A brief history of Microsoft's Surface: Missteps and successes

Microsoft started working on the hybrid devices that now make up the Surface family back in 2009. The group has made some missteps along the way, but today its lineup of Windows 10 devices is genuinely impressive and widely imitated. Here's how the brand has evolved.
By Ed Bott, Senior Contributing Editor
1 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surprise launch, early optimism

June, 2012 - "Monday, at an invitation-only media event in Los Angeles, Microsoft got the tech press to do something almost unprecedented: wait with eager anticipation for a Microsoft product announcement.

"Even more astonishing is that the reveal lived up to the hype."

It was also one of Steven Sinofsky's last major public appearances as a Microsoft employee.

My original launch report is here: "Microsoft's new Surface tablets make a solid first impression."

Microsoft's October 2 event: New Surface devices and everything else we expect

2 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface RT: high marks for the hardware

October 2012 - The Surface RT, released at the same time as Windows 8, was supposed to be a showcase for the new Windows apps.

The first round of Surface RT reviews was decidedly mixed, thanks in no small part to the minuscule number of apps in the Windows Store.

Mary-Jo Foley summarized the reviews: "Microsoft Surface RT: A review roundup."

3 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

That scary TV ad

The marketing for the new device, with this ad saturating TV airwaves in Fall of 2012, was certainly attention-getting. I was not the only one who had nightmares over those dancing schoolgirls.

4 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface Pro was "probably ahead of its time"

February 2013 - The first Surface that was a real PC, capable of running the full range of Windows desktop apps, debuted in February 2013.

My review called it "brilliant, quirky, and flawed."

"The Surface Pro exists in a segment of its own, outside the mainstream, probably ahead of its time. Lining it up next to a conventional portable PC or a popular tablet like the iPad or Nexus 10 results in a comparison with too many places where the respective features and capabilities don't match up at all."

5 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

The $900 million writedown

In July 2013, it was obvious that demand for the first-generation Surface devices had fallen far short of Microsoft's expectations. CEO Steve Ballmer had to sign off on a writedown of $900 million to cover the lost revenues.

Mary-Jo Foley asked "How did this happen?"

"I had a chance to ask Brian Hall, the General Manager of Surface Marketing, that very question. Unsurprisingly, he wouldn't address this. But he did say that Microsoft is 100 percent committed to Surface RT and Windows RT going forward and has no plans to drop work on either product."

That commitment didn't last long.

6 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface Pro 2: still flawed

October 2013 - Coming only eight months after the initial Surface Pro, this update wasn't all that different.

A new CPU and Windows 8.1 made the tablet experience more usable, and the kickstand locked into two positions. But the device was still too heavy and awkward for mainstream success.

7 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface 2: D.O.A.

October 2013 - The Surface 2, still powered by an ARM CPU and Windows RT, was a minor upgrade to the original Surface RT.

The handwriting was already on the wall for anything with RT in the name.

8 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Goodbye, Windows RT

Early 2014 - It's never been given an official obituary, but Windows RT and its companion hardware were put out to pasture sometime in 2014.

The coup de grace was the cancellation of the Surface Mini, an 8-inch tablet that was widely expected to debut at a May press event in New York City.

That device never saw the light of day, and Microsoft's other RT devices were quietly driven off into the sunset shortly after.

9 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface Pro 3: third time's the charm

July 2014 - With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft addressed every failing of the earlier iterations. The new "tablet that can replace your laptop" was "thinner, lighter, and more flexible," I wrote.

Over time, the market has voted with its pocketbook. Microsoft doesn't disclose device sales or break out Surface revenue separately, but the Surface division now brings in well over $1 billion of revenue each quarter for the company.

10 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

A Surface marketing blitz

2013-2014 - Reportedly, Microsoft is paying the National Football League some $400 million as part of a deal that has Surface tablets deployed as the only approved device on NFL sidelines.

For the first few months, announcers reflexively called them "iPads." That phase seems to have passed.

11 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Surface 3: No more RT

May 2015 - The successor to the discontinued Surface RT and Surface 2 is powered by an Intel Atom processor and uses a micro-USB power supply, like a phone or small tablet.

It's a refreshingly small and light device, but it fizzled in the marketplace and was definitely overshadowed by what came next.

12 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

A plethora of peripherals

Microsoft has been in the hardware business for a long, long time, with some popular, well-designed mice and keyboards.

The Surface family has its own collection of branded peripherals. Docking stations for the Surface Pro 3 and 4 arrived first, with a much more robust universal docking station shipping later. The Surface Connect to USB Type-C adapter arrived in 2018, allowing connections to a wide range of industry-standard devices..

13 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Hello, Surface Pro 4

October 2015 - There weren't a lot of surprises in the Surface Pro 4, which is basically a refined version of the Surface Pro 3, with the same overall dimensions and compatible with older peripherals.

The signature new feature is a built-in front-facing camera that supports the Windows Hello facial recognition feature. A new Type Cover option includes a fingerprint reader for an alternative form of biometric authentication.

14 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

Meet the new boss

October 2015 - The surprise highlight of a new batch of Windows 10 devices is the Surface Book, which aggressively competes with high-end laptops from Apple as well as Microsoft's OEM partners. Its base is solid, unlike the Surface Pro, and high-end configurations include a discrete GPU.

