Business Calls, Surface Answers

Posted on November 5, 2019 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 12 Comments

The new Surface PCs aren’t just designed for individuals. With this generation, they’re optimized for the needs of businesses, too.

Microsoft’s steady push to embrace businesses with Surface has been interesting to watch. The PCs have always had broad appeal, thanks to their modern designs and trend-setting form factors, and certain classes of business users—from C-level executives to those who spend much of their time on the road—-have responded accordingly from the beginning.

Those types of users are important for building brand awareness, but for Microsoft to be truly successful in business, it needed to meet the deployment and management needs of organizations that wish to roll out its products to large groups of users. And that has required improvements across the board, not just to the hardware itself but to the supporting software and services.

There will always be some work to do, of course. But as of the launch this past month of a new generation of hardware—Surface Pro 7, Surface Laptop 3, and Surface Pro X, plus Surface Earbuds, which ship in December—Microsoft is finally in a good position in all of these categories.

For this generation, Microsoft sought to address three key concerns that its business customers raised—USB-C across the board, better serviceability, and consistency with previously-purchased peripherals—while retaining all of the things that they already liked, including the design and build quality.

The degree to which Microsoft tackled these issues varies by machine. Surface Pro 7, as the 5th iteration of the iconic design that debuted with Surface Pro 3, has changed the least, and it doesn’t benefit from any new serviceability improvements. The rationale there, I suspect, is that customers wishing to upgrade to Pro 7 are more concerned with the consistency angle than with serviceability, and that those who are worried about the latter can consider the Surface Pro X, which features an all-new design with a unique take on serviceability: You can swap out its tiny SSD drive by popping open the SIM card tray.

But Surface Pro 7 is more carefully designed than you might think. In addition to working with previous generation Surface Pens, Type Covers, Surface Docks, and other peripherals, Microsoft specifically placed the USB-C port in the exact location formerly occupied by the miniDisplayPort port. This helps protect its customers’ investments in custom cases and mounts. It helps with users’ muscle memories, too. Plus, since USB-C is more versatile than miniDisplayPort, the addition isn’t just a change, it’s an improvement.

The most dramatic upgrade in the Surface lineup this year, to my mind, is Surface Laptop 3. And that’s an interesting statement given that it doesn’t appear to have changed at all from an external perspective. But what Microsoft accomplished here is impressive: Despite looking virtually identical to its predecessors, Surface Laptop 3 features a removable bottom that lets one replace the keyboard and SSD without destroying the Alcantara covering, if present, a huge problem with previous Laptops.

Some have complained that Microsoft’s newfound serviceability isn’t available to individuals and doesn’t apply to all of the internal components. This is only half true: Surface is serviceable specifically for businesses, and not for individuals, but those hardy enough to consider taking apart a Laptop 3, for example, will be able to do so. As for the second complaint, that’s fair—you can’t swap out the RAM or battery—but the firm just launched its first serviceable products ever. This is a journey, and Microsoft wanted to retain the strengths of previous Surface models, including remaining consistent, while hitting on the biggest pain points. We can expect the serviceability story to continue improving over time.

Speaking of room for improvement, Microsoft still doesn’t offer a formal hardware and peripheral support agreement to its enterprise customers that ensures compatibility across multiple generations of products, as do more established players like Dell and HP. But the Surface team told me today that this kind of support is implicit, and that the backward compatibility bit—which they think of as consistency—is baked into the design process. That is, the efforts I described above help to explain why Surface Dock and other peripherals just continue working as customers upgrade the PCs to new models.

Those customers also asked for more control. So Microsoft has, over time, moved its Surface firmware efforts in-house as part of what it called Project Mu, and it now provides businesses with Device Firmware Configuration Interface (DFCI) controls that can lock down specific hardware features using SCCM, Auto Pilot, or whatever management tools they prefer. That’s a far cry from the early days when some business customers literally were drilling out the front webcam to prevent IP theft. And Microsoft cited an interesting case were a school no longer needs to collect Surface PCs at the end of the school year and then redeploy them at the beginning of the next: It can now update the PCs remotely during the break instead.

Looking forward, Microsoft will continue to try and innovate with new form factors, most obviously the dual-screen Surface Neo and Surface Duo devices. There’s been some quibbling in enthusiast quarters about Microsoft’s decision to adopt Android for Duo, but the Surface team looks at this as it being pragmatic: Android makes sense because of the apps and store, but it can put its own UX and integration bits on top, and give customers the experience they expect.

We’ll need to wait until late 2020 or beyond to discover whether these new dual-screen designs resonate with customers. But I feel like the product line is in a good place today. And that its improved focus on businesses is smart, will be successful, and will ultimately benefit individual customers as well.

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