When I look at Microsoft vs. Apple in the previous decade, it was as if Microsoft looked right at the data and didn’t see why Apple was kicking its butt. This decade, at least with PCs and business tablets, the opposite may be true. You see, it was really clear when the iPad first came out that a significant number of people wanted to use the iPad as a laptop. A surprising number were technology reporters and analysts. This idea of having something that had all-day battery life, was very light and portable, and was far more affordable seemed to drive their initial use of the device, but unfortunately, they discovered that the old iPad just wasn’t up to the task.
Microsoft and Apple clearly both saw this opportunity. While Apple pushed folks to the MacBook Air, Microsoft brought out Surface which, eventually, got far closer to this ideal. Apple, feeling the pain, responded with the iPad Pro. In effect, Microsoft saw that folks wanted a tablet that was a laptop and Apple concluded that folks wanted a bigger tablet. Same data, really different conclusion. I actually think Apple was closer to the right answer with the MacBook Air.
But I’ve been using Surface Pro 4 for some time and it has become my favorite carry box. Let’s talk about that this week.
Intel Had to Build a Part and Windows 8 Sucked
One of the big problems to be surmounted was that while Windows 8 was designed for tablets (though it was an ugly blend), the Intel processor was not. It was simply not power efficient enough. The first Surface effort came in two versions, an ARM version, which had no apps to speak of, and an X86 version, which had no battery life to speak of, and was a tad hot and heavy. So you could get a product that had the weight, cost and battery life of an iPod but didn’t run apps, or you could get a version that had the apps but was expensive, heavy, and sucked to use.
Intel eventually was able to come out with a part that came close to iPad capability and price so by the 4th generation, the ARM version of this offering was dead. In addition, Windows 10 is a far more elegant solution in that it works more like Windows in laptop mode, which is the mode that most wanted this product to be in.
So by combining Intel’s latest effort with Windows 10, we finally had the right mix of technologies to make something that came very close to the ideal: an iPad-like device that could replace a laptop.
One of the big critical changes between the Surface 3 and 4 was the keyboard. The initial surface keyboards were insubstantial. They worked, but the little touchpad was annoying and they just didn’t feel right. The Lenovo ThinkPad is still regarded as the best laptop for business, largely because of its superior keyboard, which showcases just how important the keyboard is to a laptop-like product. Surface Pro 4 fixed the keyboard and this helped substantially.
I expect three improvements in coming versions of this Surface product. The first is an improvement in the biometrics solution. Windows 10 used Hello and the implementation in Surface is with the camera looking at your iris. This is kind of cool, but has had issues with light, and the current generation of fingerprint readers just seems to work better. The second is in charging. While Surface uses a unique and rather cool magnetic connector (kind of a different spin on the Apple MacBook design), resonance charging is coming and that would be ideal in a product like Surface. Finally, the kickstand remains a problem, particularly on planes that have short tray tables; the kickstand tends to fall off the back, taking the tablet with it. We see a better solution with the Surface Book (much closer to the MacBook Air), which doesn’t have this issue. I expect Surface will eventually evolve to have a better way to support itself.
Wrapping Up: Swimming in Great Mobile Device Choices
Surface Pro 4 has been incredibly well funded and particularly well done. I know a lot of folks who have one and we all pretty much rave about the device. What is interesting is that it has been kind of a black eye for the PC OEMs, who rightfully feel they can do better. The result is that in 2016, we are going to see a surprising number of Surface killer products, each trying to do what Surface does, but better. We are likely to be up to our armpits in attractive, reasonably priced, more advanced and very portable Surface-like products next year and it is hard not to get really excited about this. I also expect Apple will figure out that its iPad Pro, at the very least, needs a trackpad.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+