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Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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Microsoft Surface: Why More Is More

Microsoft may debut an expanded lineup of Surface tablets on May 20 -- including a bigger model. This could be just what Microsoft's tablets need to finally succeed.

Microsoft's May 20 Surface event in New York reportedly will include not only the long-awaited Surface Mini, which is expected use a Qualcomm processor and run Windows RT, but also at least one additional product that uses an Intel chip.

This expanded Surface family, should it appear, could be precisely what Microsoft's struggling device efforts need to get going. Sure, the Surface Mini alone would be a newsworthy play, but what if, as some have speculated, we also see a larger version of the Surface Pro?

If your first thought is, "Poor, doomed Microsoft, taking a failed idea, and making it bigger," let me explain.

[What will tomorrow's Windows look like? Read Microsoft Windows' Future: 8 Revelations.]

For anything but the lightest tasks, I wouldn't recommend the slow-as-molasses $249 Surface RT unless I wanted to sabotage someone. The Surface Pro is much nicer, but its fixed-position kickstand and poor battery life are deal breakers. I give Microsoft credit for the Power Cover, a keyboard accessory that boosts battery life, but $200? Good grief.

Microsoft's second-generation devices are significantly better, built with top-notch components, faster than their predecessors, and, thanks to a two-step kickstand, surprisingly more versatile. But it's easier than it should be to max out the Surface 2, and with a base price of $449, Microsoft should include a keyboard. The Surface Pro 2, meanwhile, refines the original's strengths but retains its biggest flaw: The device is ideal for only a certain breed of on-the-go user.

Will Microsoft debut a bigger, more powerful Surface Pro?
Will Microsoft debut a bigger, more powerful Surface Pro?

Specifically, if you need a small, light touchscreen device but don't want a pure tablet, and if you need to type but only in limited spurts, a Surface might satisfy your needs. But for almost everyone else, convergence isn't worth the compromise. If you like tablets, iPads and Android tablets offer richer experiences than the Surfaces, which distinguish themselves from other slates mostly by being more like laptops. If you're even a semi-heavy laptop user, you'll want a bigger keyboard and screen than Surfaces provide.

Even Microsoft doesn't know exactly what the Surfaces are. Its Office 365 Personal subscriptions allow you to categorize the Pro as either laptop or tablet. For some -- evidently few -- this flexibility sounds awesome. For the rest of us it's neither fish nor fowl.

That's why an expanded lineup makes sense. Microsoft hinged its original Surface bet on one size, but as the company's continued hardware losses testify, that design doesn't have mass-market appeal. It's fine for Microsoft to include niche products in its offerings, but base an entire product line around them? No, that won't work.

A Surface Mini and a larger Surface Pro would substantially broaden the product family's appeal; convergence would still be there for those who want it, but the line-up would also include a pure tablet play, as well as a performance-oriented machine that genuinely deserves the "Pro" designation.

As for the Surface Mini, don't be surprised if Microsoft offers a high-quality build while still undercutting the $299 non-Retina iPad Mini. Microsoft launched all its previous Surface devices at stubbornly high prices, but that was under retired CEO Steve Ballmer, who seemed determined to compete head-to-head with Apple.

New CEO Satya "Microsoft is an underdog" Nadella is in charge now. With all his talk of holistic strategies, Nadella might position the Surface Mini as a financial loss leader that feeds high-margin properties such as Office 365, and Microsoft Azure.

In a recent interview with Fox Business, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates alluded to such a strategy. Asked about Surface profitability, he remarked,

"[T]he hardware business, you're never going to have the kind of profitability you have in the pure software business." The point? Microsoft leaders know Surfaces will produce lousy margins but believe a device's value isn't confined to its profit; rather, it's defined by lifetime benefits such as app purchases and subscriptions for cloud services. That's the holistic logic Nadella's been advocating.

If the Surface Mini's rumored high-precision stylus is as advanced as alleged, Microsoft might feel bolder about pricing, of course. But if Microsoft truly wants to throw down the gauntlet, it could integrate Windows Phone 8.1's Cortana into the Surface Mini, and thus into the moribund Windows RT operating system. Whatever happens, if Microsoft is serious about making its own tablets, the Mini would be an important step.

A bigger Surface, though less certain to appear, would be important, too. Apple, whose Mac business makes up in profit what it lacks in market share, dominates the market for $1000-plus computing devices. With a 13-inch, high-performance Surface, Microsoft could gain share in this coveted space.

New CEO Satya Nadella has been impressive. But he hasn't yet put his stamp on Microsoft's device strategies.
New CEO Satya Nadella has been impressive. But he hasn't yet put his stamp on Microsoft's device strategies.

Yes, a bigger Surface would be shackled by Windows 8.1, but again, today's Surface Pros are more limited by their design than the operating system. With the recent update, Windows 8.1 is highly usable, and, with a few tweaks it's not that hard to learn if you're coming from an earlier version. The new Start menu can't get here fast enough, but a number of Microsoft's recent changes, such as the new ability to treat Modern and legacy apps similarly on the taskbar, go a surprisingly long way.

