Microsoft's new Surface Pro tablet and Surface Book hybrid laptop are aimed at winning back professionals who have switched to Apple MacBooks. Here's why Microsoft might succeed.
Today Microsoft took aim at Apple, launching a new Surface tablet and high-end hybrid laptop aimed at being the only device professionals need at home and work.
The release comes at an important time for Microsoft: after the failure of the short-lived Surface RT tablets the Surface line seems to be finding its feet - with Surface devices earning Microsoft close to $900m in revenue in the last financial quarter.
At a launch event in New York today, Microsoft doubled down on the Surface's sales momentum and revealed not just the expected Surface Pro 4 tablet but also a hybrid laptop/tablet called the Surface Book.
Both machines are available with high specs and a quality finish, while remaining thin and light and with what Microsoft says is enough battery life to last the working day.
Microsoft made no bones over which machines the new Surface devices are competing with, describing the Surface Pro 4 as 50 percent faster than the MacBook Air and the Surface Book as twice as fast as the MacBook Pro.
Fundamentally, these are machines designed to appeal to professionals who want a device they can use in and outside the office, said Richard Edwards, principal analyst with Ovum.
Microsoft is, he said, looking for a way to "displace the MacBook Air, which it sees as the target device favoured by the young and trendy people who like to be super mobile but still want that laptop experience".
Capturing this market is important if the Surface is to become popular within business, according to Gartner research director Roberta Cozza, as enterprises are increasingly led by their staff in the devices they purchase.
"They are building a portfolio that many professional users will like," she said.
There are various improvements to the devices to tempt professionals. Both machines have a screen that has very precise detection of touch and pen input, thanks to a dedicated chipset for the display and the new pen's 1,024 points of pressure. The screen is sharp on both devices, with 267 pixels per inch and "the thinnest Gorilla Glass 4 cover shipped on a tablet".
With the Surface Book, Microsoft is aiming to provide computing power on the move. The top-end Surface Book's sixth generation Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia GeForce graphics card allows it to "outperform any competitor in its class" while still delivering 12 hours of battery life, according to the technology giant. The Surface Book's screen can be detached and used as a tablet or flipped a full 360 degrees so it sits on top of the keyboard.
"When you're spending this amount of money you want all the elements to be strong - the keyboard, the data transfer, battery life - with this machine it seems to be the case," said Edwards.
Microsoft has also revamped the Type Cover, the optional keyboard for the Surface Pro 4, to make it easier to type. Keys are more widely spaced and have 1.3mm of travel when pressed. The new cover also includes a fingerprint reader and increases the size of the touchpad by 40 percent. Meanwhile the Surface Book has a full "laptop class" keyboard.
But by introducing a fully-featured tablet-laptop hybrid, Microsoft may have made the Surface Pro's USP of being a tablet that you can use as a laptop less compelling, said Ovum's Edwards.
"It's going to be a very interesting to see whether there is a rush to the Surface Book and if it impacts sales of the Surface Pro.
"One of the challenges for the Surface Pro has been that it's a challenge using it as a laptop in one's lap. It's presented some obstacles for individuals who have got used to laptops that allow them to work from anywhere."
The Surface Pro 4's peripherals are backwards compatible, with the new Type Cover and docking station also working with the Surface Pro 3. This compatibility between different generations of Surface will be important to business, said Edwards.
Overall, he believes the devices have got the necessary specs to challenge Apple in the way that Microsoft hopes.
"There were those who were looking at what Apple was doing with its devices and were disappointed that the iPad Pro wasn't something more and even the MacBook didn't offer something a little bit new.
"With these products Microsoft has certainly taken the battle to Apple."
Gartner's Cozza also expressed doubts that the recently released iPad Pro would impact the appeal of the Surface in enterprise - in part because many firms are already set up to manage and support Windows computers.
"If the majority of your PCs are Windows then it is likely your next device will be a Windows device and the Surface will appeal as a PC replacement."
In her view, Microsoft's priority should be getting more developers to release Universal Windows apps - software that complements hybrid devices by adjusting its look and feel depending on whether it is being used on a tablet or PC. At the launch event today, Microsoft announced new Universal Windows apps are in the pipeline, with forthcoming releases from Facebook, Instagram, Uber and King.
The Surface Pro 4 is the first Surface tablet to ship with Windows 10, and features such as Windows Hello facial and fingerprint log-ins, as well as MDM support, should appeal to enterprises' desire to simplify management and security, said Ovum's Edwards.
He added that Microsoft likely saw the Surface as a way of getting Windows 10 into enterprises and building on the eight million businesses Microsoft claims are already running the OS.
"It will be interesting to see whether or not those touting MacBook Airs will switch back to Windows 10," said Edwards - describing these devices as a honeypot designed to attract both new users and developers.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella certainly hopes the new Surface line-up will lure people back, as he made clear when he wrapped up today's launch event.
"We're making great progress towards our aspiration we shared in January - to move people from needing windows, to choosing windows, to loving windows."
- Both the Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 will be available for pre-order from tomorrow and will ship from 26th October.