Plunging hardware sales. A stone-cold PC market. A content creation renaissance. An AI-powered future. Throughout all of this, Microsoft’s Surface lineup has remained pretty much unchanged for years. Shouldn’t Microsoft be doing something about it?
It likely is. But that still doesn’t excuse Microsoft leadership from recycling the same Surface devices, over and over and over. Microsoft launched the original Surface in 2012 to set new standards for the PC market. But lately it’s looking more and more like other laptop manufacturers are blazing a trail, and Microsoft has let Surface devices lag behind.
Microsoft knows this. Its fourth-quarter earnings report detailed problems launching Surface devices, and executives said that falling device sales would actually accelerate into this quarter. Meanwhile, chief executive Satya Nadella said “changes to our hardware portfolio” would be coming in a layoff memo he authored.
Put simply, Surface is stale and needs a reboot.
Microsoft has released five different Surface Laptops, about one per year since 2017, and if you place them next to one another, you would be hard-pressed to tell them apart. Ditto for the Surface Pro series, on its tenth iteration. Since the Surface Pro 3, they’ve been virtually indistinguishable save for changes in ports and thickness.
Surface has always embraced something of a dichotomy. Throughout Surface’s history, chief product officer Panos Panay—who helped introduce the Surface RT and Pro in 2012—has said the Surface hardware is just a showcase for the operating system. “The hardware fades to the background… so that the software can rise to the surface,” Panay said at the original launch.
Mark Hachman / IDG
But at the same time, Surface hardware has set out to lead the PC industry, not just exist within it. Panay said the Surface was “something new, something different,” in a 2018 interview with Fast Company. “We built a business, and we have to grow that business,” he said. “And we are. Are we here to inspire? The answer’s also yes.”
Microsoft should be credited for taking risks, and inspiring rival PC makers to explore new form factors. Microsoft’s Surface Studio lineup, for example, received wide praise for its massive touch display, which made content creation and consumption an absolute joy. But the problem is that once Microsoft establishes a product, it rarely strives to improve upon it other than processor upgrades and other small changes. The thinking seems to be that each successful Surface is essentially a hole-in-one.
Compare recent reviews of Surface laptops or tablets from across the Internet, and a common theme emerges: Surfaces are kind of boring these days.
Competitors are leading the way
I’m not saying Microsoft doesn’t experiment. The Surface Pro X survived two iterations before being pulled into the Surface Pro lineup as an always-connected version. We know that there was a canceled Surface Mini, and a Surface Neo, and that Microsoft updated the Surface Duo 2 to address its critics.
But compare the Surface lineup to what we’ve seen recently from other OEMs. Cases in point: the Lenovo Yoga Book 9i, a wacky book-like dual-screen laptop, and the Asus ProArt StudioBook 16, with its wild 3D OLED display. History tells us customers tend to be conservative about what they buy, so it’s possible that the Yoga Book won’t escape the sorry fate of something like Acer’s dual-screen Iconia, circa 2010.
In all fairness, the Yoga Book is reminiscent of the never-released Surface Neo, with its slide-over keyboard. So I’m willing to concede Microsoft may have succeeded in inspiring, even though it declined to bring a Neo to market. Still, it’s the exception to the rule.
What we’ve seen from rival laptop manufacturers, though, is that even small changes can translate into signature updates. Hearken back to 2016, and HP’s Spectre was winning Editor’s Choice awards for thin lines and competitive performance. HP’s Spectre x360 (2021) did as well, but with an abbreviated back corner that housed a Thunderbolt 4 port. Aesthetically, that Spectre is like nothing else on the market, combining functionality with a distinctive look that helps define it as a Spectre.
We did acknowledge that the Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio “feels like the future,” and its 120Hz display has been followed up by the competition. That’s what we’re hoping to see more of.
To be fair, Microsoft’s hardware woes are bigger than just Surface, which is also victim to the worst PC market maybe ever. The “Devices” business includes the troubled HoloLens, which reports have already claimed is dead; the rather iffy Surface Duo; and the Xbox, which also suffered revenue declines. The Surface business undoubtedly makes up a huge portion of Devices revenue, however it all shakes out.
But the perfect storm that helped sink Microsoft’s Devices business this quarter represents a perfect opportunity for Microsoft to reinvent the Surface. And the company should not make it larger (like the Surface Hub), or smaller (the Surface Go), or cheaper (the Surface Laptop Go) or some variation on the theme. Instead, Microsoft has a chance to reimagine Surface entirely.
What this means is that Microsoft is going to have to embrace what its Windows business is rediscovering: creativity.
Mark Hachman / IDG
The role of AI
The AI-powered Microsoft Designer and Clipchamp’s video editor simply feel different than other Microsoft apps. They’re alive, and pulse with a vibrancy that Microsoft’s other apps lack. If Microsoft’s mission for Surface is to showcase an innovative software experience, then it’s missing an opportunity. Microsoft needs to step forward and embrace its own creative renaissance.
Start asking these questions: What can Microsoft do to empower creators? Is that tool the Surface Laptop Studio, the Surface Studio, or something else? Fans have been clamoring for a standalone Studio monitor for years. Is now the time?
The largest question of all is one that Microsoft and many others may be brainstorming right now: What does an AI-powered PC look like? If Microsoft is inventing in OpenAI and retooling itself to empower all of its consumer and business apps with AI capabilities, how does that effort inform new hardware? Do we see Windows evolve into a translation platform between English and native code? Microsoft’s Nadella noted that Microsoft’s Power platform would gain AI capabilities, so you’ll be able to write apps by simply describing what they’ll do. Does that imply a future where we dictate our own applications?
Keep in mind that these are criticisms, not condemnations. At the launch of the Surface Pro 3, Panay addressed the haters. “By the way, we’ve read plenty of negative [coverage], and we learn and we take and we grow and we feed, and we get better,” he said then.
We’d expect nothing less. It feels like Microsoft is on the cusp of….something. What Microsoft and Panay will have to decide is, will Surface lead or follow?