With Microsoft finally announcing a long-awaited Surface Pro refresh, here are a few thoughts about what this device says about the future of the software giant’s hardware lineup.
As you may know, it’s been a roller coaster couple of months for Surface Pro fans. Microsoft last updated this product in October 2015, fully 19 months ago, and the call for a refresh had reached frantic levels by the beginning of this year.
In late April, Microsoft announced its financial earnings for the first calendar quarter of 2017, confirming what critics had feared: In announcing that Surface revenues fell 26 percent to $831 million (from $1.3 billion a year ago), Microsoft admitted, implicitly, that it had misjudged the timing of this Surface Pro refresh by one quarter.
I suspect this was a calculated risk: With Apple pushing its non-iPhone release schedules out further and further, Microsoft probably felt that it needed to do the same with Surface. But inventory control has never been the Surface team’s strong point, and this is just the latest example.
Critics will likely point out, too, that a subtly improved Surface Pro (2017) is perhaps not innovative enough. I do take exception to the lack of even a single USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 port, but beyond that, I disagree: Surface Pro is Microsoft’s best-selling hardware device by far, and managing this success is important. Microsoft can experiment with new form factors and technologies elsewhere.
The updates we see here are, I think, a great balance. Few Surface Pro 4 owners will feel compelled to upgrade, but that also means that their hardware investment was sound, and that their device will look/feel modern for some time to come. For new customers, the new Surface Pro offers just enough refinement to justify another look.
Microsoft was likewise pragmatic about the new Surface Pen. On the one hand, it no longer bundles the Pen with Surface Pro, and I was told that very few customers (about 30 percent) ever use the peripheral. But on the other, Surface Pen is incredibly important to those Surface Pro 4 users who do use the peripheral, and the new version is much improved.
The other issue that doesn’t get enough attention, I think, is Microsoft’s pledge to retain peripheral compatibility across Surface generations. This nod to enterprises is important for Microsoft’s core customer base, and these businesses can now mix and match existing Surface Pro 4 deployments with new Surface Pros, and never need to worry about an employee uprising.
It’s also important to remember that the Surface Pro design is sound, and has stood the test of time. Microsoft may not have invented the 2-in-1 form factor, but it certainly formalized and popularized this design, as evidenced by all the outright copies out there in the world, from every single PC maker. And again, the software giant is always free to experiment with new form factors and technologies elsewhere.
The only thing I’m bothered by here, ultimately, is that Microsoft isn’t doing what it normally does so well by providing a half-step to the future by starting to incorporate USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 while retaining the old Surface Connect and USB 3 ports. This is what some other PC makers are doing, and those individuals who wish to switch from the traditional charging and docking solution to USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 will see big benefits. That this is missing from Surface entirely is a shame, and Microsoft’s tone deaf response to the complaints is, frankly, embarrassing.
Ultimately, I like what I see here for the most part. And I suspect that this device will meet the needs of many users for years to come. The only question now is whether the sales mix shifts to favor Surface Laptop, a device that is arguably more in keeping with the mass market of PC users than a 2-in-1. The next year could be interesting, assuming we ever hear from Microsoft about how that internal battle goes.
But we do have a nice hint at Microsoft’s expectations: As I noted in Microsoft Announces New Surface Pro, Surface Pen, and Signature Type Covers, the software giant is for the first time marketing Surface Pro as a laptop, because that is how must customers actually use the device.
You gotta give the people what they want.