Can Microsoft create a new market with Surface Pro 3?

Can Microsoft create a new market with Surface Pro 3?

Summary: Microsoft Surface Computing chief Panos Panay talks about Microsoft's current and future Surface plans and positioning.


With the just-announced Surface Pro 3, Microsoft is trying to establish a positioning niche: A tablet that can replace a laptop.


Typically when a tech vendor tries to do this, officials there -- and/or the analysts who cover the market -- spend lots of time and often money in the hope of creating a new, sticky term for that niche. (Examples: phablet, private cloud.)

But Microsoft isn't going that route with its latest 12-inch Surface device. Company officials are calling the latest member of the Surface family a tablet. (Sorry, El Reg... they didn't go with your suggestion of "slabtop." Nor did they use the already-established "two-in-one" or ultrabook labels.)

"We are making a market," said Corporate Vice President of Surface Computing Panos Panay, during an interview that ZDNet's Ed Bott and I had with him right after yesterday's Surface Pro 3 launch in New York.

"We are still calling this a tablet," Panay said of the Surface Pro 3. "Tablets have not landed" and not really hitting the productivity sweet spot, Panay said. These days, "laptops are solving the problems that tablets did" because of better battery life/power consumption, weight and thinness, he claimed.

The external competitor on which Panay and his team have their sights set is Apple, as the premium prices and specs for the Pro 3 made clear. Microsoft is gunning to replace the MacBook Air and the iPad with the Surface Pro 3. But I'd argue there's another competitor at which Microsoft is taking aim with the new devices: High-end Windows ultrabooks like the Acer Aspire S-7 I purchased recently.

The intended audience for the new Surfaces are "consumer first, and premium," Panay stressed. He said Microsoft expects the product to do well with students and others interested in notetaking, but that the company isn't positioning the Pro 3 as a business device. (Update: That's because Microsoft is making the assumption that consumers increasingly are bringing devices to work. Of course, if a business wanted to order thousands of Surface Pro 3s for its users, Microsoft would be happy to fulfill that order.)

To take on these competitors, Microsoft is attempting to bring some unique attributes to its latest Surface devices. The new hinge and kickstand on the device will allow users a lot more viewing angles. The new Surface Pro 3 Type Keyboards add a magnetic band that provide a sloped and more stable surface, which is easier on the wrists when typing for extended periods.

And then there's the new digitizing pen that comes for free in the box with the Surface Pro 3's. Panay called the pen "a platform" during our interview and said to expect the Surface team to continue to invest heavily in the pen, going forward.

What else will the Surface team be focused on in the coming weeks and months?

"I'm designing a lot of devices with many different form factors and shapes," he said.

And among those potential sizes and shapes is an eight-inch mini tablet, he said. (Microsoft was expected to launch its Surface Mini at yesterday's self-described "small gathering," according to various sources, but nixed that announcement somewhere in the past few weeks.)

Panay said "we still think there's life" in the eight-inch tablet segment. "There are more opportunities there."

Panay confirmed there's also still a future for more ARM-based Surfaces beyond the Surface RT and Surface 2. It's also worth noting that Microsoft plans to stop making Surface Pro 2 devices and make the Surface Pro 3 the new Intel-based flagship sooner rather than later, according to Panay. (That might explain why most of the Surface Pro 2 models are currently sold out in its stores.)

Will Microsoft ever do a true laptop with a permanently-connected keyboard and flat and sturdy base? Panay said the Surface team "got pretty far with" a cover that would provide more of a tray-like bottom, but decided to nix it because it was too clunky and inelegant.

I, myself, hope they keep trying to find a way to bring something like this to market, as the Surface Pro 3, even with its "lappability" improvements still doesn't really work for me on my lap the way my Acer does.

I think Microsoft needs a name for this laptop-tablet hybrid category the company is attempting to carve out. Suggestions, anyone?

Topics: Tablets, Apple, Laptops, Microsoft, Mobility, PCs


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Some ideas for a laptop-tablet hybrid category name

    • They already have a category.

      Tablet PC.
      • re:

        Or, just Surface.
        Sir Name
      • Better yet....

        Microsoft seems to be shy about the power of their products. They should grow a pair and start calling this tablet what it is compared to the badly hobbled competition.

        This just isn't any old tablet, its clearly a "Super Tablet", or at the vary least a "Smart Tablet". Its time for Microsoft to make the public aware they are without a doubt being short changed when they invest there dollars in a lesser "common regular" tablet.

        Until Microsoft gets it into there head that the majority of the public is clueless about exactly why a Surface Pro isn't just one more of a different version of the same thing, people will just largely assume its just Microsofts version of an iPad, and its clearly a whole lot more.

        Microsoft needs to start referring to the Surface Pro as "The one, and only, Super tablet".

        "Nobody else makes one!"

        This is the message Microsoft needs to get out there. And they need to get on it and stay on it.
        • Surface Pro 3

          I think the Surface Pro 3 looks tremendous, but I don't like the fawning or Microsoft themselves.

          Sony has done something very similar, after all. They didn't sell many and now they're dropping their PC division. But then, Microsoft hasn't made money selling Surfaces, either.

          I have no doubt when the reviews come in, it will be better than a Vaio Flip. But better as a laptop than Flip or Yoga or Transformer?

          All that to say, yes, it's been done before and even Sonys sold for less than $1k with keyboard.
        • I so agree

          The Pro 3 is so beyond anything else that's come along that it makes the tablet moniker seem insufficient. But it is a tablet, just one that makes the rest seem like also rans. Compare it to the iPad? Oh please. Let's just say that Microsoft has created its own category here and no one else is coming close.
          Steve Pugliese
          • Amen!

            I'm so glad you've decided for the rest of us!
          • Right

            Or buying it.
        • More like clue-impaired

          They've been trying to do a tablet computer for what, 15 years? They have failed, and they continue to fail because they can't do what needs to be done. Either make it a tablet, and treat it as such, or make it a laptop and do the same. This is neither and it's got all the markings of a hybridge nothing.
      • mobile desktop's a "mobile desktop" ;)
    • Ultratab

    • Work at home special report.......................WWW.WORKS23.US

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    • category name

      Henry 3 Dogg
    • Here's the new category name...

      Tabtop (tablet/laptop).
    • What's wrong with calling it what it is?

      It's a hybrid. Or to use the long-form name, a tablet/ultrabook hybrid. Attach a keyboard-cover and it's an ultrabook; detach it, and it's a tablet.
  • Surface

    "I think Microsoft needs a name for this laptop-tablet hybrid category the company is attempting to carve out. Suggestions, anyone?"

    They already have a brand with a clear and simple name, which they only use to covers this category. No need to come up with a name other vendors can use, when you can use the brand you own to define the category.
    • re:

      Sir Name
    • Laptop-Tablet Hybrid Category Name....

      I think it should be called the Microsoft TUW......Tablet for the Uber Wealthy!
      • Price not out of line...

        I would disagree with stjr that this is the tablet for the Uber Wealthy. The price seems competitive with laptops/tablets. Would I buy one -- no, not at this time. I do not like the Windows 8 operating system (nor 8.1). Maybe I would consider one when Windows 9 comes out and Microsoft puts back in the tools they keep hiding or removing (Windows Easy File Transfer is the latest casualty with 8.1). My newest laptop came with Windows 8, but I put in Linux (dual boot to either Linux or Windows). So far, I only use Windows 8 to run the updates every couple months, just in case I need to run a Windows app on my laptop.