• Motorburn
      Because cars are gadgets
    • Gearburn
      Incisive reviews for the gadget obsessed
    • Ventureburn
      Startup news for emerging markets
    • Jobsburn
      Digital industry jobs for the anti 9 to 5!

With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft seems more confused about the future than ever

This time, Microsoft means business. At the original Surface tablet launch in 2012, it told us it meant business. Again, at the far more muted Surface 2 launch in September last year. Perhaps it didn’t really, really mean business those first two times. This time, it’s different. Promise.

The euphoria around new chief executive Satya Nadella’s first 100 days in charge has tapered off, mostly completely. In fact, it died down after the company’s Build event in early April.

It’s fair to say that the Surface Pro 3 (why does it need the ‘Pro’ moniker in there?!) is not a Nadella product. It’s the latest in a long list of products and services that are still churning off the unstoppable Steve Ballmer-led conveyor belt. Nadella is stuck with Surface (and the Nokia devices business) whether he likes it or not. Given the choice and a blank slate, I’m not sure Nadella would be hurtling along the Surface highway (at least not in its current guise, anyway).

In summing up the selling point of the Surface (Pro 3!), Microsoft’s Surface chief Panos Panay told media at the device launch in New York on Tuesday: “This is the tablet than can replace your laptop”.

It’s ostensibly designed to “destroy” the laptop. Panay reportedly played up a comparison with a MacBook Air on stage. The original Surface line (including the bizarre ARM processor-based RT models) simply did not know what gap it was filling. At that point, it seemed as if Microsoft had taken a look around, realized it needed to make a post PC play, and instead of articulating a clear proposition, tried a bit of everything.

The new Surface is useable on your lap (despite the previous generations being sold, but not actually capable of that). ‘Lapability’ is the word Panos used. The “Pro” stylus input stays. Again, this is the worst of both worlds. Touch plus keyboard (‘Type Cover’) with no clear delineation between the two. What do I use the keyboard for? What do I use the trackpad for? When do I just touch the screen? When do I use the stylus? Steve Jobs’s famous quote about the stylus is more apt than ever.

By defining this as the ‘next laptop’, Microsoft is taking clear aim at its OEM partner. It wants that margin, despite computers (largely) having become low-margin products as we’ve reached a state of commoditisation

(Post Nokia, Microsoft now also has the Lumia 2520 tablet to figure out a value proposition and purpose for. It’s hardly a sub-premium device.)

Pricing is telling. The base model, at $800 plus a keyboard, at US$130, costs more than a base model MacBook Air (as many have pointed out). Spinning this as cheaper than a Mac is disingenuous given the fact that the Type Cover is sold separately. Shouldn’t that be bundled into the box? What use is a laptop without a keyboard?

The rumours about Apple’s 12 inch retina MacBook Air will only continue to get louder. That’s practically what the Surface Pro 3 is, save for a wonky, not-quite-attached keyboard. If (when?) that Mac device makes its appearance, which would you buy? Will enterprises embrace Surfaces widely? Perhaps that’s the trick up Microsoft’s sleeve?

John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame makes the point overnight: “A decade ago, it was Apple that was comparing the Mac to the PC (in the long-running John Hodgman/Justin Long “Get a Mac” campaign) — now the tables are turned.”

Is the laptop the future? Microsoft seems to think so, at least right now.

Author | Hilton Tarrant: Columnist

Hilton Tarrant: Columnist
Hilton Tarrant is production editor at Moneyweb. His main focus is project management for the listed company’s local and international websites, and contributes to their strategic direction. From time-to-time, he also fills in for Alec Hogg on the SAfm Market Update with Moneyweb radio programme. In between, he covers... More


  1. drrjv

    May 21, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    The tablets, I mean the tables are turned

  2. PeterBlood

    May 21, 2014 at 6:59 pm

    Who does Microsoft think they’re fooling except the most ardent and blind Microsoft fans? A Mac Book Air is a way better bargain. The end is near for clueless Redmond.

  3. Danielle Heiderich

    May 21, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    Even if you’re a die hard Microsoft fan WHY would anyone spend the money to get a Surface Pro with keyboard cover when you can buy a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro for $1199? Yeah, that additional 256GB of storage is sooo worth an extra $800. right? And why would anyone be a die hard Microsoft fan anyway??…I don’t get it.

  4. jbelkin

    May 21, 2014 at 9:15 pm

    MS is like IBM in 1985. They cannot even remotely conceive or understand that it’s a new world of tech. They just keep going back to “It’s has Microsoft on it. You not only must buy it, you want to buy it!” Not remotely understand that the name means virtually NOTHING to today’s consumer. MS basically think that because they delivered a GUI interface to PC’s in the early 1990’s that people still look to them as a tech leader. They spent the past 15 years telling & showing people their brand name is a virii-ridden wonky OS and now, they want people to pay $1,900 for a tablet that runs Office but does very little else – do you still have to buy a keyboard separate? This will sell to niche markets but there’s a reason no one was really willing to buy a WIN tablet for the past 15 years – nothing changes.

  5. pdq3

    May 21, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    You know, I personally completely agree. But I went through the comments on Ars Technica when this was being introduced, and I was shocked at how many posters there were going gaga over it…at “only $799″…(yeah, with an i3, and no keyboard). …”shocked”, I guess, since the age old argument from PC users is that “I can buy/build a PC for half the price of a Mac that’s more powerful”. It’s just weird to see these folks ostensibly head over heels for a device that is powered just a little above a tablet, at a higher price than a MacBook Air. To me, this product reminds me of Seinfeld’s old line about futons – “it’s a bed you can’t sleep on, that turns into a couch you can’t sit on”.

    I dunno – I think some people just really, really, really want to use Windows…or are sort of cheering for Microsoft to catch up from the Ballmer days….or are being paid by Redmond to post (just kidding). It’ll be interesting to see how these things sell.

  6. Ponta Vedra

    May 25, 2014 at 4:30 pm

    That’s the thing–the Surface *is not a “laptop*. Not if you want to type as you are used to. On your lap, it’s a tablet, not a laptop. It only functions as a “laptop” while on a table or desk. That makes it, effectively, either a skimpy, underpowered desktop computer which can, if you wish, transform into an unwieldy tablet. Seriously, does anyone not find that an uncomfortable choice? Or is it that most people don’t understand this until after they have plunked down all the money for it, and so are biased towards not feeling that they made a bad choice?

More in Microsoft, Tablets

Steve Ballmer takes over from Bill Gates as Microsoft's largest individual shareholder

Read More »