Microsoft Surface: Saving the future of PCs

Microsoft’s new Surface products will force the industry to rethink how PCs are designed and built. This design process change effectively takes the market back to where it always should have been – where those closest to the customer set the specification rather than having to work around the processor vendors.

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[Disclosure: The companies mentioned in this article are clients of the author.]

For some time now, the PC market has been partially operating backward. Intel, who built the heart of the PC, would create a product then toss it out to the OEMs…who then had to build around it. This is analogous to having an automotive engine company building what they want – say a 16-cylinder engine – and having the car manufacturers build around it.

The way most manufacturing works is the engineers designing the product come up with a spec for a major component, and the component maker builds the part to the spec. This process is best because the OEM is closer to the customer, has the best sense of what the market needs, and is more able to set the spec than the parts vendor. When you do it backward, the tail is wagging the dog, and the product is sub-optimal.

This week, Microsoft effectively fixed the upside-down relationship where Intel, not the OEMs, constrained the design.

Surface game-changer

During the Surface launch this week, Microsoft showcased three breakout products. The Surface ProX was based on Qualcomm Snapdragon technology and was also a joint design between Microsoft and Qualcomm (and it includes a unique AI component). The 15” Surface Laptop, which uses Ryzen and Radion technology from AMD built to Microsoft’s spec – providing more power in a smaller form factor than ever before – was the second product.

At this point, I thought Intel was screwed because they typically don’t do custom designs. But the most innovative product was the Surface Neo, which had a new processor custom designed by Intel suggesting they too are now on board with this new model…at least for this product. Granted, the Neo isn’t due until this time next year, and things could change, but Intel is the segment leader, so getting them on board with this new concept was critical to that concept’s success.

Each of these products is unique and potentially market changing.

Surface 15” Laptop computer

For those that gravitate toward performance, we typically get an ugly choice. We can have something thin and light, with good battery life that doesn’t have the performance we need, or we can have the performance and give up the thin, light and battery life parts. This 15” product is as near a no-compromise offering as we are likely to see this year. The only compromise is that the product is large, to house the 15” screen, which you typically want with the extra performance anyway.

AMD has been a leader in semi-custom designs, and you could argue this is their first highly desirable laptop win. Historically they’ve been in laptops that weren’t that exciting and were more focused on providing an aggressive price that a performance powerhouse. Of the products announced at the event, this was both the most powerful and the largest laptop (in terms of screen size), so this is a solid offering, not the more typical cut-rate Intel knock off. The other OEMs will undoubtedly take notice, so the positive impact on AMD for this win should be significant.

Surface ProX

As far as products this year, the Surface ProX is almost the polar opposite of the Surface 15” Laptop above. Created in partnership with Qualcomm, this is also the most forward-looking product in the line this year given it optimizes battery life (multi-day) and always-on connectivity. It included a unique AI processor that provides targeted performance without adversely impacting battery life. The fact that Microsoft also builds the OS for that component is useful (otherwise, we’d need to wait until someone wrote software for it). One interesting thing it initially does is that it adjusts the eyes of the person you are talking to, so it appears they are talking directly to you and not looking at their screen or keyboard improving engagement on Skype calls.

A typical Qualcomm processor pulls around 2 watts of power, which is great for battery life, but the trade-off on performance has left users wanting more. The custom part in the ProX is a 7-watt part, which does slip battery life slightly but provides performance 3x what the last generation Surface Pro provided with a more traditional x86 part. Finally, battery life and adequate performance rather than the prior ugly trade-off.

Funny thing with this product is that is used a nested self-charging pen, and given I’ve lost tons of pens the “nested” part got me surprisingly excited.

Surface Neo

The Surface Neo is the first of what is likely to be a wave of dual screen products from every major vendor. It uses a new version of the Windows OS called Windows 10X (don’t get me started on naming, which would have me pointing out that the ProX doesn’t use Windows 10X or that the OS should be named Windows 10 Duo for consistency).

This twin-screen laptop/tablet captured the imagination of the folks at the launch and it, coupled with the new Phone offering from the company (Surface Duo rather than Surface Phone). Extremely small and light with a level of flexibility we don’t yet have in market from anyone (though this will change before this product releases), this is a revolutionary offering.

Given this is a year out, I expect some things will change with it, but what made is truly revolutionary was the Lakefield processor developed jointly with Microsoft. Intel came to play!

OEM-driven design model

This launch included an impressive line of products. During the presentation Microsoft indicated this was like writing a symphony and with these updates, the firm now has one of the deepest laptop lines in the market. But the big change was getting the processor companies (other than AMD who has led in semi-custom for some time) to come around to an OEM-driven design model.

As the other OEMs pick this up and either use these new parts themselves or specify something else, the result will be better-differentiated PCs and a far more user-focused PC ecosystem  And suddenly, the Surface effort really starts to make sense, because, without it, the market likely would still be wondering where it’s future went.

Yep, Microsoft effectively just saved the future of the PC, and, in the out years, we are going to see designs that we didn’t even conceive were possible. Designs more tightly focused on our wants and needs…and that, my friends, is a very good thing.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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