After wasting a precious year foisting low-end Lumias on an uninterested customer base, Microsoft is taking a different tack. And it’s not just phones: With its Band fitness wearable and, most important, its new Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book hybrids, Microsoft is shooting for the high-end of the market. And in doing so, it is providing a much-missed sense of leadership.
This is a fantastic idea. And I write that knowing full well that some previous attempts at cracking what has traditionally been Apple’s spot in the market have met with abject failure. The reason is simple: Microsoft is no longer encumbered by having to outsell Apple or other high-end device makers. Instead, these businesses—many of which now fall under the watchful and detail-oriented eye of Panos Panay—only have one goal: Create aspirational devices that turn a profit.
So Microsoft knows that its new curved Microsoft Band fitness wearable isn’t going to outsell Fitbit, Apple Watch, or any other device you consider a competitor. Instead, Microsoft has taken the most sensor-laden wearable ever made and has almost humorously turned it up a notch with an 11th sensor (barometer) and an attractive new design. And by pricing it at $250, it is undercutting more expensive competition while offering better functionality and—and this is the important bit, I think—ignoring the money-losing mass audience part of the market.
Microsoft knows, too, that its elegant new Lumia 950 and 950 XL handsets will reach only a limited audience, and it doesn’t matter. (Nor does it have anything to do with AT&T/Microsoft Store exclusivity here in the U.S.) Priced at $550 and $650, respectively, the 950 and 950 XL undercut the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy Whatever They’re Called This Year by $200 per model. And they offer a superior OS platform, excellent cameras, and unique Windows Hello sign-in and Continuum capabilities. These phones are step towards the future, not “the future.” But they are differentiated from the competition, and serve as a guide for others to follow. Best of all—and again, this is important—they are not cheap, throwaway phones. Microsoft, you are forgiven for the entire past year. Sort of.
The new Surface devices are even more exciting.
Surface Pro 4 starts at $900 supposedly, but we’re really talking over $1000 for unit that includes a necessary Type Cover, and over $1400 for an acceptable version with a Core i5 processor and gobs of RAM and storage. In a world in which you can buy a 13-inch MacBook Air for under $1000, that pricing isn’t just high-end, it’s confident. It’s Microsoft believing—no,knowing—that it has the superior product. It’s a statement that hybrid PCs aren’t just a thing, they are the future of the fricking PC, people. So pay attention: Microsoft is leading in this space, and other PC makers—you know, the guys that were falling all over themselves to criticize Microsoft’s entry into this market—are now falling all over themselves to copy Surface. And that includes Apple, the biggest hypocrite of them all. You can talk about leadership all you want, but that’s how you can tell a leader: Everyone else is following them. And everyone else—the whole rotten lot of them—is following Surface.
Which brings me, of course, to Surface Book.
I’ve been asking for this product. You’ve been asking for this product. Hell, apparently everyonehas been asking for this product, based on the news I received last night that preorders for Surface Book are higher than for any previous Surface device. This, as Panos Panay, so aptly explained, is Microsoft redefining yet another market.
And that is why I love this thing. Yes, I will quibble with individual bits of, the weirdness of Surface Book not closing completely when in transit, and the curious thickness of its hybrid design. But I never thought that Microsoft would really bother with a laptop-type design since this market is already so well-established. And being proven wrong in this way is so wonderful.
Surface Book shows that Microsoft can still take a hard look at something we’ve all grown pretty comfortable with and just take it apart from the inside and turn it into something new, something potentially better. It is, like Surface Pro 4, an expensive device—it starts at $1500 … yes, startsat $1500—and goes all the way up to $2700 for the Ferrari model. But that’s the price of innovation, the price of leadership, and the price of leading edge. This is new, this is different, and this is … exciting. It’s fricking exciting.
And that’s true whether I end up using one or not. Microsoft could have backed into a corner and hid, it could have released me-too devices and evolutionary updates, it could have bidden its time for some future usage transition that maybe, just maybe, it could be part of for a change. Or it could simply lead us into the future that it invents, instead of one contrived by some competitor.
Think about it. This is the year that Apple announced an embarrassing Surface rip-off called iPad Pro. And the year in which Microsoft side-stepped those clowns and kept pushing forward.
Tell me this doesn’t excite you.