In technology, the rule of threes says that the third version of a product is the one that really establishes whether a market exists for it. Half of that appears to be exemplified in the Surface 3 Tablet that Microsoft just announced and the other half will happen in a few months when Windows 10 upgrades are made available for it. Surface 3 is as much about Intel’s advancement in the space as it is about Microsoft’s, and how far Intel has come in the last couple of years to address the needs of the mobile market.
The Rule of Threes
When a new product category is created, it typically takes three versions of a product to really target what the users want, for two major reasons. First, the user hasn’t yet used a product like the new offering and until they do, they often don’t know what works for them and what doesn’t so they can’t yet provide valid feedback. The other major reason is that the components that create the product aren’t yet optimized for it. In this case, the components that were first targeted at Surface either came from cell phones, which were good with battery life and weight but lagged in performance and compatibility, and x86, which excelled at compatibility but lagged in terms of battery life and weight.
Thus, we started with Surface Pro, a heavy, expensive tablet with poor battery life, and Surface RT, which had competitive weight and battery life to other tablets but didn’t run much in the way of applications. The second generation refined the offerings, addressing key shortcomings and improving battery life on the Pro, and added more applications for RT, but you still had that ugly choice.
By Surface 3, though, it was clear that those who actually wanted performance needed a bigger product. Intel had made advancements on both its Core and Atom lines, so that you could get a far better targeted offering. And that is what resulted.
The end result is that with Surface 3, you get the very latest Atom processor (this is why this product lagged Surface Pro 3 to market), which actually performs adequately while providing tablet-like battery life, weight and pricing. Finally, for those people (and there were an impressive number) who tried and failed to use a tablet for work, this is a tablet that can be used for work. Surface 3 now represents a near-ideal blend of tablet capability with the productivity, management and compatibility needs of someone who wants to work on the thing.
Surface Pro 3 is more like an ultrabook in a tablet configuration; it loses a bit on battery life and weight, but it gains a larger screen and more performance. In short, while up until now, Surface Pro has enjoyed the larger market potential, Surface 3 effectively flips that and moves Surface Pro to a premium product, while Surface is for everyone else.
I mentioned the two parts to this. The other is Windows 10. Surface and Surface Pro are really designed to make Windows 10 sing when it comes out in a few months. Windows 10 is effectively the third version after Windows 8 because Windows 9 has been the Windows 10 beta many of us have been living off of for months. I didn’t actually catch on to this until recently, but there actually has been a Windows 9. We just didn’t call it that because the Windows 10 beta was a fully functioning product that did address the problems with Windows 8, and it was released to a massive number of early adopters who provided lots of feedback in order to create the final version.
The Windows 10 beta refined the ideas that created the offering so that 10 can perhaps be even better than if there had been a Windows 9, because the feedback was more formalized. This is something that showcases the advantage with software because you’d never be able to do this with hardware. It would be too expensive to make all of the iterations to hardware that are needed to quickly create a more mature offering like this in the field; you could only do it in the lab, and even then you’d be gated by hardware prototyping speeds.
Wrapping Up: A Perfect Storm
Surface 3 may be the closest thing to a perfect storm product when Windows 10 releases because it will combine the massive advancements of both Microsoft and Intel into a single platform. And, for those who wanted a tablet they can work on, it will provide the best balance of performance, price, weight and productivity. Yes, Microsoft will still lag Apple and Google on apps, and that won’t be an easy gap to close but, for work, Windows is still the preeminent platform and legacy code support should offset the app shortfall significantly. Because both Surface products are designed to be more secure than your typical tablet, this last aspect may add to legacy code support to create a strong competitive advantage. We won’t know for sure until we see the market react to the final Windows 10 bundle. That is when the full power of Surface 3 will emerge and folks will see how impressively far both Intel and Microsoft have come.
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+