This week Microsoft announced the somewhat unexpected Surface Pro 3. Is the third time the charm, or is this another Microsoft strike in the Apple-dominated tablet market?
Tablets have been a long and winding road for Microsoft. A company ahead of its time, Microsoft announced its tablet PC device nearly a decade before the iPad, yet has never gained significant share in a market it initially defined. Earlier this week, Microsoft announced its latest foray into tablets, with the third iteration of its Surface Pro line, an in-house tablet that has been lauded for its high-quality industrial design, yet handicapped by an OS that seems to be locked in an identity crisis, attempting to decide whether it's a tablet or a full-fledged desktop.
Microsoft goes big
Many Microsoft watchers were expecting a "Surface Mini," a smaller tablet that would compete with the recent spate of small, low-cost tablets running "full fat" Windows 8, like the Dell Venue Pro 8 I recently reviewed. Instead, Microsoft released one of the largest Windows tablets yet, with the Surface Pro sporting a massive, high-resolution 12ʺ screen. Despite this amount of real estate, the tablet maintains a trim form factor, at 0.36ʺ thick (a shade thinner than the recent iPad with Retina Display), and a sub 2-lb. weight.
Rather than a lower-power Atom processor, the Surface Pro 3 is equipped with a current Intel Core i5 processor, while claiming a 9-hour battery life. If you're thinking that these are the specs of a high-end Ultrabook, you would be right, as they compare favorably with Windows-based Ultrabooks and Apple's MacBook Air. Microsoft has also revised its neat keyboard cover, essentially packing no-compromise hardware into a tablet form factor that's smaller than an most 11ʺ Ultrabooks, all while sporting a large screen that would put most portable computers and tablets to shame.
The pinnacle of the "Microsoft Way"
I've admired Microsoft's maneuvers with Windows 8 for not attempting to "out-Apple Apple," and instead defining their own vision for tablet computing. Microsoft seems to be attempting to offer one device that can perform standard computing functions one moment, and then seamlessly slip into touch-based tablet computing. They've ironed out many of the initial kinks of Windows 8 in this regard, and with the Surface Pro 3 seem to be articulating the ultimate extension of this vision. Rather than attempting to provide maximum portability in exchange for a series of compromises, Microsoft is finally offering a no-compromise device to execute its vision.
If the battery life claims of the Surface Pro 3 match reality, finally there is a Windows device that offers full workday productivity, a purpose-built screen and keyboard that will provide a nearly complete laptop experience, and a large, portable tablet. They've even scratched my favorite itch with an active stylus that not only allows note taking and handwriting recognition, but even offers a button that will quickly power on the device and open One Note, without entering that horribly complex password mandated by your IT security department.
Can Microsoft actually sell its vision?
The Microsoft approach contrasts dramatically with that taken by Apple and Google, where their tablets run a mobile OS, and any attempts at handling "legacy" Windows documents and applications require a purpose-built mobile application. In theory, the Microsoft approach is superior. Rather than requiring a watered down version of Word, users can run the real deal on their Windows tablet. Similarly, rather than waiting for your ERP vendor to offer an Android or iOS client, or your developers to whip up some custom code, you can run the same old GUI that you've been deploying for years. That executive who would have complained in some fashion about their Apple or Android tablet can check the P&L in SAP one moment, then flick through emails and poke at pictures until their fingers blister.
The missing link to this grand theoretical vision is that computing is slowly passing the desktop by. Cloud applications require little more than a browser, and anyone who's attempted to use a standard desktop application on a tablet knows the experience leaves much to be desired. Windows 8 lags significantly in tablet-oriented applications that take advantage of the "Modern" user interface, and has alienated stodgy business users by initially forcing them into Modern and casting aside the familiar Start button.
These are correctable flaws, and Microsoft has a relatively strong (with some notable exceptions) history of achieving come-from-behind dominance in a category. The Surface Pro 3 appears to finally be a well-executed manifestation of Microsoft's tablet vision. If it can continue to correct the remaining flaws on the software side, the company has a unique and compelling story to tell. If it can translate that story into sales, the Surface Pro 3 could mark a major turn of Microsoft's tablet fortunes. If it does not, based on initial appearances, at least the hardware wasn't at fault.