Also worth noting is the key role played by Microsoft's hardware boss, Panos Panay. He was on stage with Steven Sinofsky for that original 2012 Surface RT launch event.

15 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

The Surface Hub goes big

Announced in 2015, the biggest member of the Surface family isn't a laptop. Instead, it's a giant touchscreen display that comes in two sizes: a huge 55-inch model and an even huger upgrade with an 84-inch screen.

The first units ultimately shipped to customers in mid-2016.

As ZDNet's Steve Ranger noted after a hands-on session, this is "effectively a high-end digital whiteboard that runs on a custom version of Windows 10." With a price tag that starts at $9000 and a high-end configuration that costs more than $20,000, this is a device you probably won't see except in companies willing to pay to take advantage of that big-screen format: medical diagnostics, architecture, and engineering firms, for example.

16 of 22 Ed Bott/ZDNET

The Surface Studio takes over the desktop

October 2016 - The long-rumored Surface Studio finally emerged from the ether. For its first-ever non-portable PC, the Surface team built a high-end all-in-one PC aimed at creative professionals.

Innovative touches include a "zero-gravity hinge" that allows you to almost effortlessly shift the display to the equivalent of a drafting table.

Another interesting addition to the package is the Surface Dial, which rests on the display and allows designers to manage software features with one hand as they draw with a Surface Pen in the other.

17 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

A conventional laptop with a curious launch

May 2017 - This is the first-ever Surface-branded PC that doesn't transform into a tablet. At a retail price of $999 and up, it appeals to the same buyers who might otherwise consider an Apple MacBook Air, but prefer a Windows PC.

It doesn't hurt that the Surface Laptop weighs 0.2 pounds less than the MacBook Air and claims a battery life that's 2.5 hours longer, at similar price points. The Alcantara fabric used on the keyboard and surrounding pace is a distinctive luxury touch.

Bizarrely, Microsoft announced this model at an education-focused event and initially shipped it with the ill-fated Windows 10 S. (For details, see "What is Windows 10 S?")

18 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

For 2017, the Surface Pro drops the model number

May 2017 - If you set the Surface Pro (2017) next to a Surface Pro 4, you'll be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Perhaps that's why Microsoft decided to forgo the temptation to call this the Surface Pro 5.

Inside, there's a noteworthy speed bump, with 7th Generation Intel CPUs. The Core m3 and Core i5 are the first fanless Surface Pro models. There are also some new peripherals, including an improved Surface Pen and some Type Covers that use the same Alcantara fabric used on the Surface Laptop.

The launch event took place in Shanghai, part of a trend for Microsoft to make major Surface announcements outside of Silicon Valley and New York City, where the U.S.-based press is based.

19 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

The Surface Book sequel gets USB Type-C

October 2017 - For this major update to its high-end PC, Microsoft offered an invitation-only sneak peek to tech reporters in San Francisco and New York City.

During that event, Panos Panay, who runs the division for Microsoft, compared the new flagship devices, in 13.5-inch and 15-inch models, directly to the MacBook Pro 13 and 15.

The new models boast 8th-generation Intel Kaby Lake processors and, at the high end, discrete Nvidia GPUs. Microsoft brags that the new design can get 17 hours of battery life. Most noteworthy of all is the USB Type-C port, which addresses one frequent criticism of the earlier model.

For details, see "With Surface Book 2, Microsoft shows off its vision of the PC's future."

20 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

Mobile connectivity returns to the Surface family

October 2017 - At an event in London, Microsoft showed off its long-awaited Surface Pro with LTE Advanced. It also sets expectations for would-be buyers: Initially, this model, based on the Surface Pro (2017), will be available only through business channels.

The ill-fated Surface 3 had offered LTE connectivity years earlier, but neither the hardware nor the networks were up to the task.

For this release, Microsoft introduced some serious engineering, with an embedded eSIM, an external SIM tray, and software support for fast cellular connectivity and a price tag that's about $150 higher than the Wi-Fi only version.

See "Microsoft Surface Pro with LTE Advanced: Is built-in mobile networking worth the price?"

21 of 22 Credit: Microsoft

With Surface Go, Microsoft heads downward

August 2018 - Until now, the defining feature of the Surface family has been its position at the premium end of the market.

The introduction of the Surface Go marks a radical shift in that philosophy. This is a 10-inch convertible, based on the low-cost Pentium chip, that will aim at education and other price sensitive buyers.

ZDNet's Mary Jo Foley asks "Why did Microsoft build the Surface Go?" Her answer, in part:

"Microsoft is looking to attract new, first-time Surface device users. Some of these may be individuals who always wanted a Surface but couldn't afford it until now.... Some may be people who prefer the premium components and experience that Surface brings to the table over what OEMs have delivered."

My first look says it might be the best cheap PC ever.

22 of 22 Credit: JonDae - DeviantArt

What's next? Probably not a Surface Phone

No, that's not an official Microsoft product photo. This mockup of what a Surface Phone might look like comes from a fan, of which the unicorn of Surface products has no shortage.

The demise of Microsoft's mobile phone lineup in 2017 was a crushing blow for fans of the platform, but many held out hope for a Surface "Andromeda" device.

Alas, as Mary Jo Foley noted in July 2018, "There's still no compelling reason for Microsoft to come to market with its current iteration of a small, dual-screen mobile device."

Maybe next year.

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