Is This When Surface Turns the Corner?

Is This When Surface Turns the Corner?

They say third time's the charm

Today, I'll be heading to New York for a Microsoft Surface event, where the firm is expected to announce an 8-inch Surface mini and a larger but thinner Surface Pro. There are all kinds of rumors swirling around this event, which some are thinking of as "Surface 3.0," as in "it always takes Microsoft three tries to get it right." But I'm not sure that the old rules apply anymore.

True, the first generation Surface devices both suffered from some serious issues, not to mention the fact that Microsoft shipped them in the wrong order. It was first out the gate in late 2012 with the lackluster Surface RT, which ran the immature and incompatible Windows RT platform on a slow ARM-based Tegra 3 chipset. That product tanked, and because Microsoft made too many of them—oh, the power of self-delusion—it ended up writing off almost $1 billion the following year.

The original Surface Pro fared better, though it launched too late, in February 2013. Worse, because it was based on the then-current Intel Core i5, the heavy and thick device could barely manage to get through 3 or 4 hours on a charge. That pretty much damned the device, though there were some high points: A gorgeous 1080p screen, a wonderful and accurate stylus, and of course the proven and well-understood PC platform. So close.

When Microsoft launched the second generation Surface devices in late 2013, it only came to market with two of the three devices it originally planned, as the Qualcomm-based Surface mini was delayed because of production issues. But both the Tegra 4-based Surface 2 and Intel Core i5-based Surface Pro 2 were big improvements over their predecessors, triggering retroactive claims that these were the devices Microsoft should have come to market with first.

For its part, the Surface 2 provided a big performance jump over the original Surface RT, and although it couldn't be called speedy per se, I'll judge it as acceptable. Surface 2 doesn't overcome the biggest limitations of the Windows RT platform, but the simple passage of time has helped: It's not quite in Android or iOS territory, but the apps story is much improved.

Surface Pro 2 did exactly what Microsoft needed it to do, at least within the confines of the device keeping the same form factor as its predecessor: That is, thanks to its Haswell-era Core i5 upgrade, the Surface Pro 2 gets much better battery life than the original Surface Pro.

What Microsoft missed out on in 2013, of course, was the rise of the mini-tablets. So although its partners were seeing great success with 8-inch Windows tablets, Microsoft was left holding the door. But it also missed out on something I think is perhaps an even bigger opportunity, at least within the confines of the PC market: It has yet to deliver an acceptable alternative to the 13-inch MacBook Air, one that firmly targets businesses and their users.

(Some will quibble with this, as they're of the opinion that the 10.6-inch screen on the Surface Pro 2 somehow meets this criteria. It does not: 10.6 inches is absolutely fine for a tablet, but then Surface Pro is far too thick to be a good tablet. And that screen is too small for the average PC user.)

I've had an inside view of the Surface mini since last year. The device that Microsoft should launch this week is the same one it intended to ship last year: 8-inch screen, a form factor that is almost identical to an iPad mini, ARM-based (Qualcomm, not Tegra 4) running Windows RT 8.1, and with a pen with deep Outlook integration. It will be marketed as a note-taking device, will come in multiple colors, and will not include a built-in kickstand, but will rather have a click-in cover with a kickstand as an option.

There's just one problem: Some are reporting that Microsoft has decided at the 11th hour to cancel Surface mini yet again. I'm guessing this is just a bit of subterfuge on the Surface team's part—they were quite burned when it became clear I had the entire set of their go-to-market documentation for the Surface 2 products last year—and they're trying to find leaks.

But you never know. As noted previously, Microsoft may have in fact missed the boat on mini-tablets. Overall, tablet sales are slowing much more quickly than expected in 2014, and while mini-tablets was the big driver last year, that's clearly less true now. It's possible that the market for these devices is simply saturated.

Of more interest—to me at least—is the bigger Surface Pro. I've only heard a bit about this device—and that should please the Surface team somewhat. I'm told it's both bigger and thinner than the existing Surface Pro 2, and that it will ship in multiple models with various Core (i3, i5 and i7) processors, answering a remaining quibble about the Pro line. (Even the highest-end, most expensive Surface Pro 2 only ships with a midlevel i5 processor.)

Because it is a different form factor, this new bigger Pro will have a different set of typing covers, and will of course not be compatible with most Pro accessories, including the Dock. That's too bad, but I think moving to a bigger screen is worth it.

Some are also referring to these products as "Surface 3.0," aka the third generation of Surface devices. But that's not accurate: These are still second generation products. The Surface mini is shipping exactly as it would have last year, and the bigger Surface Pro is using the same Intel Core processor platform as Surface Pro 2. You might think of them as "Surface 2.5," but even that is stretching it.

And while the notion that Microsoft always needs three revisions to get something right is a cute one, it's not really accurate either, certainly not anymore, and we can think of all kinds of Microsoft products that don't fit into this neat pigeonhole. Microsoft never got Zune right, for example, and the third Xbox—Xbox One—has pretty much bombed relative to its competition.

The problem with Surface, ultimately, has always been one of timing. Surface would never have existed if it weren't for the iPad, and like the Windows 8 platforms on which it runs, it shipped a few years too late. By the time Microsoft got around to responding to the mini-tablet craze, it actually ended up delaying that product, and it's based on Windows RT anyway. So here we are, two long years after Microsoft first announced its original Surface plans, and Microsoft could finally be delivering the Surface it should have delivered all along: That MacBook Air competitor.

Surface also suffers because it's a follower, not a leader. And while the industrial design of the devices is excellent—heck, so was Zune's—Microsoft needs this product line to embrace what its customers are really doing—productivity work—and not what they wish they were doing (replacing iPads as consumption devices).

This bigger new Surface Pro could belatedly get that right—again, timing—and what the heck. Maybe third time really is the charm.

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