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.
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?
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.
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.
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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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