Like many of you on Wednesday, I spent over two hours watching Microsoft’s Windows 10 media event, which the company live-streamed from New York City. At the end of the event, I felt that Microsoft showed off one amazing new product, but that the rest of the show was just a teaser; a prelude of what the company has planned for 2017.
Make no mistake; the Surface Studio all-in-one PC that Microsoft officially revealed Wednesday looks awesome. It also doesn’t look like it’s being made for most consumers interested in a new Windows 10 device (more on that later). Yet, the overall feeling that I got after watching the entire media event is that next year should be a huge one for Microsoft fans in general, and for Surface and Windows 10 fans in particular.
The Surface Studio
Based on what I saw during the livestream, the Surface Studio has a lot going for it. It has a huge 28-inch screen, and that display can be tilted down so users can draw on it. Indeed, that’s the target audience for this first AIO PC from Microsoft. The company wants professional artists, graphic designers, architects or anyone who makes their living drawing to make the Surface Studio their new digital canvas.
I have no problem with that; indeed, getting those kinds of folks to use a Windows 10 PC will be a big boost for Microsoft. Many artists use Apple’s Mac or MacBook PCs for their work, and the Surface Studio, with its huge touchscreen and its use of the Surface Dial accessory to enhance their drawing capabilities, offer features that Apple, quite frankly, doesn’t seem to care about.
It also helps that the Surface Studio is awesome to just look at. The thin LCD and its minimal hinge and stand make the display almost looks like it’s floating on air. Yes, the PC is on the pricey side (it starts at $2,999) but ultimately the people that Microsoft wants to buy it won’t mind because they will get the most out of the huge touchscreen and the tools that will make their art creations come to life.
Microsoft also briefly showed off a new Intel Core i7 version of its year old Surface Book, but aside from some tiny design changes and a boost in both processor and battery performance (having up to 16 hours of use is going to be nice), this wasn’t much to write home about. It doesn’t even use Intel’s 7th generation Core processors that started to roll out to some laptops earlier this fall.
If you have been waiting to get a Surface Book, this one may be for you, but if you haven’t this new version doesn’t bring that much more to the table. Microsoft also chose to not give the Surface Pro 4 any kind of hardware upgrade at all, so from that perspective, this was a disappointing portion of the press event. Rumors about Microsoft launching some kind of connected speaker at the event, which would access its Cortana digital assistant, turned out to be false as well.
The Near Future
The Surface Studio is not for regular PC consumers, and the high-end Surface Book refresh is also not targeting those folks who just want a good Windows 10 PC. However, we doubt that the company is going to leave the general PC buyer waiting another year for a Surface Book 2 or a Surface Pro 5. We predict that the company will introduce both of those products sometime in the spring of 2017. We also predict that both will have Intel’s 7th generation Core “Kaby Lake” processors inside which should offer a boost in both performance and battery life.
That target date also happens to be when Microsoft will officially release the next free Windows 10 update, which it calls the Creators Update. It would be the perfect time to introduce new flagship products that are for the general technology or PC fan. Wednesday’s press event offered a preview of that future, as Microsoft showed off Paint 3D, a new and easy way to create 2D and 3D artwork, and merge them together.
It looks like it will be both easy and fun to use, and we suspect that app will be a kind of entry point for Microsoft to show people who have yet to check out Windows 10. Paint 3D, along with the Capture 3D app that will be released for mobile phones, should open Windows 10 to a new audience of young or novice artists and creators.
At the same time, Microsoft looks like it will continue to push its agenda for virtual reality and augmented reality in 2017 as well. The company announced that several PC OEMs will be launching their own virtual reality headsets that will work with Windows 10 and its Windows Holographic system. More importantly, those headsets are supposed to be prices at $299, which should allow PC VR to reach a bigger market.
Details about these headsets, along with specific release dates, have yet to be revealed, but this seems to be the second leg in Microsoft’s chair of new hardware and software that’s coming to Windows 10 in the next year. We’re not entirely sold that VR is the future of computing like Microsoft thinks it will be. Virtual reality has already proved itself useful when it comes to gaming and watching media, but it might take people more time to get used to staring at a web browser in VR.
