The Real Story Behind Microsoft’s Surface Success

Business Insider this week is providing an uplifting story about the success of Microsoft's Surface business. But I have a number of issues with this narrative. Here's what they left out.

First, if you're a Microsoft fan, it's worth reading How Microsoft built a computer so good, even Apple wanted to copy it. Like many attempts at humanizing tech product development, it's told a bit breathlessly. But it leaves out crucial details, no doubt because it was written with the cooperation of its subject, which is more interested in narrative than truth.

As important, the very premise of the article kind of sucks. "Even" Apple wanted to copy it? Really?

No offense to today's tech press, but Apple has been doing little but copying since it shipped the admittedly innovative iPhone. It copied mini tablets to make the iPad mini. It copied phablets to make the iPhone Plus. It copied several other wearables and watches to make Apple Watch. And, yes, it copied Microsoft Surface to make iPad Pro.

But then so did Google for its Pixel C. And so did every single major PC maker on earth.

And that's after accounting for the fact that Microsoft didn't even invent the 2-in-1 form factor in the first place. Here, the credit we can give Microsoft is the same we can give Apple for those products I claim it copied: It formalized the 2-in-1 product segment and gave its partners and competitors a guide for getting it right.

But what Business Insider won't tell you about Surface under Satya Nadella is that he handed Surface new marching orders when he took over Microsoft. And Surface was not initially very interested in changing its ways.

First, Nadella was pushing a "One Microsoft" vision where individual brands---Windows, Office, whatever---were not as important as is Microsoft. And in this case specifically that meant removing Surface branding from Surface and replacing it with Microsoft branding. As a rare remaining member of the pre-Nadella old guard, Panos Panay fought this, as he wanted to keep Surface's identity.

He lost that battle. Surface Pro 3, which was in development before Nadella took over, was the last Surface to feature prominent Surface branding. All subsequent devices---Surface 3, Surface Pro 4, and Surface Book---are branded with Microsoft logos instead.

And Panay has apparently come around on this topic, with the article noting that "Panay says that Microsoft doesn't even talk in terms of 'software' or 'hardware' anymore, just the products that they make." That adaptability is why he's still there.

Second, the transition from the ARM-based Windows RT to Windows x86 is presented as a very logical and customer-focused move. "Instead of the now discontinued Windows RT, [Surface 3] ran full Windows 8.1, meaning it could run old apps and new. As Panay has said in interviews, that change came directly from customer frustration with Windows RT ... Windows RT was way too limited for that."

But this article never even men...

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