Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.
When the Microsoft Surface line was created, I thought then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was making the same mistake he made with Zune — and, in a way, he was. But at least with the Surface, it was a market he understood. The Surface did better, but was plagued by the lousy strategy of copying a competitor with a clone-like product. The first Surface tried too hard to be a better iPad, and the iPad itself wasn’t the success the iPod and iPhone had been.
Typically, a better competitive strategy is to try to one-up a rival, not create a clone. This strategy has been demonstrated by Sun against IBM, Toyota against Ford and GM, Tesla against the existing car industry, and Apple with both the iPod and iPhone.
Microsoft this week launched its new Surface line, and two products demonstrate this better strategy: the Surface Laptop Studio and the Duo 2 phone. i’m going to focus on the laptop, because it represents the best blend of Windows 11 and hardware I’ve seen so far. And Microsoft should be better than anyone else at creating such a blend given that it owns Windows.
First, about Windows 11
I’ve been reading a lot of disparaging opinions about the Windows 11 beta. Reminder: It’s a beta and doesn’t represent even the majority of feedback from the users, let alone any initial incompatibility issues with hardware and software. My advice on a new OS is to wait at least three months after general availability before even considering broad deployment — and only deploy once it is clear the initial teething problems have been addressed.
However, we are entering a period of serious malware, updates and patches aren’t as problematic as they once were, and Windows 11 was explicitly designed to resist this troubling wave. Given that ransomware is doing billions of dollars worth of damage, I think the risk of OS problems is likely less worrisome than the risk of contaminating a company with ransomware. Issues will undoubtedly be annoying, but a successful ransomware attack or major breach will ruin your life. I expect Windows 11 to be more stable at launch than Windows 10, and Windows 10 was vastly better than Windows 8, Vista, or particularly NT and ME.
The least risky products will likely be those designed to run Windows 11. And here, the Surface should have a significant initial advantage.
The Surface Laptop Studio
One of the traditional problems with Windows was that there didn’t seem to be a target customer for various features. It effectively targeted everyone, suggesting the OS wasn’t particularly ideal for anyone. That lack of focus helped contribute to the Windows ME, Vista, and Windows 8 troubles. Before Windows 10, Microsoft was targeting creators, which makes sense given they use their PC’s capabilities more thoroughly. (This was also an audience Apple historically targeted more aggressively than Microsoft.)
“Creators,” in this case, include engineers, animators, programmers, architects, artists, graphic designers, and others who use computers for more than just social media, email, and Office tasks. These are people who make a living with their PCs and have been huge advocates for Apple over the years.
The Surface Book, the predecessor to the Surface Laptop Studio, tried to develop an iPad alternative for this group. Unfortunately, it was both an engineering marvel and a bit of a kludge, given the tablet form of the device wasn’t remotely competitive with the iPad in battery life — a critical feature for tablet users. In the end, I expect most creators loved how it looked but rarely used the tablet alone, and that tablet added a great deal to the price and frustration with the product.
The Surface Laptop Studio, which arrives Oct. 5 and starts at $1,599, builds on what was good about the Surface Book, offering a crisp physical design and a solid CPU/GPU blend for performance. The device’s cantilevered screen collapses into a drawing board or can be used to view videos when traveling in cramped conditions (on a plane, for instance). It has a charging magnetic pen dock, uses a pen with haptics to emulate the feel of paper, has better Omni Sonic speakers and an AI-powered smart camera that uses a neural network to make you look better on video calls. And it has the best keyboard Microsoft has yet made.
Overall, it successfully targets that category of creators, especially when coupled with Windows 11. If you want to see an early benchmark of a PC explicitly designed to showcase Windows 11, it would be the Surface Laptop Studio.