So far, Microsoft's Surface Pro has exemplified failed tactics. What features will the company change to make its next Pro tablet more successful? Based on recent reports, not a lot. But the tweaks Microsoft is evidently making might still be enough to turn things around.
The next Surface Pro will reportedly run on Intel's fourth-generation Haswell Core i5 processer. The energy-efficient chips should address complaints about the current model's battery life. Today's Surface Pro shuts down after four to five hours, but the new model is expected to keep running for around seven hours. Details about the new Surface Pro were first reported by the website NeoWin and have since been corroborated by Windows blogger Paul Thurrott.
Microsoft will also reportedly release a new keyboard accessory called the Power Cover that will extend the device's battery life for several more hours. Microsoft hinted seven months ago that such an accessory was in the works.
[ Will the Surface be further challenged by a new breed of mobile devices? Read Tablet Sales Face Growing Threat From Smartwatches, Phablets. ]
According to Thurrott's sources, the Power Cover will be released before the end of the year but after the launch of new Surface devices. This timing suggests Microsoft will announce new tablets around the same time it releases Windows 8.1, which has already been released to manufacturers and will become generally available on October 18.
The reports also indicate the new Surface Pro will include 8 GB of RAM, twice as much as the current model, and a "refined" kickstand that, unlike today's version, can provide more than one viewing angle. A Microsoft patent, published September 5 but filed in October 2012, supports that the company plans to implement more versatile kickstands in future devices.
Aside from these enhancements, which are important but largely iterative and expected, the next device will allegedly maintain the current model's basic design, albeit with a slightly slimmer and lighter form factor. Existing accessories, such as the Type Cover and Touch Cover keyboards, should work on the next version.
Even if the device is a relatively modest upgrade, the strategy could make a certain amount of sense. The current Surface Pro, despite its modest sales, isn't a useless device so much as an interesting product marred by several distinct shortcomings. For some users, the expected battery life improvements alone might make a difference.
Still, it remains to be seen if the next Surface Pro can appeal to more than niche users. The new model's battery life will be an improvement, for instance, but without the Power Cover (for which Microsoft will almost certainly charge an extra $100 to $200) the device's longevity will still fall short of other tablets as well as Haswell-based laptops such as the MacBook Air.
The modified kickstand is another unknown. In an interview, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said enterprises consider the Surface Pro the most viable hybrid device but that not everyone likes the design of the hardware. She stated many users would prefer something more like a hard clamshell so the device is easier to use on one's lap in its notebook configuration. It's hard to predict if the kickstand will address this ergonomic issue. The Power Cover could also help; it is expected to be twice as heavy and thick as the current Type Cover, which might mean it's rigid enough to provide a firm base.
The Surface Pro follow-up will also reportedly lack LTE support. Such an omission is understandable if you think of the device as a laptop, but if you consider the Surface a tablet, the missing LTE support somewhat compromises the device's mobility.
Cost is another factor. Microsoft recently announced that the current Surface Pro's discounted price, which starts at $799 for the base 64-GB model without a keyboard, would be permanent. If the next device comes in at the same price, it could be a tough sell, especially since many users will resent being forced to buy a Power Cover simply to make the device as fully usable as competing options.
There's also Windows 8.1 to consider. The current edition of the OS has arguably inspired more critics than fans -- and if the updated version isn't meaningfully better, the next Surface Pro could still face challenges regardless of its price, specs or design. Based on a recent Forrester study, many users are interested in tablets with laptop-like functionality -- but they're more interested in using the tablet whose interface they most enjoy. The implication for the updated Surface Pro? If Windows 8.1 doesn't engage users, the device's hybrid qualities might not matter.
Milanesi expects holiday sales to be dominated by lower-end tablets and that the market for laptop-tablet hybrids will take off in 2014. She noted that some enterprise customers are interested in these 2-in-1 models because they allow IT to manage fewer devices than if employees carried separate laptops and tablets. For precisely this reason, some businesses and institutions, such as the DEA, have already been experimenting with Windows 8 devices.
In addition to the new Surface Pro, Microsoft is also expected to announce at least one new Surface model that runs Windows RT. The company has alluded to the new devices only in opaque terms; the only substantive official information has come from Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang, who confirmed that his company is working with Microsoft on a Surface RT follow-up. But numerous reports indicate that a second, smaller Surface RT model is also in the works. Nokia, whose device and services business Microsoft recently purchased, is also reportedly readying a Windows RT tablet with a detachable keyboard.
While the merits of the new tablets are still up in the air, it's clear that Microsoft, despite its recent struggles, is continuing to rush forward with its new "devices and services" strategy. Outgoing Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has suggested Windows 8's launch was marred by a lack of touch-optimized hardware. This year, the company should face no such dilemma.