What the Surface Pro 3 says about Microsoft's hardware strategy

By Peter Gothard
21 May 2014 View Comments
Microsoft Surface Pro 3 with Windows 8.1

"Why hardware?" asked Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in his introduction to Microsoft's unveiling of the Surface Pro 3 this week.

Further reading

"We are clearly not interested in building refrigerators or toasters, and we're not interested in competing with OEMs when it comes to hardware."

But the product that Microsoft revealed, which Nadella said followed the Surface concept of enabling users to "enjoy art and create art", didn't really address the question, or back up his statement.

Why hardware, indeed. And does Nadella genuinely believe that a slicker, thinner and lighter hybrid tablet won't put the cat among the pigeons with partners like Lenovo, HP and Dell?

Gartner analyst Ranjit Atwal told Computing that he believes the Surface Pro 3 may just be another attempt by Microsoft to "raise their profile above being just an operating system - showing something different and innovative".

However, it's also likely that, as with the original model, the machine could be Microsoft showing its OEMs how best to represent the troublesome, multi-UI nature of Windows 8 as designers continue struggling to market a concept that, at its best, should be used by a three-armed person clutching a pen and a keyboard while swiping and jabbing with fingers.

Rumours before the event seemed to be fitting Microsoft up to be announcing a small tablet - a 'Surface Mini' - perhaps of 7in in screen size. In many ways, this could have been more interesting, and more in line with a business plan first laid out by outgoing CEO Steve Ballmer at the company's Build developer conference in 2013.

There, Ballmer held Acer's (since critically drubbed 8in Iconia W3) aloft and used it to herald an apparent "explosion in the range of innovative new devices" in the tablet market. He stated that the Iconia was "literally [sic] flying off the shelves in terms of volume and appreciation", and promising a "proliferation over the course of the next few months" of such small tablet devices.

Indeed, at this year's Build, Microsoft proudly announced free Windows licences for devices under 9in in screen size, again suggesting a desire for production of smaller Windows tablets.

A 12in Intel Core i7-powered "laptop replacement", as Microsoft's VP of Surface computing, Panos Panay, called the new machine, is really not moving off the page Microsoft was already on with regards to its original aims for Surface.

But perhaps that's the point as far as Microsoft's plans for its own hardware go: the Surface dream is perpetuating while other notions seem to be dwindling. Has Nadella's "mobile first, cloud first" (he said it again at the Surface Pro 3 launch)  taken a leaf out of Steve Jobs' book and opted for a clearer, less device-fragmented focus?

After all, Surface, with its 10.6in screen yet clunky body and keyboard reliance lay in a strange hinterland between tablet and laptop. A slightly increased body size and more iPad-like 3:2 screen ratio still feels very much like a tablet, but is now gunning for the MacBook too.

Panay made great play of this by weighing the device next to a MacBook, as well as poking fun at the number of MacBooks in the audience that were probably accompanied by "an iPad in your bag".

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