Microsoft's announcement of the new Surface Pro and the surprise unveiling of the Surface Book have demonstrated that the PC platform is far from dead, while non-Windows tablets appear to be reaching a plateau. However, is Microsoft now competing too strongly against its own vendor partners?
The Surface Pro 4 was unveiled at a Windows 10 Devices event held by Microsoft on 6 October, a launch that was widely rumoured. But the firm surprised everyone by unveiling the Surface Book, a 2-in-1 convertible with a detachable screen that can be used as a laptop or slate-mode tablet.
Given that Microsoft's tagline for the Surface Pro is "the tablet that can replace your laptop", the announcement of the Surface Book was quickly leapt on by press and analysts. If the Surface Pro can replace your laptop, where does the Surface Book fit in?
The truth is that, while the Surface Pro 4 can replace your laptop, Microsoft's tagline means that it has the specifications of a laptop and can be used to run the same business applications, setting it apart from non-Windows tablets that are based largely on smartphone operating systems.
However, many people have found that, while a Surface Pro with its optional Type Cover keyboard can be used like a laptop, it is really suitable for being operated only on a flat surface like a desk. Try using it on your lap, and you will quickly find it far less convenient than a standard laptop where the screen can be adjusted to the most comfortable angle for viewing. This is the most likely reason behind Microsoft's decision to introduce the Surface Book.
Meanwhile, the devices themselves showcase the latest in PC technology, including Intel's Skylake 6th-generation Core processors, high-capacity solid state drives, high-definition touchscreens and, not least, the new Windows 10 operating system.
It has been said that Microsoft's decision to get into the hardware market was to act as a trailblazer for the kind of hardware that it wanted its hardware partners to produce, and the Surface Pro seems to have had some success in this respect.
"Surface is doing everything Microsoft set out to achieve. It acts as a halo product that demonstrates ‘the art of the possible' to Microsoft licensees. In close partnership with Intel, Surface has resulted in vastly more innovative designs from PC makers who a few years ago seemed incapable of delivering anything other than ugly, bulky and unattractive laptops," said Geoff Blaber, vice president at analyst firm CCS Insight.
The excitement that the announcement of the new Surface models has generated certainly seems to vindicate Microsoft's decision to start developing its own systems, but the danger is Microsoft could now be seen as competing too strongly with its own hardware partners.
Without giving too much away, the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book have almost identical specifications to some upcoming products from Microsoft partners, and the cachet of the Microsoft brand could sway some buyers into choosing a Surface.
So, while the Surface brand so far seems to have spurred vendors into upping their game, some may reconsider whether they wish to remain in the PC market if the Surface Pro 4 or Surface Book start to be perceived as stealing sales away from their own products.
However, new research from YouGov claims to show that, while sales of tablets have stalled in the UK over the past year or so, 2-in-1 devices are now where the market growth is coming from, so Microsoft's vendor partners can perhaps breathe easy for now.
"Our research has shown a continued stagnation in the tablet market over the past year. While the number of tablets in circulation continues to increase, this is because multiple device ownership means that the pool is getting deeper without ever getting any wider," said Russell Feldman, director of digital, media and technology at YouGov.
"Laptops do things - such as edit documents - that most tablet owners don't do on their devices, meaning they are never going to end the laptop's market dominance."
Overall, the new Surface devices seem like good news all round; they have generated real excitement among potential buyers and, in combination with Windows 10, they look like stimulating the sales of 2-in-1 PC devices in the face of strong competition from Apple and consumer tablet makers.
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