Thinking About Surface 3 and the Future

Thinking About Surface 3 and the Future

With Microsoft set to end Surface 3 manufacturing this year—Brad broke that story last night—I have a few thoughts about the end of this little device and what Microsoft might have planned for the future.

The presumption, of course, is that Microsoft would follow-up Surface 3 with—wait for it—Surface 4, and there are many theories about what improvements such a device might bring: Faster, possibly Core M-based, processors, USB-C connectivity (which Microsoft should bring to all Surface devices and drop its pointless and proprietary Surface Connector), and, most important, faster storage.

Those are all good ideas. They’re also a bit too obvious, I think.

By which I mean, yes, maybe Microsoft will release a Surface 4. If it does so, it should release that device before the December 2016 end of manufacturing date that we just found out about. That way, consumers and students who wish to buy such a device won’t face an availability gap. After all, you can still buy Surface Pro 3 today, and Surface Pro 4 has been in market since last November.

But maybe Microsoft won’t release a Surface 4. Maybe, just maybe, Surface phone—one of the biggest open secret in Microsoft’s history—is the device that replaces Surface 4.

Think about it.

While the strategy has evolved somewhat since the first devices were announced in 2012, Surface has always been about two things: Bringing innovation and Apple-style premium quality to the PC industry. And do so by inventing new form factors and usage cases.

Surface 3 doesn’t achieve any of that, not really. It’s just a cost-reduced, mini-sized version of Surface Pro. And with the new emphasis on the premium part of the Surface strategy, I’ve been wondering what role a non-Pro Surface could play going forward.

Critics of this thinking will point out, and rightfully so, that Surface 3 is important because it provides a way for cash-constrained consumers, especially students, to buy into the Surface lineup and receive some modicum of Surface quality.

But Surface really isn’t about doing things in half measures. Constrained by its super-slow eMMC storage and paltry Intel Atom processor, not to mention its Fisher Price-sized screen, Surface 3 isn’t a baby BMW. It’s a Cadillac Cimarron. By which I mean it’s a fake, something that looks like a Surface but does not embody the ideals of Surface.

Surface phone—which Mary Jo Foley feels should really be thought of as “Surface Mobile,” an excellent idea—certainly comes with its own issues, not the least of which is its ARM-based Windows 10 Mobile OS, which is incompatible with the Windows desktop applications we all know and love. But Surface phone could also address the inherent unSurfaceness, if you will, of Surface 3.

That is, Surface phone could bring innovation and Apple-style premium quality to the PC industry, and do so by inventing new form factors and usage cases. Instead of being a smaller, cost-reduced Surface Pro, Surface phone could be a 2-in-1 device that transforms between a phone and PC.

That this is already being done by HP with the upcoming Elite x3 shouldn’t be an issue: HP is targeting businesses exclusively with that device and will rely on complex and costly datacenter-based virtualization technologies to deliver Windows desktop applications. Microsoft doesn’t need to worry about such things: A Surface phone, constrained by the available UWP apps in the Windows Store would be just enough computing for most students, something that is about as simple as, but in some ways more powerful than, an iPad Pro. Oh, and lookee here: It’s a phone too.

What physical form this could take is open to debate. HP is shipping a desktop dock for the x3, and an empty laptop shell that connects wirelessly. Microsoft might do the same—it already has the dock—but … it might not. Perhaps its empty shell is a tablet design with a removable keyboard cover. It could look and work just like Surface 3, actually. Surface Pen support? Obviously.

But the specifics don’t matter. Panos Panay and his team have been working for over a year on Surface phone, and the memory of Surface mini is still fresh: A Surface phone needs to fill a real gap in the product lineup, have some potential for success, and must be unique in the market, and trigger PC makers to ape the design in their own products. Surface 3 didn’t really achieve any of this. It was just cheaper in every sense of the word, and that is not what Surface is all about.

Remember. PC makers already offer many excellent low-cost PCs, some of which cost as little as $200. Surface, like Apple, has no business being in that market. But a Surface phone that could transform into a real tablet or PC? Now that is something interesting, at least, and something that could justify the prices Surface 3 now commands. And that device could be a great follow-up to Surface 3.

Whatever Microsoft does next in this space, I just hope its more compelling than a cheap Surface Pro.


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