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How Microsoft may suffer after Consumer Reports criticism

Commentary: After a troubling Consumer Reports survey, Microsoft's Panos Panay defends the Surface's reliability. But rationality only goes so far.

 Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


Actually unreliable? Or just reportedly unreliable?

Sarah Tew/CNET

I fancy there were several red faces at Microsoft on Thursday. 

Angry red, I mean.

It's never a good day when a respected organization like Consumer Reports un-recommends your Surface products and declares that they have an estimated 25 percent chance of breaking down within two years. 

As my colleague Dan Ackerman explained in his excellent analysis, there's been no widespread evidence that Surfaces are poorly made. And this survey didn't seem to cover any Surface models made in the last two years. In other words, it didn't include the current Surface Pro and Surface Laptop models released in 2017.

Moreover, Consumer Reports' conclusion was based on a survey of 90,741 tablets and laptops bought by its subscribers. How many of them actually owned Surface devices isn't clear.

"We never divulge the exact number. But we can say that the minimum number of responses needed for any brand to be included in our analyses is 300," a Consumer Reports spokesman told me. 

Ah.

Microsoft may have a problem -- and not just because Apple's estimated breakage rate in the same Consumer Reports survey was 10 percent. That was the lowest among all the major players in the laptop industry. By sharp contrast, Microsoft's rate was the highest.

Redmond's corporate vice president of devices, Panos Panay, vigorously -- angrily, it felt -- defended the Surface's product quality in a blog post Thursday.

"In the Surface team we track quality constantly, using metrics that include failure and return rates – both our predicted 1-2-year failure and actual return rates for Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are significantly lower than 25 percent," he said. 

He didn't specify how much lower, however. He did say that incidents per unit were now well below 1 percent. 

Both sides can present figures. But rationality only goes so far. The bigger issues for Microsoft are the impression left and the potential that it will last.

When Consumer Reports un-recommended Apple's laptops because of alleged battery issues at the end of 2016, the bitterness was short and sweet. Within three weeks -- including, one imagines, aggressive Apple lobbying -- Consumer Reports was suddenly happy. All it had taken, apparently, was a software update.

That's what Microsoft must hope for too. It needs a very swift replay review and a call of "safe." 

Otherwise, the negative whispers will spread and the brand will get tarnished with a touch of rust-bucketyness. Once that happens, a brand often ends up in a defensive posture.

That would be painful for Microsoft, as it's just become a confident aggressor.

After all, the Surface brand has become a genuine competitor, one that, with the Surface Studio last year, made Apple's laptops look as alluring as the Gap collection, circa winter 2010

Microsoft may have a slightly harder task here. 

It's not as if it can ask all of the Consumer Reports subscribers to think again about whether they really had issues with their Surface devices or whether they were partaking of an ill-advised carafe of Touriga Nacional at survey time. 

One temptation may be to suddenly release ads that trumpet the Surface's reliability. This might be a mistake. When you protest even a little, it may already be too much.

Redmond will, no doubt, spend the next weeks and months tracking its data and poring over its focus group research. (Oh, you know there'll be focus group research after this.)

It will hope that this August news will disappear like a mere after-dinner belch.

Next best would be reports of markedly increased Surface sales. 

Luckily, we're heading into the NFL season, where the Surface plays center. 

The coaches hold it, the players look into it and now even the referees are staring at replay reviews on it.

It would surely lift Redmond's spirits if New England Patriots' coach -- and notorious Surface-loather -- Bill Belichick suddenly declared that the product was 10 times better than a MacBook or an iPad Pro.

And at least five times better than the paper which he preferred for much of last season.

Correction, Aug. 11 at 9:20 a.m. PT: Fixes the difference between the estimated breakage rates for Microsoft and Apple products.

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