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

Surface Pro 3

Surface Pro 3

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.


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