is having its iPhone 4 “Antennagate” moment, thanks to rampant reliability issues with its Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 devices. But rather than publicly face the problems head-on, the software giant has retreated behind a veil of silence. This is a huge mistake, and it is undermining the credibility and viability of its hardware offerings.

I’ve offered this advice privately, to no avail. Allow me to now make it publicly.

Microsoft, you’re f@#$ing up. Big time.

As an illustration of why, let’s go back in time to 2010. Apple had just launched the first major form factor change to its smart phone lineup with the iPhone 4, which was encased in a beautiful metal frame. There was just one problem: This design—dictated by the firm’s form over function principles, and an immature understanding of radio science—meant that iPhone 4 had much less reliable signal strength than previous designs. So much so that a user who “was holding it wrong”—i.e. holding it normally—could in fact block radio signals to and from the phone entirely, disrupting phone calls.

More established phone makers had long before stopped exploring external antennas because of this well-understood issue, called attenuation. But the joke, revealed by Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the time, and expanded on in his official biography, is that even Apple knew this system was broken. And they shipped the iPhone 4 like that regardless because Jobs was so in love with the design.

“The iPhone 4 antenna went through all of this [testing],” Jobs said at the time, in 2010. “We tested it. We knew that if you gripped it in a certain way, the bars were going to go down a little bit, just like every smartphone. We didn’t think it’d be a big problem … Phones aren’t perfect.”

Antennagate threatened to undermine the success of the best-received iPhone yet, a product that has grown to be Apple’s most successful by far. (So much so, in fact, one might argue that Apple is basically just an iPhone company.) So Jobs did the right thing, though again he was bullshitting: He addressed the problem head-on, and publicly, explained what was happening, explained why everything would be OK, and offered customers real solutions.

I can quibble with the explanation, but I can’t quibble with the results: Virtually no one returned their iPhone 4 for a refund, and this iPhone-happy world simply accepted less reliable cell signals as a way of life. (Future iPhone designs, including the iPhone 4 for Verizon, which shipped in 2011, featured ongoing but mostly secret changes to the antenna system, which improved matters in subsequent devices too.)

OK, I assume most of you remember Antennagate. But what I want you to understand is that the problems Microsoft is now having with Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 is the same thing. This is Microsoft’s Antennagate. And their response so far is unacceptable.

Before getting to the response, let’s step through some of the problems. Ongoing Intel display driver crashes, which in many cases Blue Screens/restarts the device, even after an issued fix. (And that fix caused boot problems on Surface Book where the power button stops working.) Rampant power management issues that cause “hot bag” issues and drains the battery because the device never actually goes to sleep. Surface Detach issues on the Surface Book, where the screen can’t/won’t detach. USB bus issues (which may or may not be tied to Surface Detach; it’s hard to tell because everything is interconnected on these SoC-based PC designs). On and on it goes.

Here’s what Microsoft has done so far.

Nothing.

In real world terms, they’ve done absolutely nothing: Microsoft has maintained complete radio silence on the rampant reliability issues that dog Surface Book and Surface Pro 4. There has been no press release. No blog post. No press event. No web video. No letter to customers. Nothing.

If, however, you were wasting hours in Microsoft’s support forums looking for help, you may have stumbled on two items of note.

In early December, a Surface Engineering Team program manager explained one of the big issues with the new devices.

“We can put the processor into a deeper sleep state than it is currently set to,” he wrote, before stepping right into it. “We couldn’t do it at RTM for a variety of reasons, power management is a very hard computer science problem to solve especially with new silicon. Currently it is not in the deepest ‘sleep’ that it can be so there are wake events that would not otherwise wake it. We will have an update for this issue sometime soon in the new year.

And then a week later, in a similarly hidden place in Microsoft’s support forums, the Surface team issued an apology. Which is like shouting into the wind, because no one even knew about it.

“For those of you who’ve had a less-than-perfect experience, we’re sorry for any frustration this has caused,” the note reads. “We are working to issue additional updates and fixes as soon as possible to further improve the overall Surface experience.”

It’s been over a month since those missives, of which virtually no Surface Book or Pro 4 customers are even aware. Realistically speaking, Microsoft has been silent on the issues. One can only imagine that the return rate on these devices is off the charts. But the bigger concern is the long-term harm that Microsoft does by remaining silent every single day. Hiding and ignoring the problem is not the same as solving it.

So my advice is simple.

Microsoft, you gotta pull a Steve Jobs.

Put Terry Myerson, or Panos Panay, or Terry Myerson and Panos Panay up on a stage (in person or on video) and then walk us through the problem. Explain how excited you were to be first of the gate with Intel Skylake hardware, and why some of the problems you’re seeing are common to other PCs, and why some are not. Explain when you knew about these problems, and what you’ve been doing, and what you will do going forward, to fix them. And when. Offer Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 customers a warranty extension of at least 6 months, or from the date when these problems will be fixed, whichever is longer. And then start heaping on the gifts, because you can never really make this right: Free Microsoft Complete on top of that warranty extension, perhaps. A year of the Office 365 of your choice. Something.

Most important, Microsoft, tell us that you WILL fix these problems, that they are just a perfect storm of glitches in new hardware and new software and that there is nothing there to suggest that Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 are irreparably broken. These are beautiful and expensive devices. But our faith is shaken.

You can’t just talk about trust, Microsoft. You have to establish and keep trust. And silence will not achieve that.

 

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