Microsoft Surface refresh: the magic behind the announcement

A look at the launch of the latest line of Surface products from Microsoft.

Microsoft Surface Pro 6
Mark Hachman / IDG

(Disclosure: Microsoft is a client of the author.)

One of the things that has changed post-Steve Ballmer is passion. It is kind of funny and sad at the same time because I can recall the video of Steve passionately jumping around on stage saying, “developers, developers, developers,” talking about the importance of developers to the platform. The folks started referring to him as “Monkey Boy,” and he turned into the Stepford CEO (no passion; just occasional anger). I wrote him at the time saying that I thought passion was important in a CEO and praising him for it, but unfortunately (since he hadn’t seen the video at the time) my impact was the opposite of what I’d intended.

This came back to me this week during the well-orchestrated launch of the latest line of Surface products from Microsoft. The people on stage, particularly Panos Panay, really cared about the products and the people who used them, something that I think is incredibly important to any product and something that is too often lost once companies go public and the founders move on. I also watched this in the context of last week’s launch of the Windows Virtual Desktop and Microsoft Managed Desktop which I covered last week.

Particularly with respect to the Windows Virtual Desktop, it got me thinking very differently about the Surface Studio, a product I’ve often thought was designed by committee, yet suddenly makes sense. 

Let me explain.

Microsoft Surface

Microsoft Surface came to be because Steve Ballmer felt the PC OEMs were falling short of competing with Apple. The line wasn’t intended to piss off Dell, HP or Lenovo: it was designed to stop what was believed to be a purge of Microsoft Windows PCs by iPads. This never actually materialized as a true threat largely because Steve Jobs died, Tim Cook largely missed that meeting, and Apple failed to step up.

Surface, like most Apple products, is design-forward. This means it is more of a form-over-function product, designed to convey status and outperform Macs but not to lead in performance or be priced significantly below Apple’s offerings. Ironically, shortly after Surface launched, Apple seemed to agree with the perception that PCs were dead and stopped really investing much in their own PCs which are mostly years out of date. 

The result is that Surface, which continued to improve, isn’t just at parity with Mac: it is arguably a ton better, but it is still a form-over-function product. This means you can generally find products from Dell, HP and Lenovo that outperform them but often aren’t as attractive nor do they convey as much status.  If we were talking cars this is more like Lamborghini making a run at Ferrari (granted without the massive price premium), than Lincoln making a run at Cadillac. The strange thing is that this is like Lamborghini making a run at Ferrari and Ferrari deciding they really are in the motorcycle business much like Apple is more of a smartphone maker than a PC maker these days. (I have to believe that this would be like someone practicing tennis to take on a named competitor, only to find that when he or she was ready to kick butt, that competitor decided he or she would rather play Ping Pong.)

New Surface

Most of the improvements this round are straight up performance improvements tied to a refresh of Intel processors. As you would expect performance is up sharply and because Apple hasn’t kept up as well, you’d be correct to assume Microsoft spent some time pointing out their products were faster, and they remain arguably better looking. Black, which I’ve wanted them to do for a while, is not an option across most of the products and SSDs, rather than hybrid drives, are generally standard in the line. 

My personal favorite product remains the Notebook which now comes in Black (my new lusted after target) and the just-launched headphones. We’ll get to the headphones in a moment.

But this refresh got me to think of the Surface Studio differently, largely thanks to the Windows Virtual Desktop.

Surface Studio

You see the Surface Studio is the one desktop product. It uses a mobile Intel part (focused on energy conservation, not performance, which is odd in a high-performance PC); it uses the NVIDIA 1060 or 1070 graphics cards, not the preferred 1080 or professional graphics cards more common in graphics workstations; and it lacks Thunderbolt, often common in those workstations. Thus, my conclusion that this was a product designed by committee.

However, with Windows Virtual Desktop you can get workstation performance in the cloud including potential access to true workstation graphics cards from AMD or NVIDIA. This means you really don’t need the performance on the desktop to get to workstation levels if you have the necessary bandwidth and access to Azure.

I’m not yet truly sure Microsoft gets this yet because they didn’t mention wedding the Surface Studio to the Windows Virtual Desktop, but this solution exists none the less. 

Surface Headphones

Amazingly if there was one offering that made me think I’d died and gone to heaven, it was the Surface Headphones which are designed for spaces like WeWork to eliminate noise. I test headphones on a regular basis and my current favorite is a set from Plantronics. However, none of the products I’ve tested with active noise cancellation truly eliminate all surrounding noise. 

This is particularly annoying when you are on a plane with a crying baby and, or like I was the other week, sitting behind a woman and son who was spoiled so badly he not only wouldn’t take no for an answer, he had a high-pitched whiney voice that was like nails on a chalkboard. The Surface headphones aren’t a cheap date but when you turn on and crank up the noise cancellation the world goes away. While expensive at $350, for this kind of piece of mind (and sanity protection) I’d likely pay twice that. It is the one new product this year (other than my coming iPace car) that I’m truly excited about getting. I could get to the point I can sleep on a plane.

Wrapping up: your phone companion

While started to combat Apple, who really doesn’t seem to care about PCs anymore despite the fact they are the only major PC maker in decline at the moment, the Surface line has come into its own. As Microsoft moves through programs like the Windows Virtual Desktop and Microsoft Managed Desktop Surface will play an increasingly important role, not just as a product, but a platform that connects Microsoft far more closely back to the people that use Windows. Along those lines there was another almost lost announcement for a free software offering called Your Phone which mirrors your Android phone on your PC. Texts, apps, you can interface with your phone without having to pull it out of your pocket or purse. One thing that jumped out at me was that with pictures I have to be on Wi-Fi to sync them to the cloud, then I have to open a Chrome Browser, then download the pictures, find them, and then add them to whatever I’m doing. With this app I can just pull the pictures out of the app, no Wi-Fi, no downloading, no looking for the pictures, just drag and drop. Where has this thing been all my life?

By the way, something else that is interesting I find I’m using the Microsoft Launcher and Outlook on my Android phone now and it is almost like I have a Microsoft phone but with all of the Android Apps. Someone at Microsoft appears to be thinking very strategically at the moment.

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