Surface Pro 3, like every other device, is a compromise

Microsoft today announced the Surface Pro 3, its latest Windows 8-based tablet, with the tagline “The tablet that can replace your laptop”. That sounds great in principle, and it’s a great slogan, but the reality is that the Surface Pro 3, like any other device – be it smartphone, tablet, laptop or whatever – is a compromise. Microsoft’s biggest mistake in marketing the Surface – and Windows 8 – is its repeated claims that there is no compromise, or that the Surface can somehow meet needs normally served by a combination of tablets and laptops or desktops.

Satya Nadella provided the setup for the launch with talk about “dreaming the impossible” and creating a device which (I’m paraphrasing based on my notes) “enables any individual to be able to read, create and write. Allows you to watch a movie and make a movie. To enjoy art and create art.” To me, that sounded just like the reality of the iPad. There was nothing unique in this vision, nothing impossible about it – it’s a reality we’ve had with us for the last four years. But the point is, Apple has never claimed that professional moviemakers should be using the iPad camera for shooting movies or iPad apps to edit them. Apple knows better than anyone that professionals want professional-grade equipment and software (including Apple’s own Mac Pro and Final Cut Pro products) to make movies. And the same goes for many other professions. The iPad offers great benefits – smaller, lighter, longer battery life, more personal and interactive – over laptops and desktops. But the tradeoff is that it lacks the power, the large screen, the peripherals and so on of a larger device. Apple will happily sell you a device from five different major product lines: the iPhone, the iPad, the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro – because it knows no single device meets all needs, and doesn’t try to convince consumers that it can.

The problem for Microsoft is that it only makes one device, the Surface, itself. And so its mission from the start has been to turn that device into the holy grail – the single device that can meet all your needs, replacing both other tablets and laptops. It has good strategic reasons for wanting to do this, which I’ve covered elsewhere. But the result is that it has to constantly claim that its single device can replace two devices from any other vendor, notably the MacBook Air and iPad shown repeatedly at today’s launch event. But it fails to acknowledge the compromises such an approach entails. Though Panos Panay repeatedly compared the Surface Pro 3 to the 13″ MacBook Air, he never compared it to the iPad Air or even the 11″ MacBook Air, which has a much more comparable size. Here’s why:

SP3 to iPad and MBA comparison

It’s because Microsoft recognizes that this isn’t really a tablet that can replace your laptop: it’s a laptop that happens to have a detachable keyboard. It’s priced like a premium laptop, and it weighs the same as a premium laptop.Start comparing it to the best tablet on the market, though, and it starts to look much less attractive: the iPad Air and iPad Mini cost substantially less (even if you add a good third party keyboard for $100), and weigh much less. They’re much easier to hold in the hand and they come with a far greater number of tablet-optimized apps.

The biggest change in Microsoft’s Surface strategy over the last several years has been the locus of the compromise it’s still inevitably making. The first Surfaces were intended to be good tablets first and good laptops second (and ended up being neither). But with the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft has created a competitive laptop first, and a compromised tablet second. But it’s still pretending that there’s no compromise, and that is why the Surface line will continue to perform poorly. At some point, Microsoft has to stop pretending that a single device can meet all needs and start optimizing for different use cases with different devices, just like every other manufacturer. If it isn’t willing to do that, it should probably just cede the market to its OEMs.

  • Richard Callaway

    “To me, that sounded just like the reality of the iPad.” Stop!!! When you start saying things like the iPad is good at anything other than consumption and rudimentary note taking, you lose all credibility. That said, feel free to create all the art you want on your iPad using a nerf stylus. Also, you conveniently leave out the fact that the Surface 3 display is waaay superior to the either Air devices and, by the way, comes with a touch screen and an uber stylus.
    Is the Surface 3 the end all be all? No. Is it for everyone? No. Is the closest thing out there to a no compromise device? Yes. And I’ll be buying one.

    • Try telling David Hockney you can’t create on the iPad. Or any number of bloggers who regularly use iPads to write their posts. You might not like doing such things on the iPad, but others certainly do. I get a lot done on mine, but still prefer a laptop for heavy duty number crunching and the like. As I said, it’s a compromised device just like the SP3. They’re just compromised in different ways – iPad is a great tablet but inferior as a laptop replacement, whereas SP3 is a great laptop but not a great tablet.

      • Richard Callaway

        I guarantee that if you put any ultrabook next to an iPad
        and ask any number of these “bloggers” to write a blog post, they would pick the ultrabook. If they didn’t, then that tells me that they are just going out of their way to prove a point or to be hip.

        My problem with the article is that the author just dismisses the Surface 3 without having tried it – that there is no room for another class of device. She makes the point that “Apple will happily sell you a device from five different major product lines: the iPhone, the iPad, the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro and
        the Mac Pro – because it knows no single device meets all needs, and doesn’t try to convince consumers that it can.” First, notice how she included the iPhone in that list – as if Surface is trying to replace the iPhone. Funny.

