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Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT ) Surface Pro 2 looked like it could be an awesome product. From its specs and previews, it looked perfectly suited to meet my wife's need for something more portable than a large laptop but more useful than a typical entertainment-oriented tablet. So we bought one.
Unfortunately, our experience with the tablet was a disaster. We were so frustrated with the device that about a week after unpacking it, we shipped it back to Microsoft and asked for a refund. Our experience was so poor that it even made me nervous to be a Microsoft shareholder.
What went wrong?
We experienced three key problems, two of which we could work around (the other may have been a glitch in our particular unit). Put all three together, however, and the combination led us to return the device for a refund.
The first key problem was that the Surface Pro 2 doesn't actually come with Microsoft Office. While all the commercials promised that the ubiquitous productivity package comes bundled with the Surface 2, I must have missed the fine print that said Office doesn't come with the Surface Pro 2.
While I question the decision to leave one of the most advertised features of the new Surface generation off the high-end models, it's a problem that can be worked around. All it takes is a bit more money and access to Microsoft's Home Use Program.
The second big problem was that the copy of Internet Explorer that came preloaded in Windows 8's Metro interface stopped working when my wife tried to log into her Gmail account. Still, that too could be worked around by installing the mail app or another browser, or by using the configuration of Internet Explorer that was available on the desktop.
The difference between "replace" and "refund"
The third key problem -- and the one that made us return the device -- was that its WiFi connectivity was awful. It would drop its connection to our home WiFi several times per day, and the only way to get it to reconnect was by rebooting the device. No amount of running the "repair" tool or working with the system's settings could get it to reconnect once it dropped.
We have a pretty solid WiFi router in our home and several other devices that stay connected without issue. Only the Surface Pro 2 had consistent problems, and only the Surface Pro 2 needed to be frequently rebooted to restore a connection when it did drop -- and yes, we installed the system updates.
That lousy WiFi connectivity meant the Surface Pro 2 was headed back to Microsoft, but what made us decide to ask for a refund, rather than a replacement, was the combination of all three problems. We felt duped by a product that simply failed to live up to our basic expectations, especially as nothing we were asking it to do was particularly cutting-edge.
Calming a nervous shareholder
Given how Microsoft had to write down $900 million on the original Surface products, our awful experience with our Surface Pro 2 made me fear another, potentially larger repeat. And with Microsoft already lagging in the tablet space and taking all sorts of flak for being stuck in the PC era, I feared a repeat of those troubles would hurt the company's shares -- including the ones I own.
But before I sold my shares, I went looking to see whether the problems we experienced were widespread or if we just happened to be extremely unlucky with our particular device. And what I found astonished me: It's surprisingly difficult to find complaints about the Surface Pro 2. I found a small handful of vocal critics, but most of the complaints I've been able to find are about the Surface 2, with many saying how great the Surface Pro2 is by comparison.
That served as a key reminder that a single anecdote isn't a trend and that one bad experience doesn't mean an entire line (or company, for that matter) is doomed. We're still not planning to buy another Surface Pro 2, but I'm willing to continue to hold the company's shares -- at least so long as they appear to be reasonably priced.
When all is said and done, what will drive Microsoft's stock over the long run is its ability to execute in the overall global market, not whether every single one of its tablets operates perfectly. So long as our experience with the Surface Pro 2 remains a fairly isolated incident rather than the defining story of the line, Microsoft may well have a success on its hands. And if it does, I'd hate to have sold my stake based on a single bad experience.
Are Microsoft's best days behind it?
Microsoft has never been known as a leading-edge innovator, but it grew to be a giant by successfully adapting the great innovations that came before it. As development cycles get faster and technology shifts get more disruptive, that gets tougher to do, and it may soon be that only the truly innovative will thrive.
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