How Microsoft Is Making a Comeback In Hardware, Watch Out Apple

Microsoft is betting big on a premium laptop that rivals Apple’s MacBook Pro and turns into a tablet – but it’s the kind of innovation it needs.

The Surface Book, which Microsoft claim is twice as powerful as the Macbook Pro.
The Surface Book, which Microsoft claim is twice as powerful as the Macbook Pro. Photo via cdn

Microsoft did something shocking last night. It launched something people might actually lust over, something sleek, something powerful, something innovative. The Surface Book.

At an event in New York rammed with press and industry types and live-streamed to the world, Microsoft confidently and defiantly unveiled its grand vision of Windows 10 devices.

Some of the products the company unveiled were expected: an updated Surface Pro 4 tablet, the second generation of the company’s Microsoft Band fitness tracker and two new Lumia smartphones. But it was the Surface Book, Microsoft’s first laptop and a big bet for the company, that drew the Apple-like whoops, gasps and applause.

Microsoft’s first laptop, the Surface Book is a tablet that docks into a full laptop base. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP
Microsoft’s first laptop, the Surface Book is a tablet that docks into a full laptop base. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

The Surface Book is a MacBook Pro competitor and Microsoft claims it is “the most powerful laptop on the planet”, twice as fast as Apple’s professional laptop.

The fact that Microsoft – the purveyor of the Windows operating system which runs on almost every laptop that doesn’t run Apple’s OS X or Linux – has finally made a notebook is a turn up for the books. But it was the laptop’s fancy bending hinge, and the fact that the screen was detachable and became a Surface tablet on its own, which set pulses racing.

The Microsoft Surface Book's hinge
The Microsoft Surface Book’s hinge

The Surface Book stole the hearts and headlines of the tech press, but what was most striking from Microsoft’s presentation was the confidence and exuberance with which it all played out.

“Been awhile since Microsoft’s had a device oriented event that drew Apple/Google buzz. A lot of work left but IMO headed in right direction.” said Ryan Reith Mobility Research Director at IDC .

It displayed a renewed vigour from the company: a Microsoft that can be innovative – that anything Apple can do, it thinks it can do better.

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Geoff Blaber, vice president of the Americas at research firm CCS Insight said: “Surface Book proves that innovation in personal computing is not just confined to Apple’s Cupertino campus. This is a highly innovative, flagship device that will act as a much needed halo product for Windows 10 and the broader PC market.”

That’s exactly what the technology world needs from Microsoft. Once the power player, Microsoft has been painted into the underdog’s corner through a failure to innovate. Now it has come out swinging and brought some much needed big-name competition to Apple in the computer space at a time when PCs are in decline.

“I’m rarely all that impressed by these events but @Microsoft is killing it. Tons of new ideas/products and live demos.” said CNET Editor Dan Ackerman on Twitter.

The second quarter of 2015 saw the sharpest decline in PC sales in two years, rounding off five straight quarters of declining sales, according to data from analyst firm IDC.


Microsoft must step carefully

Whether Microsoft can stymie falling PC sales and reinvigorate the industry remains to be seen, but the Surface is an important product to Microsoft. Like Google’s Nexus and Pixel devices, the Surface line is Microsoft’s way of showing what’s possible using Windows and attempts to cajole third-party manufacturers into joining the bandwagon.

It invented a new category, the convertible 2-in-1 PC, into which the likes of Dell, HP and Asus followed. But recently the Surface tablet has become a revenue stream to the tune of $1bn in and of itself for the Redmond-based company, which could upset PC manufacturers.

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Ian Fogg, director of mobile at analyst firm IHS said: “Microsoft risks antagonising its hardware partners further with its Surface Book laptop. It must walk a very careful line. There’s an increasingly strong argument to reorganise Microsoft to separate its devices unit from software, cloud and Windows.”


Lumia left on the bench

The buzz around the Surface Book and new Surface Pro 4, which was declared to have “out-“iPad Pro’d Apple” by some, relegated Microsoft’s new smartphones to a footnote.

While the company has enjoyed success in the tablet and computer space, its Windows Phone – now renamed as simply Windows 10 Mobile – has seen its market share collapse, its champion Nokia bought by Microsoft and then written off and now Microsoft is left without a real aspirational flagship.

Ben Wood head of research for CSS Insight said: “A tough day for Lumia folks. Microsoft’s new smartphone products have been totally eclipsed by Surface Book and other news. People don’t care much about smartphones anymore …”

Microsoft needs to create a Surface-like smartphone to hold up as an example of what Windows 10 is capable of, and link it up with the rest of the now-solid Microsoft ecosystem. The Lumia 950 and 950XL may end up being those smartphones but Microsoft will have to work very hard to make consumers care.

In the meantime, Apple made a Surface tablet analogue in the iPad Pro. Now Microsoft has made a MacBook Pro competitor and taken it one stage further. The game is on.


This feature originally appeared in The Guardian.



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