        My counter argument is that Surface can do 90% of what any
        of those devices can do. Are you going to want to edit a Hollywood movie on it? Certainly not. However, I suggest that the Surface 3 can replace most business and home user’s laptops without compromise and by the time Surface 6 comes out maybe you will be able to edit a Hollywood movie.

        Just as we don’t carry around a separate phone and an MP3
        player anymore, the Surface eliminates the need to carry both a laptop and a tablet. Maybe this isn’t for everyone, but instead of dismissing the Surface as a “compromised” device, shouldn’t we be celebrating it for some of the break-thru tech it has provided: core i7 cpus squeezed into such a small space, new fan designs to cool the workhorse CPU, reduced parallax effect on pen to glass contact, a kickstand that just keeps getting better, type covers that keep evolving for the better, and tighter integration between the Windows and the pen.

        The author suggests that every device is compromised in some
        way or another, so we should just purchase the combination of devices that we need. Think about the innovation that line of thinking would have stymied. Our phones wouldn’t be able to play music, or take pictures, or give us directions, or give us light in the dark. All of that functionality required different devices at one time.
        What’s wrong with striving for the same thing on our personal computers?

        • Richard: first off, I’m right here talking to you, so you don’t need to keep saying “the author” and you certainly don’t need to refer to me as “she”. We can have a reasonable conversation here, I think.

          There are plenty of bloggers who write posts on iPads and on MacBooks. Most wouldn’t write posts on iPads if they had an ultrabook or PC available, but that’s the whole point of a tablet – you carry it to places you wouldn’t carry a laptop, and the optional built-in cellular connectivity often makes it a better option for time-sensitive, connected-type work. As I said, the iPad isn’t ideal for these tasks, but to pretend they can’t be done on it is to ignore the evidence. I exclusively use a tablet when I go to conferences, leaving my very capable ultrabook in the hotel room to use in the evenings. They have different use cases, and I know which is best suited to which tasks and scenarios.

          I listed Apple’s various product lines not to suggest that Surface is trying to replace the phone, but to say that there are a variety of different types of devices which are best suited to different situations, and that extends all the way up and down the line, from smartphones to desktop PCs. The Surface is aimed at two of these categories – laptops and tablets – but the principle applies more broadly too. That’s the point I was making, not that Surface is trying to replace the phone, but merely that when you have five different product lines, you’re not forced to try to fit one product into several of them.

          I have no beef with saying the Surface Pro 3 looks like a really good laptop – in fact, I said as much throughout my piece. The point is that you can’t have it both ways – you can’t price and spec the thing like a laptop and expect it to perform like a tablet. The first three generations of iPads were too heavy to use comfortably one-handed for any length of time. The first generation weighed 1.5 pounds. The second was 1.3lbs, the third got slightly heavier again at 1.4lbs, and it wasn’t until the Air that it got down to one pound, which is reasonably comfortable to hold in the hand for an extended period of time. That’s the prime use case for a tablet – one-handed, casual use. And at 1.76 pounds, the SP3 is heavier than even the first generation iPad, and significantly larger too. As people gravitate to 7-8″ tablets, a 12″ tablet is simply too big for most people, except as a compromise in exchange for the increased functionality. That’s my whole point – there’s no such thing as a no-compromise device. This device is apparently a great laptop, just not a great tablet. And that’s OK.

          The point with MP3 players was there was very little compromise when phones (notably the iPhone) integrated them. The functionality was identical to what they replaced. That’s what true no-compromise means. The first iPhone wasn’t bigger or bulkier than an iPod with equivalent storage, and yet it did so much more. Cameras in phones are a great example of compromise – the early ones were lousy, and yet they were with us, so they were still better than no camera at all. That’s the definition of a compromise. There’s nothing wrong with striving for our devices to do more things – just with claiming that a single device can do all of those things as effectively as all the things they’re replacing without tradeoffs (bulk, battery life, power, storage etc.).

          But I never say anywhere in my piece that everyone should buy multiple devices – everyone should buy what works for them, whether that’s one device (such as the SP3) or several. The point is that every single device we might choose will offer pros and cons, compromises forced by getting the things that are most important to us while accepting that it may be less ideal at some other tasks that may be less important. I take issue with the idea that the SP3 – or any other device in the laptop/tablet space – is without compromises.

          I’m happy to continue the discussion if you’ll actually read the piece and distinguish between what I’m saying and what you seem to think I’m saying but isn’t written anywhere in the piece.

          • Richard Callaway

            First, my bad with the “She”. I just assumed Jan was short for Janet. I neglected to see your photo. My reference to the author was because I didn’t see your name as the commenter to my first post. An honest mistake.

          • It’s fine – I should have put a smiley next to that first paragraph – it was somewhat tongue in cheek.