Microsoft Surface: what Redmond finally got right

Microsoft, unsurprisingly, made a rather bold boast this week. It attributed the strong sales of its Surface devices to a growing dissatisfaction among MacBook Pro users. While many will definitely call BS on that, it's futile to deny facts. The Surface Pro tablets and the Surface Book laptop has done quite well. An achievement for a company that has traditionally sucked at devices (save for the Xbox). That success is definitely surprising and unexpected, which makes us ask, "how the hell did Microsoft pull it off?"

Troubled start

The Microsoft Surface's success didn't happen overnight. It traces its roots, even its name, to an ambitious dream that almost, but not quite, took flesh in the latest Surface Studio. And its beginnings were anything but smooth.

The Surface brand was initially intended for a touch screen coffee table the likes of which were envisioned by Jeff Han, who would later join Microsoft's team until 2015. In retrospect, it was perhaps providential that Microsoft didn't pursue that idea at once. Even today, that concept might be far too ahead of its time and won't find too many paying customers to justify its commercial existence. Instead, Microsoft went for a smaller, more portable version, and thus the Surface tablets were born.

The first, maybe even up to the second, generation of Surface tablets were a far cry from today's Surface tablets in terms of popularity and sales numbers. They were novel, yes, and got around by word of mouth. But they were also heavily criticized, though they did gain a loyal following who recognized and believed that Microsoft was on to something. Microsoft itself thought so, enough to iterate through the design a few more times before it finally hit the nail on the head around the time the Surface Pro 3 came around.

Fusion of hardware and software

There have been tablets before the Surface and even Windows tablets. If one goes even further back in history, there have been hulking tablet PCs even before the iPad was a thing. But the Microsoft Surface offered something somewhat unheard of back then in the Windows world: hardware that was designed to take advantage of software, and software that was formed around the capabilities of a specific type of hardware. Precisely the formula that Apple boasts of in its products.

We'll not talk about the catastrophe that was Windows RT. That has already been talked to death. Let sleeping and dead dogs lie in piece. Microsoft's dance with tablets started with Windows 8, which proved to also be unpopular, though less so, and then "fixed" in Windows 8.1. These windows versions tried to prove that Windows has what it takes to run on something other than a desktop or laptop, especially those without touch screens. While that almost ended in failure, it impressed on Microsoft an important lesson: its users and customers didn't simply fall in two camps. Some were more than happy to dance around the blurred lines. And they might be willing to pay good money for it, too.

Pandering to a vocal minority

By all accounts, the Microsoft Surface should have been a rather niche device. While the ability to switch between laptop and tablet has already been around by the time it landed in the market, its most important, though ironically optional, accessory really defined what it is. The Surface Pen turned the Surface into more than just a laptop/tablet hybrid. It became an easel for creatives, particularly artists. Fortunately for Microsoft, that happens to be a very captive and passionate audience.

Microsoft didn't simply market the Surface tablets as a portable computer for everybody. There are literally dozens of those in existence already. It had a specific market segment in mind. Digital doodlers, graphic artists, and professionals that needed a portable Windows PC that didn't weigh them down (literally). It also aimed for tech savvy users hungry for something new and refreshing.

These people happen to be some of the noisiest people on the Internet, for better or for worse. These are the people that write reviews and blog posts, make fancy hands-on videos, and generally get the word around. You rarely hear Regular Joe or Jane giving rave reviews about the newest enterprise-ready laptop. You will, however, hear a lot of geeks, artists, and pundits talk about the latest and upcoming technology trends. While Microsoft of course has the resources for traditional advertising, word of mouth marketing, especially by the people who actually use the devices, is still hard to beat.

Democratization of technology

Of course, a new hip device wouldn't exactly experience long-lasting success if it didn't offer something actually meaningful. As it turns out, the Microsoft Surface did just that. It made a product and technology previously only available to an elite few accessible to anyone with cash to spare.

For years, Wacom has held a monopoly on the computer graphics market with its tablets, both the "blind" Intuos kind as well as the Cintiq display type. While the Intuos was significantly cheaper than the Cintiq, it suffered from the same requirement: it was practically an add-on on top of a computer. In the case of the Intuos, it was something you had to carry around (provided it was small enough) if you want to get anything done on the go. The Cintiq, in addition to its behemoth size, was practically a second monitor. Both would require users to plop down at a desk to work.

Imagine a device that combined the portability of a laptop computer with the display pen input of a Cintiq. That is exactly what the Microsoft Surface offered. And while it wasn't exactly the cheapest kit in the market, nor the sharpest pen compared to Wacom's, that premise was strong enough for people to actually accept the compromise. And the market was apparently big enough that Wacom would eventually relent and follow suit. Apple, too, though in a different vein.

Typical Microsoft stubbornness

Microsoft has had a bad history with hardware, from the Zune to the Lumia to the Band. Given that, Microsoft should have called it quits after the first Surface Pro, and especially after the Windows RT Surface. Fans, however, are thanking their lucky stars that, in this case, Microsoft exercised its bullishness.

Unlike Google, who churns out and then throws out prototypes like there's no tomorrow, Microsoft usually takes the opposite attitude, especially when it comes to software. It stubbornly refuses to give up without a fight, a fight that usually lasts years. Sometimes, that yields good fruit. Sometimes, the best way forward is to cut losses. When not a few panned the first gen Surfaces, Microsoft gave it another try. And another. Luckily, by that time, it has finally stumbled on a winning formula, a winning design, a winning technology, and a winning purpose. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Final Thoughts

It's hard to deny the influence that the Microsoft Surface has had in computing history. Just look at the number of clones around. Better yet, just count how many 2-in-1 PCs have popped up sporting pressure-sensitive styluses ever since the Surface. And like it or not, and some definitely won't, the iPad Pro and its Pencil is a testament that the Surface has a market.

That said, the Surface story is far from over and there is a chance that Microsoft could poison the well itself. Its recent statement and its past advertisements for the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book is seemingly obsessed in ridiculing Apple's products. Of course, Apple has done that before as well, with its Mac vs PC ads. But Microsoft risks putting the focus on the Surface as the anti-thesis to the Macs and MacBooks, rather than shining the spotlight on what actually makes it special. And the Surface is special because of what it was able to offer, and not because it is "not a MacBook".