Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Microsoft Surface Pro 3

So I've been a horrible blog author and have neglected this site for far to long. It's not that I haven't had anything to say, I've just neglected to say it. So with an attempt to get back on the wagon, here's some thoughts on Microsoft's announcement yesterday for it's Surface Pro 3.

Despite being a minor Apple fanboy, the most interesting company to watch, in the personal computing space right now, is Microsoft. With the departure of Steve Ballmer, and the rise of Satya Nadella, it has been an interesting 9 months for one of the founding pioneers of personal technology. Many agree that Windows 8 has not lived up to what Microsoft would like it to be. They made a bold attempt to redefine how users interact with their computers, and merge the tablet and desktop experience. However, that experiment, by most accounts, has failed. This is a common pattern for Microsoft however, alternating between a mediocre OS release, and then a stellar one. Therefore, it's probably a good bet that Windows 9, and all the changes to accommodate both tablet and desktop UX's, will be a much more solid play.

Yesterday, Microsoft decided to make another play, one that is aimed squarely at Apple and its incredibly popular MacBook Air line of laptops. Before I delve into thoughts about the Surface Pro 3, I wanted to make a comment on something that I think may hurt Microsoft in the long term. The premise that Microsoft presented, in their unveiling, is that consumers are faced with a choice when they walk into a computer store, namely; do they buy a laptop or do they buy a tablet? They cited the fact that 96% of MacBook owners also own a tablet. Their goal with the Surface Pro 3 was to end that debate by giving users a device that can act as both.

The issue that I take with this path of logic, is that in their attempt to position the Surface Pro 3, they've set up a straw man argument that only works if there exists only one size and type of tablet. There were rumors for months before this event, that Microsoft was going to enter the mini tablet world with a 7 or 8 inch Surface tablet. However, if you're going to make an argument that you only need one device, then diversifying your tablet line to include a device that cannot perform as a laptop, goes counter to your argument. After yesterday, all signs point to the Surface mini being delayed or potentially scrapped. Instead Microsoft is betting that the Surface Pro 3 can replace both your laptop, and hopefully displace your use of a tablet such as the 10" iPad.

As someone who has in the past, attempted to use my 10" iPad as a laptop, and have found it lacking for various reasons, this seems like a good tactic. However, I've switched over to using an iPad Mini as my tablet of choice, and it meets a much different need better than a larger tablet ever could. So at the end of the day, I'm still probably going to end up with both a laptop and a tablet. The difference is that they each end up with a much better defined purpose, and use, in my digital toolbox.

So if we turn to the Surface Pro 3, and look at it as a dual-purpose device, I think it has some potential. As a laptop it appears to have all the power of a really good quality device, and paired with their new pro keyboard, it seems to be able to play the laptop role quite well. I'm looking forward to checking one out at the Microsoft Store sometime. The hinge change and adjustment to where the keyboard attaches makes for some interesting possibilities for use, and appears to be a very comfortable device. On the tablet side, the addition of the pen, with its integrated abilities for note taking is aimed directly at the user to attends a lot of meetings and prefers the ability to 'write' their notes as opposed to typing them.

However, as a straight up tablet, a 12" size makes for a rather large device, and I think that it will limit its usefulness. A screen that large would not be comfortable for most 'lounging' tablet activities, and is not portable enough to slip into a small bag or purse for easy transport. Again, this is where I feel Microsoft boxed themselves into a corner, by not acknowledging the power and usefulness of the smaller tablet form factor. Perhaps the appeal of larger screen touch-enabled gaming will form a market of its own, but I'm not sure if that would be enough to off-set the detriments of a 12" form factor.

So my assessment (pre-hands on) is that the Surface Pro 3 is a really nice ultralight laptop, that can sometimes act as a tablet for limited uses. Its usefulness as a straight-up tablet is hindered by its size and lack of portability. I hope that Microsoft realizes this, and enters the mini-tablet market, because everything I've seen of the Surface line is impressive, showing that they know how to make good solid hardware. Like I said previously, this is certainly one of the most interesting companies to watch currently.