I showed up at Microsoft's press conference largely expecting the company to unveil a Surface Pro Mini. There were a lot of indications pointing to that sort of unveil, even though last night new reports buffered rumors that Microsoft was instead only going to unveil a larger Surface Pro 3. I was wrong. The Surface Mini, which was rumored to have made an appearance running a Qualcomm processor, which could have paved way for sales in U.S. wireless carriers, has apparently been scrapped altogether for now. So, is Microsoft conceding the smaller tablet market, the consumer-friendly tablet market, to Apple, Amazon, Google and the others? Seems so. First, let's take a look at what Microsoft unveiled.
Microsoft revealed and talked up its Surface Pro 3 device, an Intel Core powered product that's supposed to serve as both a tablet and a laptop. Microsoft improved the hinge on the back so that the kickstand is more useful, and beefed up the keyboard accessory so that it's more useful. I still don't see this replacing a laptop – even holding it for five minutes I could tell it didn't have the same rigid design, with keyboard attached, that I need to use my MacBook Air in my lap. I still need a real laptop, but that's just me: Microsoft hopes there are consumers out there who can deal with a thin and flimsy keyboard accessory at all times. Maybe they're out there, and maybe this is the product for them, but I don't think it's Joe Consumer.
The Surface is still too expensive. It starts at $799 and that's with a low-end Core i3 processor – one that isn't good enough at getting "the job done" for most folks. That $799 price doesn't even include the keyboard accessory, which costs over $100 more. At that point you're in MacBook Air pricing territory – the computer Microsoft so clearly and terribly wants to take on. Except it's not going to, and Microsoft is falling back into the same problem it always has: it's overpricing its products again. The MacBook Air might be just a hair thicker than the Surface Pro 3, but it also includes a faster Core i5 processor at the same price point. Its keyboard might not detach, but it's a heck of a lot more solid than the Surface Pro 3 keyboard. Bonus? You won't look silly propping it up in a coffee shop with a kickstand, either.
So who is this thing for?
I think Microsoft is trying to take aim at the enterprise. I *think* because, honestly, I don't know who it's for. Maybe enterprise users will find a use for the note-taking stylus, for AutoCAD and Adobe Photoshop (though good luck running those on a Core i3 processor). I think most consumers are probably going to go toward something cheaper, maybe a laptop from one of Microsoft's partners that is a bit thicker but offers more power at a lower price, or from Apple, which offers more power at a higher price.
The funny thing about all of this is that Microsoft knows people want to carry a laptop and a tablet. Microsoft's Panos Panay even joked during the event about how we were all wrong when we said tablets would kill laptops, and that we all still carry both a laptop and a tablet. So why is Microsoft still trying to combine the two, when it hasn't worked for the previous generation Surface products? Is a bigger Surface with a better kickstand and new hardware really going to solve that problem? I don't think so, but Microsoft could have made waves with a smaller tablet.
I'm confused as to why the rumored Surface Mini was killed off. I've argued that it would be a bad idea to launch a smaller tablet hobbled by Windows RT and, probably, at a higher price point than the Kindle Fire and iPad mini. But Microsoft knows and even admits that people still want to carry a tablet in addition to a laptop (and not a tablet that doubles as a laptop when you add a $100+ keyboard). Heck, look at the sales figures for any smaller tablet versus those of Microsoft's Surface products and you'll see consumers still want smaller slates. Microsoft could have proved me wrong by instead introducing a smaller, more budget friendly slate that can complement our Windows laptops.
Panay showed us during his presentation that 96 percent of iPad owners also own a laptop. "You've been told to buy a tablet, but you know you need a laptop," Panay said, just before introducing the Surface Pro 3 – a product that, like the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2 that came before it, is supposed to combine the two.
Unfortunately, I'm still at a loss as to how this is supposed to change how consumers buy products, and ultimately, convince consumers to buy the Surface Pro 3. Consumers want a notebook and they want a tablet, the stat shows that, it doesn't say that consumers want a tablet/notebook hybrid, which is something else entirely. Seriously – try explaining a tablet/notebook to a consumer and you'll see why Surface sales have suffered. Consumers like the portability of a tablet, a small one they can carry in a bag, keep on the coffee table and use casually. Then they move to a laptop to get work done. They don't walk over to a desk, plug the tablet into a dock, add a keyboard, add a mouse and start working. That's just way too clunky of an experience, and it's why we, as consumers, want two devices.
So, the takeaway I had from today is that Microsoft refreshed its Surface family with a new device that, ultimately, is very much like its older devices but with some industrial design changes and new hardware. I don't see this suddenly changing anything on the sales front, either. People aren't going to choose the Surface Pro 3 over a MacBook just because it's thinner and lighter. People buy MacBooks because they run OS X.
If Microsoft really did cancel the smaller Surface Mini, then it seems clear to me that the company is also conceding that smaller tablet market to Apple, Amazon, Samsung, Google and every other company that's already in it. I'm not suggesting Microsoft would have done much better there, but at least it would have been a fundamentally different move instead of just releasing a new Surface.