The Surface's bigger problem is its performance. When I know I'll need to work while wedged into a subway seat, I bring my Surface Pro because my bulky Lenovo laptop is too big for crammed conditions, and because there's no way I'm going to touch type a full article on an iPad. Likewise, if I'm at an event and need to carry around a camera, I might bring the Surface so I can fit everything in one bag. But in all cases, I'm trading portability for productivity. When I'm not in these specific scenarios, I drop the Surface for a less-compromised machine. This wouldn't necessarily be the case with a slightly bigger model, because Intel's newest low-wattage Core chips should enable Microsoft to boost performance and screen size without adding too much heft.

As always, this sort of speculation comes with a grain of salt. Bloomberg, ZDNet, and other publications with good track records for pre-release Microsoft details say the Mini is coming, with a smaller number reporting that multiple devices will debut on May 20. This speculation about a larger Surface Pro seems to have come out of thin air, although a few Windows commentators with close Microsoft ties, including Paul Thurrott, have joined the conversation.

It's possible Microsoft will use both Qualcomm and Intel chips because it plans to release two versions of the Mini, one with Windows RT and one with Windows 8.1. But even if that's the case, don't be surprised to see a larger device down the road.

It's worth mentioning that Nadella might appear at the Surface event. His predecessor, Steve Ballmer, didn't travel to New York last year to introduce the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, but Nadella is in a different position. He's been impressive so far, quelling investor and customer concerns left over from the Ballmer era. But his praised strategies relate to enterprise services and the cloud, areas firmly within his wheelhouse. He hasn't demonstrated the same skill and vision with hardware, but if he's eager to put his stamp on the Surface line, surprise product announcements aren't a bad way to start.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Michael Endler joined InformationWeek as an associate editor in 2012. He previously worked in talent representation in the entertainment industry, as a freelance copywriter and photojournalist, and as a teacher. Michael earned a BA in English from Stanford University in 2005 ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Strategist
5/10/2014 | 9:23:55 AM
Poor, doomed Microsoft, taking a failed idea, and making it bigger


Yes, Michael.


I totally agree.


And reading your article, even more so!
User Rank: Guru
5/10/2014 | 10:50:07 AM
We gave up on you, Microsoft -- when will you give up on us?
All the real reasons we hate Windows 8 still persist -- those crappy charms, two different control panels, very difficult to navigate Metro apps, a janky App Store clone being the only way to patch the thing...

This whole thing is like having a lover who is saddled with a horrible addiction and claims, "Oh but I can change!"  AND NEVER DOES.  Only minimal strides towards getting clean -- and then a complete relapse.  The hell continues.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 12:41:13 PM
They should just call it a laptop and be done with it.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 12:42:48 PM
Not so fast re disrespecting the Surface Pro. My wife and I both love ours.  I am a doctor and do all my charting, orders, etc with patients in the exam room in a natural face-to-face encounter with the person. I am not turned away looking at a computer monitor.  I use the built in microphone for Dragon Naturally Speaking.  My wife works out of the home and also does a lot of business travel, all with one computer.  We both use docking stations when at a desk, it has an elegant and quick in/out design.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 1:08:33 PM
You are right... people who complain about it have probably just not even tried it.... I have a laptop, a Surface pro and a Windows phone... all working very well and in sync.... Windows 8.1 works well... only some people won't be able to acknowledge that because they are still in their cave eating an apple... and paying through their nose for it too.... By the way I use Dragon 12.5 for my thesis and it works great... on my Surface pro...
User Rank: Ninja
5/10/2014 | 2:38:49 PM
It's interesting: Microsoft has long let hardware partners make the products for its software. Now, we might be seeing why. The company is weak in designing hardware. Sure, I know that they have used contract manufacturers to make the Surface happen. But they also did the same with the Xbox and that worked out. 

What's so different about tablets? It's a totally different form factor. At least the Xbox was like a desktop computer, not a revolutionary type of product. I think that Microsoft will figure about the Surface at some point. But with competitors like Samsung and Motorola, it's unlikely that they are going to be able to make up ground anytime soon. 
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 3:34:55 PM
"Microsoft may debut an expanded lineup of Surface tablets on May 20 -- including a bigger model."


Why so we can see that garbage of a UI even better.
C DavidB235
C DavidB235,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 4:57:44 PM
Re: We gave up on you, Microsoft -- when will you give up on us?

Wow - so sorry about you love life. Realy hope life gets better for you soon.
User Rank: Apprentice
5/10/2014 | 7:42:48 PM
Re: Bigger????
I wanted the Pro, loaded, I really did.  But, alas, my disappointment was total.  It couldn't pass the "Restaurant Test".  This test is to play a medium-level avi movie in a crowded restaurant at FULL VOLUME.  If the people at the tables around me call in the manager to bitch about all the noise from the tablet, it passes!  The Surface Pro failed, miserably!  We couldn't even hear the movie at OUR TABLE, much less a table away!  Anything priced at over $1200 better damned well have BOSE-class speakers and a STEREO AUDIO AMPLIFIER way too loud to listen to at full volume!


What were they thinking??

User Rank: Apprentice
5/11/2014 | 10:43:59 AM
Competative edge or unfair advantage?
The ultimate laptop killer, a 14" Surface Pro with high res, windows 8.1, office 365, Intel chip, 6 gigs ram,  and a detachable key board with additional battery.   Give me the ability to plug it into a dock so I can run two displays and plug in the power at the same time, add WiGig and now it's the ultra portable laptop/desktop killer.  The tech is all there and I suspect many (I certainly) would gladly pay for such a competitive advantage.
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