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Microsoft Surface: From Cross-Bearer To Standard-Bearer

Surface got off to a slow start, but the success of its pro version has led Microsoft to take on the best laptops of its partners.

The Microsoft event that introduced Surface to the world in June 2012 was awash in pairs of stacked rectangles. Most obviously, they were the new Surface and its keyboard. But below the surface, they represented something else: the twin challenges of creating an ARM-based tablet that ran a credible version of Windows (RT), and an Intel-based tablet that was thin and light with long battery life. At the first task, Microsoft failed. But at the second, it succeeded well enough to make the first task irrelevant.

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The Surface Book has a detachable keyboard

Critics were quick to call the Surface a flop–especially given the massive write-off Microsoft took on the business–but by the second generation of the Surface Pro, there were glimmers of success, at least in specific industries such as health care. With the next Surface iteration, the even thinner and larger Surface Pro 3, Microsoft had largely abandoned taking on the iPad and set its sights on competing with conventional laptops (even though Surface’s keyboard was still optional). The even thinner, lighter, and faster Surface Pro 4 continues this trend with a larger, higher-resolution screen and thinner and more rigid Type Cover featuring an enlarged trackpad with an optional fingerprint reader.

With the Surface Pro, Microsoft has clearly hit on something. It was one thing when Microsoft’s hardware partners released tablets with their own Surface-style keyboard covers. But Apple’s recent announcement of the iPad Pro combined with iPad improvements in iOS 9 seem to take several cues from the Surface. Multiple apps on the screen at the same time? Larger screen? More pervasive keyboard shortcuts? Magnetically attached keyboard accessory? Digital pen? Check off all five boxes.

The Surface Pro 4’s Type Cover

Now, Apple can credibly claim that its keyboard accessory is an evolution of its own smart covers that preceded Surface, and that multiple apps sharing the screen have been a Mac thing since the days of 1991’s System 7. And the company steadfastly maintains that its MacBook and iPad lines shall not merge in a Surface-like way. But the timing of it all makes it hard to look away from Redmond’s influence completely.

With the foundations of Surface Pro 3’s success, the Surface Pro 4 clearly represents an evolution–albeit a more pronounced one than we’ve often seen between successive iterations of iPad or MacBook. But even this new tablet was dramatically upstaged by the Surface Book, the thin and powerful 13.5-inch, two-in-one tablet with a snaking hinge that can be used as a tablet, either with or without its battery-extending and GPU-providing keyboard base. Despite the upper half’s large screen size, it’s lightweight, and the base’s hinge has attacked the balance problem that many tablet/laptop hybrids have. And like the Surface Pro 4, it features an instantly recognizable profile.

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If the Surface tablets have made waves in Apple’s backyard, the Surface Book may spawn a tsunami in Microsoft’s. Unlike with the first Surface tablets, Microsoft had nothing to prove with the Surface Book. As the Surface Pro customer base has grown, it’s likely that Microsoft is just accommodating potential customers who prefer a more laptop-like device than the Surface Pro 4, which is still a tablet propped up with a kickstand.

While Microsoft is quick to compare its “ultimate laptop”–which starts at $1,500 and goes way, way up–to Apple’s portables, it will walk a far narrower tightrope in competing with its own hardware partners with the Surface Book. Not only does the first model stand to do battle with the best that HP, Dell, Acer, and Lenovo have to offer, but the company is poised to come downmarket with a lower-priced mainstream version, as it did with the $500 Surface 3.

The Surface experience story isn’t quite as good as it looks on paper. Even with the considerable reconciliation of Windows 10 and the arrival of a touch-optimized Office as well as other universal apps, Windows’ interface is still in transition. Many people with Surfaces spend much of their day working not so differently than they would with a no-touch Windows 7 laptop. Even on the marketing side, Microsoft needs to rethink the Surface Pro, which it’s been promoting as the tablet that can replace your laptop. Now that the company wants to sell you a laptop, where does that leave the Surface Pro?

The Surface Pro 4 at work

Still, Microsoft has shown it can innovate in tablets and even in the ancient laptop category. At its launch event, Surface products stood in contrast to its new Lumia phones, which represented a modest upgrade from their predecessors. Indeed, the new phones’ signature feature is what they can do when they’re tethered to a monitor on a desk, a relatively limited scenario.

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What’s next? Given the Surface trajectory towards larger screens, an all-in-one iMac competitor is almost certainly brewing at the state-of-the-art prototyping and development lab that bakes Surface products. The upgraded Microsoft Band still leaves plenty of room in the company’s device portfolio for a more full-featured smartwatch. And then perhaps a beastly desktop aimed at power-hungry professionals would take on the Mac Pro, letting Microsoft recast the Surface Book as the laptop that can replace your workstation. After all, the Surface message has long been as much about performance as it’s been about form factor.

As a Microsoft sub-brand, Surface still has its limitations. The Surface Hub wall-mounted Windows 10 giant touchscreen takes on a niche computing form factor that has previously been the province of a few small vendors. Meanwhile, it makes sense that the HoloLens augmented-reality headset–a product that can eschew surfaces altogether–would skip the Surface label. Both the Surface Hub and HoloLens are high-end enterprise tools, at least in the short term. Indeed, despite the Surface business’s reported $3.5 billion in revenue, Microsoft still hasn’t made much headway into the consumer tablet market, a major thrust of the Surface’s original mission. Still, the division’s impact is destined to expand as an Apple alternative and threat to Windows PCs manufactured by Microsoft’s customers.

Keep an eye on the trackpad that guides you, PC industry. Microsoft’s gloves are off.

Related: Can Microsoft Get Its Groove Back? The Evolution Of The Brand In 3 Minutes

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About the author

Ross Rubin is founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research. He has been covering consumer technology and innovation for two decades.

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