It’s easy to forget now, but Microsoft’s first Surface was a huge risk. By diving into the PC market, Microsoft competed with its Windows partners. By combining laptop and tablet, it tried to create a whole new device category. And by designing new software for Arm-powered Windows computers, it bet the mobile era would change the way laptops work and the way people use them.
Microsoft didn’t get it right and it took a few years for the Surface line to really take off. But ten years later, you can’t argue with the results: the Surface worked. Not only did the whole idea of ”attach a keyboard to your tablet and now it’s a laptop” became commonplace in the industry, but Surface also became big business for Microsoft. The Surface Studio is still one of the most ambitious desktop PCs ever made, and even the more straightforward Surface Laptop is a winner. The Surface Pro 8 is a little expensive, but it’s one of the best Windows PCs you can buy.
After ten years you can’t beat the results: the Surface worked
Microsoft will be announcing a range of new Surface products this week to mark the product’s 10th anniversary. Rumors and leaks suggest we could see a new Surface Studio and a Surface Laptop 5 and Surface Pro 9 with some performance improvements. They will certainly be beautiful devices and worthy competitors in the ever-crowded Windows market.
The timing of this event is both appalling and tempting for Microsoft. Awful because the PC market is in dire straits after a massive pandemic boost – everyone bought new computers in 2020 and 2021, it seems, and hasn’t been looking for another upgrade so far). Tempting because the market is once again in need of a big new idea about how PCs should work. Microsoft once reinvented them; is it possible again?
In recent years, Microsoft has shown a number of devices that may fit the bill. In 2019, it made a big push toward dual-screen and foldable devices with the Surface Pro X, Surface Neo, and Surface Duo. The Surface Neo died before it hit the market, while the Surface Duo has steadily gotten better in recent years.
The Surface Pro X was the most interesting announcement of that event – an excellent next-generation PC, thinner and cooler and with arm strength – but it just couldn’t escape its app compatibility and performance issues. However, Microsoft has been interested in these types of devices since the Courier days, and as foldable phones keep getting better and better, we probably haven’t seen Microsoft’s latest efforts here.
The other device that Microsoft hasn’t quite discovered yet is the Surface Go, the smaller, lighter and cheaper model in the lineup. The Go could and should be Microsoft’s best answer to the iPad and Chromebook – a tablet-like tablet with all the extra productivity that comes with Windows. However, even the third-generation Surface Go was crippled by its high price and poor battery life. Microsoft hasn’t quite struck the balance between performance, portability, and price yet.
In order for Microsoft to once again push the boundaries of the PC market, it needs to figure out how Arm-powered Windows computers work. It must continue to work on devices like the Pro X, because that’s where the future goes. The gap between phones and computers is narrowing and people want laptops that boot faster, last longer and work anywhere. Because Arm processors work more efficiently and communicate with mobile connections, Arm-powered devices can come in all sorts of thinner, lighter, and more interesting shapes. But of course nobody cares unless those devices work. That means fixing battery life issues, it means improving overall Windows performance on these less powerful chips, and most importantly, fixing app compatibility.
Obviously this hasn’t been lost at Microsoft – the company just hasn’t done very well. The company has been working on several “Windows on Arm” projects for years and even built a native Arm version of Visual Studio and the “Project Volterra” developer kit that developers can use to test their apps on Arm systems. Microsoft has also tried again and again to create a “lighter” version of Windows: first it was Windows RT, then it was Windows 10X, but neither could succeed without a better app ecosystem.
Windows 11 brought some of those lightweight vibes to the overall OS, and the most recent OS update improves the situation even further. The Windows Store also continues to grow. You would never confuse Windows with something like iPadOS or ChromeOS when it comes to simplicity and efficiency, but Microsoft is heading in the right direction here.
What the market needs from Microsoft – which it has needed for years – is a true flagship Arm device. The one that gets it right, that pairs performance and battery, and makes it clear that the era of the ultra-mobile, ultra-functional PC is really here. That’s what would drive developers to make their apps work on those devices, manufacturers to actually invest in Arm devices, and users to rethink the way their laptops fit into their lives.
Whether the hardware, the software or the chips are ready to make that leap is hard to say. But that’s where things go. And if Microsoft wants Surface’s second decade to be even bigger and more important than the first, that’s where it needs to go.
What if that device happened to have two screens or fold in some rad and new way? I wouldn’t complain about that either.