Surface Pro 3: Microsoft's grand tablet vision lies in tatters

Surface Pro 3: Microsoft's grand tablet vision lies in tatters

Summary: Microsoft's tablet vision was bold, and beautiful. But with the introduction of Surface 3, it's dead.

TOPICS: Windows 8
Two laptops on one pair of scales.

Usually, on the third go, Microsoft gets it right. First iteration is normally a bit ropey, second one has promise, and the third one has the competition crying in their beer.

The idea of Surface was to provide an inspirational hardware platform that consumers would love, and that OEMs would follow. This novel hardware, together with kit produced by OEM partners, was supposed to usher in a new era that showcased this wonderful new Windows.

That wonderful new Windows itself was a reimagining. Its purpose was to staunch the spread of post-PC computing. Microsoft's hope would be that customers would wake up, stop buying iPad in their millions with their lack of keyboards and Office, and instead buy Windows tablets in their millions.

As we now know, that didn't happen. Consumers didn't like Windows 8. Enterprises didn't like Windows 8. OEMs didn't like it. Not that that last point mattered much -- consumers and enterprises kept on demanding cheap hardware and the market kept on keeping prices low.


The execution of this vision -- especially when we look at Surface -- was always more tentative than it should have been. The devices were always PCs dressed up to look like iPads. Microsoft never believed in the post-PC idea, preferring instead to think about "PC Plus". PC Plus itself being a PC that could do everything a PC could do, but also everything that an iPad could do.

(At this point we need to explicitly set to one side Surface RT and Windows RT -- it adds unnecessary complication just like it added unnecessary complication to the market. Just forget it exists, which I suspect will be easy for you to do.)

What we saw with Surface Pro v1 was something that looked like a tablet, but had criticism levelled at it because it needed a keyboard, and the only thing it did really well was the traditional Windows desktop. With Surface Pro 2 we crept a little further down the continuum with a kind of tacit acceptance this thing was actually a laptop.

Now with Surface Pro 3, the thing is being actively pitched as a MacBook Air competitor. Any pretence of this being a "PC Plus" well and truly shown the door.


Microsoft faced two problems when it came to executing the Surface vision. On the one hand, it was imperative to keep marketing Office like crazy, both because the revenue stream had to be preserved, and always because it was perceived as being a key differentiator in the market. On the other hand, Microsoft has struggled throughout the whole Windows 8 era with being unable to get away from the gravity of old ways of thinking about things.

Enterprises barely remember them, and consumers will never remember them, but this wasn't the first time Microsoft had tried to get the world to buy into the idea of tablet computing.

The Compaq TC1000 that my ZDNet colleague James Kendrick reminisced about last year was a good piece of kit. I had one, tried my hardest to use it, and ultimately gave it up. What it was a full on PC shoved into a tiny box, and equipped with a pen, and a version of Windows with some cruft grafted on that made it behave differently to a traditional laptop.

The cruft was never enough to make it a tablet first. All it did was fiddle round the edges, demanding compromises within the core design of the system in order to turn it on.

That description also describes Surface. It's a full PC, shoved into a tiny box, equipped with a pen, and given a version of Windows with cruft grafted onto the top. And again, the cruft is not enough to make it a tablet first, and it's demanding compromises within the core design of the system. In this case, it's a laptop you can't use on your lap very easily, together with an enormous price tag.


To me, the Surface vision has been rather like a space rocket trying to deliver enough forward thrust to climb out of earth's gravity well, only to find it can't quite make it and smashes back down to earth with an immense thump.

In this instance, the gravity is the desire of Microsoft's engineers and managers to make Gates' original vision tablet computing work.

Today, the Surface PC remains a PC. It remains a device designed to drive commercial efficiency, as opposed to post-PC devices that are designed to drive digital social engagement. That PC runs Windows, it runs all your apps, it needs a fat and energy hungry Intel processor, it runs Office, and because it's hard to use a keyboard when you're physically moving about, it needs a pen.

What Microsoft was trying to do with Windows 8 and Surface was to reimagine Windows. The objective was to produce a new operating system that would go toe-to-toe with the iPad and the Android pretenders.

What we have now is a version of Windows 8 where ever-so gently we're teasing away from the bold new vision, bringing back the Start menu, toning down the operation of Windows Store apps -- not that Windows Store apps are getting any level of traction at all.

Now in the marketing for Surface Pro 3 we see statements like "The tablet that can replace your laptop".

But all Surface Pro 3 customers are left with is an (admittedly nice) laptop, which runs Windows, with a pen. It's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition all over again now.

Topic: Windows 8

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  • Yawn.

    I guess Matt's rent is due this week......
    • Truth hurts?

      I notice you can't be bothered to offer an alternative view.
      Rent not due?
      • What truth?

        What truth? It reads like a pure opinion piece, plain and simple.
        • FACT:

          "Microsoft's tablet vision was bold, and beautiful. But with the introduction of Surface 3, it's dead."
          • Yup, that's opinion alright.

            Yup, that's opinion alright. Still looking for any facts to support those claims.
          • AS you obviously haven't read the article

            There's little point in me repeating it.
          • You clearly don't understand what constitutes a fact.

            And I did read the article. In it's entirety. Several times.

            It's based on nothing but the short sighted, biased opinions of the author. The sentence you quoted is an opinion. That you would offer it as a fact proves you have no understanding on what constitutes a fact.
          • Your repeating it wouldn't change the fact that it is all opinion.

            There is no reporting only opinion
          • Re: There is no reporting only opinion

            Actually, Matt did report on the history of Microsoft tablet attempts and the last line pretty sums it up:

            "But all Surface Pro 3 customers are left with is an (admittedly nice) laptop, which runs Windows, with a pen. It's Windows XP Tablet PC Edition all over again now."

