If Microsoft ever releases the smartwatch that the Wall Street Journal reports is in development, the gadget won’t just be entering a wearable computing market that has yet to be proven out. The watch would also extend a family of Surface hardware devices that no one is clamoring to buy.
Yet hardware is a critical component of Microsoft’s mobile-focused reinvention, and the company can’t let crappy tablet sales dim its ambition. The Surface family must grow larger if Microsoft is to realize its quite public aspirations, and if you really begin to think about what a Surface Watch might offer, the concept suddenly segues from misguided and far-fetched to “Hmmm... I might actually buy that thing.”
The watch won't look anything like the MSN-connected Swatch Paparazzi shown in the image above, but it could go down in flames like the Paparazzi if Microsoft doesn't nail the gadget's design and intent. With that, I describe the Surface Watch that I would want to buy, and wax fantastically on four more Surface brand extensions.
If you can’t sell customers a $1,000 Surface tablet, maybe you can sell them a Surface smartwatch that’s priced to move. Let’s say this device is $150 (the same as Pebble’s smartwatch). Let’s say it grabs Microsoft’s modern UI, and tosses a new Live Tile on your screen every 10 seconds. How’s that for a conversation starter? With its always-on connection, the Surface Watch throws tweets, news headlines, and other streaming bits and bobs directly onto its touchscreen face.
The Surface Watch also comes with an exclusive killer app: a mini Xbox controller interface. Now you can adjust your Xbox experience in SmartGlass-esque fashion.
And let’s say the entire Surface Watch is clad in VaporMg—a material that Microsoft deliberately called out last June as having a finish “akin to a luxury watch.” But here’s the kicker: The touchscreen interface isn’t color, but rather is rendered in stark black-and-white e-paper. The aesthetic marries perfectly to the dark magnesium sheen of VaporMg, helping Microsoft deliver a wearable gadget that’s as handsome as it is functional.
Finally, the smartwatch doesn’t just rely on Windows Phone connectivity to drive those rotating Live Tiles. Microsoft takes advantage of Android’s open platform to ensure the Surface Watch works with the planet’s most dominant smartphone family. In one fell swoop, a Surface product is immediately relevant to millions of people, many of whom discover Live Tile love for the very first time.
If Microsoft really wants to scrum with Apple and Google in the mobile computing arena, it can’t stop at tablets—and it certainly can’t be limited to WiFi-only devices. Smartphones account for a huge (if not dominating) number of app downloads, web browser views, and all the other metrics that elevate mobile ecosystems to superstardom. So if Microsoft is serious about exploring the entire world of mobility, it needs to release a Surface Phone—a flagship handset for Windows Phone 9 that elevates the greater Surface brand, and lays a 4G pipeline to bold new vistas of user connectivity.
Don’t forget: Unlike tablets, we carry our smartphones everywhere. We whip them out in corporate conference rooms to check email, and shove them in our friends’ faces to show off Instagram photos of eggs benedict and irritable cats. This is what propagates mindshare. This is what spurs irrational fits of hardware jealousy—and thus more hardware sales across a gadget manufacturer’s entire line-up.
Hey, it worked for Apple.
But first the Surface Phone must look, feel and perform like a winner. To this end, Microsoft can dip into its secret stash of moldable magnesium to deliver a handset design unlike any other. And Microsoft can also use Surface Phone as a halo product for the entire Windows Phone platform, introducing a new smartphone version of Office, and even greater synergy with Microsoft’s greater software arsenal.
Sorry, Microsoft, your current tablets’ 10.6-inch displays just can’t deliver a comfortable desktop productivity experience. My job demands broad swaths of screen real estate for multiple open browser windows and chat clients, leaving your puny tablet screens woefully lacking in elbow room. The solution? Deliver a portable companion display that doubles the screen size offered by Surfaces Pro and RT.
Lenovo is already going down this path with the Lenovo ThinkVision LT1423p. This 13.3-inch, 1600-by-900 display comes in both wired and wireless versions, and offers full 10-point multitouch to support Windows 8 gestures. It’s also 0.6-inch at its thickest point. Throw it in your travel bag, and when you reach your hotel room, it becomes part two of a generous multi-monitor workstation.
Microsoft can steal this concept, and Surface the hell out of it: Clad it in VaporMg, strap on a kickstand, and maybe even throw in a clever tethering adapter that leverages the Surface Pro’s Mini DisplayPort. Of course, this scheme only makes sense if the installed base of Surface tablets grows large enough to warrant such an accessory, but spitballing ideas never hurts.
Surface No-Excuses Keyboard
Microsoft’s Type Cover and Touch Cover keyboard accessories are valiant efforts, but neither delivers a great typing experience. The Type Cover provides very little key travel, and the Touch Cover doesn’t even provide any keys whatsoever. These are stopgap solutions, and they’re not impressing anyone. I can’t use either keyboard cover comfortably, and I haven’t read a single product review that professes unconditional love for either one of them.
Enter the Surface version of the best Microsoft mobile keyboard you could possibly imagine.
Redmond’s engineers will fashion a keyboard that elegantly connects to the Surface tablets’ existing magnetic cover connector. The new keyboard offers generous key travel along with smaller keys than what we find in the Type Cover, widening the ridiculously narrow key gaps that Microsoft somehow thinks people like. In one fell swoop, the No-Excuses Keyboard turns the Surface tablets into productivity powerhouses, and people begin to take the hardware seriously.
Surface 8 Tablet
How can Microsoft not be planning to release a smaller version of its Surface tablet? The Wall Street Journal reports a wee tablet is in development, and, indeed, Microsoft needs a low-priced position in the tablet market, if not also a direct response to the iPad Mini, Nexus 7 and Kindle Fire. In my fanciful mind’s eye, Surface 8 boasts an 8-inch display (naturally), and comes with a custom OS and software build that borrows the best from Windows 8, and—yes—tosses out the desktop entirely. It’s a move designed to gently acclimate users to the idea of a Windows OS that’s entirely dependent on the modern UI.
So what do you think? Which of the products above will be the first extension of the Surface family? The current tablets may not be selling well, but standing still isn't an option for Microsoft. We will see another Surface product this year. We just don't know whether it will stand on a table, fit in our pocket, or go on our wrists.