Microsoft Surface: From Niche to Full Market-Changing PC Player

    I attended the Microsoft Surface launch this week, and there were parts of that event where I teared up. When they announced the Surface Duo, which is a new phone due next year that blends Google and Microsoft technology to create something truly interesting, I recalled when they killed the Windows phone and how disappointed those of use that used it were to see it go. When they announced the Surface Neo, they effectively revisited their old Currier Tablet concept, which was an iPad killer on paper, but got killed by Microsoft internal politics and represented one of the biggest failures to execute the firm ever had. Microsoft came to the Surface event to play, and, I think, they swung for the fences and hit what may be five home runs.

    Let’s look at each in turn.

    Surface Duo

    The Surface Duo is the one that hit me where I lived because I’ve been arguing for some time that a complete PC line should have a Smartphone in it. We are doing more and more work on our phones; the pivot that Apple led turning them into personal toys was wrong-headed because the majority of us use them to further our careers and businesses, which is more important, in my eyes anyway, than the consumer crap that often surrounds them. And the blending of PCs and Smartphones potentially increases the utility of both classes of offerings, but you can’t blend well if you don’t have both.

    Oh, and the one big Windows Phone campaign that was successful until the bean counters killed it was their “Really” campaign where they focused on getting your life back. You want a phone that works for you, not one that makes you feel you work for it. Granted, the former might help us get ready for our new AI overlords, but I see no point in getting to that future prematurely.

    Finally, the fact they are using Android addresses the need for apps, which is what killed the Windows Phone in the first place. I’m a big believer in selective competition where you cooperate when you can and compete when you can’t. I think it is much better than the more typical “you are either all for us or all against us,” which is just stupidly arrogant in today’s largely blended world. I think this alone suggests a level of maturity in both Google and Microsoft the is sorely needed.

    Even Apple doesn’t have an integrated Smartphone to PC line, which might motivate even them to fix. Because this phone is intended to work with PCs synergistically a meeting that Apple missed.

    Oh, and initial feedback on the latest Samsung Fold has been very positive, but for two things, the plastic screen is too fragile, and the cost at $2K is too high. This phone should be closer to half the price of the Samsung and Microsoft used Gorilla Glass which addresses both problems (though you will see that the screens on contiguous, but I’ll bet you also get over that as we did use the device).

    Surface Neo

    The Neo is the other break out product. It revisits the old Courier Concept, which was designed and could have been, an iPad killer. And it addresses Bill Gates’ concern, a concern that effectively, and I think wrongly, killed the offering by making it a full-featured PC on top of an interesting tablet. The creativity in how they dealt with the magnetic keyboard was almost magical, and the result was an impressive piece of kit.

    Even though it comes from a project that was almost a decade old, Apple hasn’t innovated in that decade, so the potential to displace the iPad still exists.

    One other thing, this product introduced the Intel Lakefield processor, designed with Microsoft’s help. I think every processor should be jointly designed by those that will use it and, if you look across their new line, there were joint projects with AMD and Qualcomm as well.

    Sadly, neither of these offerings will be available this year.

    The Real iPad Killer

    The Surface ProX is the product that had the processor, based on Snapdragon, that Microsoft worked with Qualcomm to design. The Surface ProX was the real iPad Pro killer and the best representation of Microsoft and Qualcomm’s “Always Connected PC” effort. Thie Surface ProX is what the iPad Pro should have been, more Notebook like, with days of battery life, and more focused on doing work than on playing games. I think, had Apple listened to IBM and Cisco; this is what they would have built for those enterprise channels. I’ve heard from several large companies that, as soon as they can, they are going to replace their iPad Pros with this device. It handles office better, it is more secure, it has longer battery life, it is designed to be always connected, and it is also far sexier than the aging iPad. (I think this product alone will have Apple regretting driving their design lead out of the company).

    Unlike the Duo and Neo due out in about a year, the Surface ProX is due out in a few weeks. Of the offerings you can see and buy this year, this is my new favorite. I think it represents the best current blend of Smartphone and PC technology and that custom part they developed with Qualcomm, which runs at more than three times the power of a typical Qualcomm part and gives the device a 3x advantage over the last generation Surface Pro is a game-changer. Part of the reason for that is it has its own AI chip, which can be used to do things like adjusting the eyes in an incoming video call to make it feel more intimate and engaging.

    The Best Notebook

    For those that want a more typical notebook, one thing you may not realize is that the Surface Notebook, according to Microsoft, has the highest customer satisfaction score in the segment. The best one launched at the event had AMD’s semi-custom capability showcased with both a Ryzen processor and a Vega-based GPU custom blended to provide optimized battery life and performance.

    This product is huge for AMD, who typically finds itself in entry-level products, not top-of-line offerings, and this was a top-of-line offering. The result allows you to have the performance you want with the battery life and portability you need, and given this is a custom offering from AMD; it is also unique in the segment.

    This new notebook was as much a showcase of what AMD could do as it was a unique offering from the Surface team and, I’ll bet, other OEMs are suddenly seeing AMD’s potential for differentiation in a whole new light as a result. This AMD win could be one of the biggest sales boosts for AMD that it has ever gotten because this is a stunning product.

    Wrapping Up

    I’ve only talked about a couple of interesting things; two others are their new Surface Ear Buds, which are a slap in the face for Apple’s Air Pods. This result is because Microsoft’s products can also control things working as a kind of remote control. They are fitted to your ears and should better resist falling out (Apparently Air Pods falling out have become such a big problem at New York’s subways they have had to issue a formal alert). You can even use the Microsoft’s Earbuds to control your music or advance your PowerPoint slides, but their big Apple killing feature is that they can be altered for your ear and thus are less likely to fall out and create an expensive event. They connect to apps that will do automatic speech to text for closed captioning and authoring, real-time translations, and they don’t look like you have little mice tails coming out of your ears.

    All in all, this was a showcase of Microsoft Innovation in a segment that desperately needs it. The other PC OEMs can also benefit from many of these changes, and, I expect, the Apple folks are rethinking their life choices. That last was part of Surface’s original mission and, alone, was probably worth it.

    Rob Enderle
    Rob Enderle
    As President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, Rob provides regional and global companies with guidance in how to create credible dialogue with the market, target customer needs, create new business opportunities, anticipate technology changes, select vendors and products, and practice zero dollar marketing. For over 20 years Rob has worked for and with companies like Microsoft, HP, IBM, Dell, Toshiba, Gateway, Sony, USAA, Texas Instruments, AMD, Intel, Credit Suisse First Boston, ROLM, and Siemens.

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