            I have to agree with what he is saying about the Surface Pro3 being a (re-envisioned) Windows XP Tablet PC Edition.
          • And he's wrong there too...

            Matt's bias is readily apparent throughout every sentence, including that one.

            -The Surface Pro 3 is not a notebook. Period.
            -The pen is not necessary to use Windows at all, the pen on the original Tablet PC was.
            -Windows 8 has a fully functional, touch first, tablet UI, the original Tablet PC had only the traditional desktop.

            What Surface Pro 3 customers are "left with" is a single, highly integrated, high quality system that can function as a pure tablet, a notebook and anything in between, in the process replacing several, individual, dedicated devices.

            People who buy a Surface Pro understand and value this. You clearly don't. So it's not the product for you, and you're under no obligation to purchase or use one.

            Why, then, are you so vocal about denouncing it's viability as a product? What's your motive? What's your agenda?
          • People who buy a Surface Pro understand and value this...

            "What Surface Pro 3 customers are "left with" is a single, highly integrated, high quality system that can function as a pure tablet, a notebook and anything in between, in the process replacing several, individual, dedicated devices. "

            The problem with this sentence is that it's partly true, but doesn't hit the target. The OS is not the driving force in a device anymore. People use devices all the time without a thought to the "OS" it runs. If you have a reasonably recent car, it has an OS. Do you give it much thought when you turn it on? How about your DVR? Your Smart TV? My ScanSnap scanner has it's own OS and processor that does a lot of heavy lifting before sending images (wirelessly) to any device I choose. The DEVICE is what counts. A Surface will be great or not based on it's usability, not its OS. A desktop PC works a certain way people are used to. Apple got it right by not trying to make a tablet Mac. The IOS device experience is uniquely tailored to the device and is one with it. It also happens to play well with Macs (and PCs) so it's beautifully functional. You won't want to use it for desktop chores - or at least I don't. BUt I might use it more of the time for "tablet" things so I no longer need to use my desktop for those. MS (and you, apparently) want a device that can be all things. Desktop, laptop and Tablet all in one. a "replacement" for those other devices. But it's a very compromised desktop and even somewhat compromised as a mini laptop. You'd think it would be good as a Tablet then, but it's not because of its clunky, split-personality interface.

            If you and other Surface buyers love it, I'm happy for ya. But the idea of replacing multiple devices with a Surface is ridiculous.
          • Saying nothing with many words.

            "AS you obviously haven't read the article
            There's little point in me repeating it."

            Why how wordy of you to say nothing at all while typing words, much as this post I am typing is. How redundantly redundant to make no points at all, all for the sake of claiming some theoretical upper hand in logic which you don't really have.

            OMG, he's wrong! Let's ay I have a point anyways with no backup at all! That will fix him and the internetz!!!!!
          • trust us - its dead.

            At least a zombie for a while longer, like the zune. Sure, there will be a surface 4 and will include the innovative thicker keyboard with enough weight that it doesn't need the pesky kickstand. Also another innovation I predict - a laptop like keyboard and trackpad as a result of added thickness.
          • If Windows is a zombie...

            ... then what do you call its competition?
          • Re: ... then what do you call its competition?....

            What Microsoft needs to accept is Windows is no longer the major player it once was. Whilst retaining a significant percentage of the user base their are now other options are available. Aside from Mac sales increasing there are other credible options available. Most notably Android which holds a significant percentage against the iPad, iPhone, Windows Phone and current Surface. It is hard to see how this going to change overnight.
            Granted the Desktop option is there which is not available in other Tablets which would suggest it would have some advantage but then again this would have probably shown by now with previous generations of the Surface.
            Many still prefer to work with a Laptop. There are some outstanding options available and I am not just talking about the MacBook Air.
            So the proof will be in how the Surface 3 will be received by the consumer. Until then saying whether the Surface 3 will succeed or fail is no more than conjecture.
          • Worldwide market share still 90% + ... not a player?

            On the consumer front, Microsoft has some serious competition from tablet makers - largely because tablets can do 90% + of what the typical consumer needs their device to do.

            Still, these tablets could not function without the enterprise server resources - the great bulk of which are delivered by Windows servers.

            Microsoft could still end up losing its consumer base to "other people's tablets" but it will take a lot more than that for Windows to lose its based in the enterprise world which services those tablets.

            Microsoft sold more Windows licenses in the fourth quarter of 2013 than all of the tablets that have been sold since the iPad was released in 2010!
            M Wagner
          • Good luck to you, Heenan73

            I guess like the Manson followers, some people will latch onto anything, no matter how detrimental it is to their future

            Good Luck going forward...
        • I wish more of the bloggers were like MJF - heavy on info, light on opinion

          I totally agree with you, this is just an opinion piece. And I don't think much of this opinion either. But even if I did, I am sick and tired of poor research, lots of opinion and very little fact.

          Mary Jo Foley and a few others on ZDNet are journalists they give the data whether it is positive or negative and perhaps a restrained dab of opinion.

          I think I am going to go nuclear on this. Maybe ZDNet will listen.
          • Let's all pressure ZDNet - better journalism, less opinion.

            let's massively reward good journalism with praise. Mary Jo Foley and some others do journalism very well - lots of reporting. Others are just opinion acting like we should listen to them because they think they are experts. We should collectively discourage those pieces and encourage them to emulate the others.
          • Yes, but how?

            This is a poor-quality piece of click-bait that was a complete waste of time to read, but we clicked on it, read it and are even commenting on it. That means ad revenue, which is all the author and ZDnet are after.

            The fact that the ad-driven model promotes useless, time-wasting click-bait like this poor excuse for an article is one of the reasons I dislike it. The author of this piece is just playing the game, though -- doing what he's economically incentivised to do.