What’s the point of Surface? 10 years later
When Microsoft first unveiled the Surface (and Surface Pro) (opens in a new tab) in 2012, many of the first reactions were criticism. After all, the world’s largest software company was now getting into hardware. CNN ran the title “Microsoft opposes its partners with Surface.” Wired defended Microsoft, but the headline says it all: “Why Microsoft Should Screw Its Hardware Partners.”
In 2000, Microsoft was ordered to split off because it was a monopoly. This decision was later appealed and settled, but many Microsoft hardware partners wondered if Microsoft was going down the same path again.
Microsoft, it seems, had an unfair advantage since it controls the operating system, and the company could easily prioritize features and optimizations that benefit its hardware over its partners. Acer publicly reprimanded Microsoft stating, “This will create a huge negative impact on the ecosystem, and other brands may have a negative reaction. It’s not something you’re good at, so think twice.
Do HP, Lenovo, Acer, Asus and Dell now have to compete versus Microsoft in the PC space? Should they “find other alternatives” to Microsoft and Windows, as Acer’s CEO suggested in 2012?
Ten years later, and the answer to that question is mostly “no.” Surface is still a drop in the bucket in terms of PC shipments compared to the big three (Lenovo, HP and Dell) and even ranks well behind Acer, ASUS and Razer as well.
They may make it to our best laptops list, but Surface just doesn’t sell in volume.
So what is Surface good for? They don’t sell a lot (comparatively). They are always more expensive than the competition. You often get fewer features (and usually not the latest). We don’t even know if the Surface program has ever brought any profits to Microsoft. This generates billions in revenue, but is Microsoft making money directly, breaking even, or losing money (again)? We do not know.
But for Microsoft, there seem to be a few reasons to keep developing hardware. These include:
- Create devices that allow users to create and express themselves in new ways
- Develop the concept of what a computer can look and feel like
- Set the standard of quality and precision that other OEMs (PC manufacturers) can emulate
One of the dumbest things I hear from people is the cliche, “What problem does that solve?” when looking at a new Surface product. While it is the job of engineers to solve problems, the role of the creator – the true creator – is to create something you didn’t know you wanted. Apple, especially under Steve Jobs, knew this well.
Panos Panay, executive vice president and chief product officer at Microsoft, remarked in 2020 that Surface Duo (and all Surface products) aim to “challenge conventional thinking…which leads to creating new categories.”
These concepts often work for Microsoft. See Surface (Pro), which I’ve talked about before, is one of the biggest innovations in the PC space. This idea of a tablet with a detachable keyboard is now common and used by Apple, Google and other computer manufacturers. Although it hasn’t replaced the traditional clamshell laptop, it has become a consistent option for those who want its functionality.
A device like the Surface Duo, while controversial, is a dream machine for those who have to juggle multiple items while on the go. Microsoft’s research, which relies on measuring hemodynamic activity, even backs up the claim that two screens are better than one (or even a folding screen) and require the least amount of mental effort when multitasking. Is the Surface Duo for everyone? Absolutely not. But is there a market for it? Very probable. It certainly gets people talking (maybe not always for the right reasons).
Other times, the initial concept wows audiences and glitzes the tech but fails to win over audiences: See Surface Book and maybe even Surface Studio. That doesn’t mean the effort was wasted, as each release is a teachable moment for Microsoft. He learns, adapts and moves on.
Surface Laptop (and Surface Laptop Go), however, fall under the “setting the bar” motif. After all, clamshell laptops cost a dime by the dozen, and while many Surface fans begged the company to make a simple laptop, it was still a weird departure from the previous mantra. of “category creation”.
But Surface Laptop, despite minimal ports, lack of modern display technology like HDR or OLED, and its creative use of Alcantara, is still one of the best looking all-around laptops around. It’s clean, minimal, and delivers in spades in all major areas: audio, keyboard, trackpad, camera, and design. I’m still pleasantly impressed every time I pick one up.
How many laptops in 2022 don’t have visible ventilation or speaker grilles? This is just the Surface Laptop series.
The third reason, pushing OEM partners to do better, is not insignificant. I’ve had many behind-the-scenes conversations with laptop makers in the past, and they all credit Microsoft pushing them to make better laptops. It’s not just about copying either.
HP, in 2015, launched its Specter x360 laptop, and Microsoft handed them out to attendees at its Build conference. It was the first HP laptop that really blew me away in terms of quality, hinge design, and overall functionality. Although HP gets most of the credit, it worked with Microsoft Surface engineers to refine this hardware. From there, Specter has been one of the most exciting product lines to watch.
Cooperation between Microsoft and its partners happens much more frequently than you might think (Intel gets involved often too). Microsoft told me that the new Surface Laptop SE serves exactly that purpose: they want PC makers to review it and emulate what they’ve learned. For example, Microsoft focuses heavily on thermals to ensure that the Surface Laptop SE, even when used on a hot summer day, will never slow down its performance under heavy CPU and GPU load. They would like all student laptops to meet this same standard, and they openly share their work with partners to achieve this goal.
Ten years later, this triple strategy of creating new categories, empowering people to do something they couldn’t do before, and setting the standard for quality has work. This also results in an interesting paradox: Surface only accounts for a tiny fraction of PC shipments, yet it attracts overwhelming media attention. Surface punches well above its weight, competing with Apple not on sales but on spirit sharing.
Even without beating the competition in sales, Surface manages to steer the hardware conversation in new directions. And it is point. Few companies can do so much with so little.
A recent job posting from Microsoft (opens in a new tab) reveals that the company is continuing “…the journey from a software company to a product and productivity company…” This means we’ll likely see even more Microsoft and Surface in the next ten years, and the computing world will be better off because of it.