However, that does seem to be the direction Microsoft is pushing, and 2017 should be the year that VR will be accessible to a much larger audience. The company also showed off its HoloLens augmented reality headset again during the press event on Wednesday. However, it’s not clear as to whether or not this technology will even be ready for a consumer launch by the end of 2017. Microsoft is still trying to work out the kinks in both the technology and the software with the “soft launch” of the $3,000 Developer Edition of the HoloLens, and wants to make sure there are enough cool applications for the headset before it decides its ready to be sold outside the development and enterprise users.
Microsoft also showed off some new gaming features that are coming to both Windows 10 and its Xbox One console with the upcoming Creators Update. One of the coolest new gaming features is direct integration with Beam, a game streaming service that Microsoft acquired earlier this year. Microsoft says that with the update, PC and Xbox One gamers will be able to quickly start streaming any game for both platforms onto the internet.
The company is entering a market that is already dominated by Amazon-owned Twitch, but Beam currently has a couple of features that Twitch does not have, including offering the chance for people who watch a game stream a way to vote for what the streamer does next. It’s sort of a game within a game, and we could see developers creating titles specifically to take advantage of this neat feature.
One year from now
Of course, Microsoft has already announced Project Scorpio, their next console that will be able to play all Xbox One games, but will also have support for running games in true 4K resolution, along with full VR support. Microsoft is supposed to launch Project Scorpio in late 2017. Microsoft has already said there will be no Project Scorpio “exclusive” games; in other words, any game that can be played on the console can also be played on the Xbox One, although at a lower graphic and resolution level. However, it has stated that games made for VR will be an exception to that rule, and that could lead to some interesting game titles that can only be played on Microsoft’s next console.
Microsoft is also rumored to launch yet another free Windows 10 update sometime in late 2017. If it launches a new Surface Pro 5 or Surface Book 2 in the spring, that could mean the company might be done with new hardware, although we could see a processor refresh for the just announced Surface Studio to Intel’s new 7th generation Core chips.
However, there’s one more hardware product Microsoft might decide to launch before the end of the year: the so-called “Surface Phone”. This is almost a mythical product at this stage (there are a ton of concepts for such a phone created by fans on the internet) and it’s very possible that Microsoft could decide that entering the smartphone market again, after basically killing the Lumia line earlier this year, is not worth it.
Microsoft might decide to launch such a phone, not as a consumer device, but rather one made for business and enterprise users who perhaps want a full Windows 10 PC but don’t want to lug around a notebook or 2-in-1. Such a “Surface Phone” has already been launched as the HP Elite x3, and if that phone turns out to be a success, we could see Microsoft’s Surface team releasing it in late 2017.
This is a prediction that, I will admit, is on shaky ground, but the fact is that Microsoft rules the enterprise space at the moment, and other companies that make smartphones, most notably Apple and Samsung, might decide they want to get in that space as well. Microsoft may want to offer all those consumers that already are familiar with Windows a way to take their work with them in a small form factor. Oh, and such a device could make calls, too.
The next year is going to be interesting
In terms of new hardware and software, Microsoft was in some of a holding pattern in 2016. We got the Windows 10 Anniversary Update, which mainly offered features that really should have been in the OS when it launched a year ago. It will release the Surface Studio late this year, a high-end AIO PC with a equally high-end price. It released the Xbox One S, which is basically the same console as the Xbox One in a smaller form factor. It made a small hardware boost for the highest-end Surface Book, and did nothing for the year-old Surface Pro 4. It is quietly ending the life of its Lumia smartphone lineup, the Microsoft Band fitness wearable and the lower end Surface 3 tablet.
However, it looks like the company is just clearing the deck for a huge 2017. With new VR headsets coming from its partners, a creator and game-oriented update for Windows 10, possible new versions of the Surface Book and Surface Pro, Project Scorpio and (if we wish hard enough) a new “Surface Phone”, the next year could be a huge one for Microsoft and Windows 10 fans.
Do you think 2017 will be a bigger and better year for Microsoft? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.