What it is: The Surface Book is Microsoft’s latest venture into hardware to create the ultimate laptop.
For decades Microsoft sold operating systems and let their partners build the hardware to run it on. Those days are gone forever. First, Linux is free and OS X comes free with every macintosh. That forced Microsoft to give Windows 10 away for free in the first year to encourage people to upgrade. Since many people didn’t like Windows 8, most Windows 8 users were the first to upgrade with Windows 7 users following close behind.
Since it’s unlikely people want to pay for operating system upgrades any more and the business of selling operating systems is fading fast, Microsoft has gotten into the hardware business. At their recent event, they announced several hardware initiatives. First was the HoloLens. While interesting, it’s a niche product. The developer’s kit alone will cost $3,000 and the idea of strapping a HoloLens to your face to use it means it’s highly unlikely you’ll use the HoloLens in everyday life like carrying a mobile phone with you. Putting a HoloLens on your face is more of a specialized matter rather than a casual one like pulling your mobile phone out of your pocket and making a call.
So you can ignore the HoloLens for now as an interesting product with a long-term future in a niche market. The second hardware Microsoft showed off were new Windows 10 phones. Can these new Windows 10 phones run apps previously developed for the Windows 7/8 Phone operating system? That’s a question to ask although with so few Windows Phone users, it’s probably not a major problem.
The real problem is there’s still little reason for people to give up their Android phones or iPhones to switch to a Windows 10 phone. Once again, Microsoft’s phones are a niche product that are decent, but unlikely to dominate the smartphone market any time soon, if ever.
The real interest in Microsoft’s hardware comes form their Surface Pro 4 and their Surface Book. Basically the Surface Pro 4 is a tablet that can double as a satisfactory laptop with the optional keyboard. The Surface Book is a laptop with a removable screen that can double as a tablet.
If you want a tablet first, get the Surface Pro. If you want a laptop first, get the Surface Book.
The hardware for the Surface Pro has always been very good; it’s just the software that’s been lacking. Windows RT/8 were okay as a tablet, but cumbersome to use as a laptop. Fortunately that’s gone away with Windows 10. With Windows 10 cleaning up Windows 8’s mess, both the Surface Pro and Surface Book are well designed products.
The real key is how well Windows 10 adapts as a tablet operating system and a desktop operating system. Microsoft’s promise is that developers can write Windows 10 apps that can run on any Windows 10 device, but here’s the problem. How do you design software that works equally well on a tablet and a desktop?
Microsoft added touch features to Windows 10 so you can control Windows programs using your fingers or a stylus. If you look at Microsoft Office, it’s mostly a desktop program with touch gestures added in. That means it’s user interface is optimized for desktops first and touch second. If you look at Microsoft Office for Android or the iPad, you’ll see that it follows a similar user interface but better optimized for touch.
So the juggling act is making user interfaces that are equally adaptable and optimized for desktop and touch.
Microsoft solved the hardware problems of a device that can convert from a laptop to a tablet with both the Surface Pro and the Surface Book. Now the Surface Pro still isn’t a great laptop because of its keyboard. However the Surface Book is a great laptop that can convert to a decent tablet, so the Surface Book is much closer to Microsoft’s dream of creating a product with no compromises that can function as both a laptop and a tablet. The real key will be the software.
If Microsoft can get Microsoft Office to work seamlessly with touch in tablet form on a Surface Book, then they’ll have achieved their original goal of a laptop tablet combination. So the key lies entirely with software, not just with Microsoft’s own software but with third parties creating software that works seamlessly as both a desktop and a tablet app.
Windows succeeded because of huge third party support that created oddball programs from real estate management to dentistry X-ray software that can run on Windows. The future now lies largely outside of Microsoft’s control, which is to hope third parties can make equally compelling software that works as both desktop and tablet apps. Can they do it?
Bolting on touch gesture recognition to Windows 10 immediately converts all Windows software to touch, but does nothing to improve their user interface to optimize it for touch. What Microsoft needs to do next is create a Visual Basic-like development tool that makes it easy to design user interfaces that work well as both desktop and tablet apps. Until then, third party software won’t be optimized for the tablet form.
Microsoft solved the hardware problem of laptops and tablets. Now they need to tackle the software problems of desktop user interfaces and tablet user interfaces for third parties. While Microsoft can coast on the subpar touch gesture feature of Windows 10 that makes all Windows programs run on a tablet, the key is optimization on a tablet. In short, Microsoft needs a killer app to make its tablet form essential.
Until then, the majority of users will likely use the Surface Pro and Surface Book as a laptop first and a tablet second. That might be fine for games and light entertainment such as watching movies, but the long-term future depends on software optimized for tablets. Until Microsoft solves this problem, Windows 10 on a tablet won’t be optimal, but it might still be good enough if you only need a tablet as a secondary use.
The Surface Pro and Surface Book are hardware winners. It’s up to software developers to make this 2 in 1 form factor more than just an engineering marvel.