The surprising things Surface Pro tells us about Microsoft

February 24, 2013

We all know which product is winning today, but which will ultimately win is unknown. Winning the tablet race, however, might not be as important to Microsoft as it would be to its competitors. Believe it or not, the Surface Pro appears to be more of an indicator of what the software giant has become and not what its hopes are.

There was a time when the thought of offering hardware was anathema to Microsoft. Years ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously chanted “developers, developers, developers,” indicating that the future of his company’s operation was in software and not hardware.

But as Apple’s profits soared and its iPad flew off store shelves, Ballmer had a change of heart. After announcing the Surface line, Ballmer said last year that his company was a “devices and services” company. In other words, for the first time, Ballmer acknowledged that this once-software-obsessed company was slowly but surely turning into a hardware vendor.

But why? Microsoft has been successful for decades in software. And judging by the company’s billions of dollars in quarterly profits, hardware doesn’t seem all that necessary. Why would it need to try its luck with a tablet?

Is Microsoft running scared?

The simple fact is: Microsoft is scared. For a very long time, Microsoft was the only software show in town and vendors had no choice but to play nice. Now, though, Android is catching the world by storm and some of Microsoft’s top vendors, including Lenovo and Dell, have tried to capitalize on Google’s platform.

There’s also the issue of sales. Tablet sales are now outpacing PC sales at a surprisingly fast rate, leaving Ballmer and Company to figure out what needs to be done. Windows 8 isn’t enough to stop tablet sales, so Microsoft quickly came to the realization that in order to beat ‘em, you might just need to join ‘em.

The Surface Pro is the first step in that worried reaction. The Surface RT’s support for ARM-based chips is a hedge against the future; the Surface Pro is short-term stop-gap aimed at legitimizing Microsoft and Windows in tablets and putting the operating system in direct competition with Android on the software side.

Taking on the iPad

Aside from Microsoft’s software concerns, the Surface Pro informs us of the software giant’s other major worry: Apple.

Looking around the tablet space, there is a wide array of tablets ranging in size from 7 inches on up. Prices also vary depending on the specs. With the Surface Pro, Microsoft made no secret of its chief competitor: the iPad.

When the Surface Pro was announced, it appeared as though Microsoft spent months examining every last iPad detail and tried to find a way to trump each item. The Surface Pro’s display is slightly larger than the 9.7-inch model found in Apple’s slate; the operating system is more sophisticated; and its cover not only protects the screen, but also acts as a keyboard.

Perhaps more than anything, though, Microsoft’s Surface Pro shows the software giant’s contrarian ways. The tablet market today is driven by mobile operating systems that are a bit underpowered compared to their desktop alternatives. The Surface Pro, however, is running an operating system in Windows 8 that’s designed for notebooks and desktops.

That’s a rather interesting move, given the marketplace it’s competing in. So far, customers have not indicated that they want to run full operating systems on tablets and Microsoft has tried to make them realize it’s what they need. Whether they will come along, however, remains to be seen.

The Surface Pro is a fascinating product. It might not be the top-seller in the marketplace and it might not be perfect, but it gives some valuable clues into Microsoft’s thinking. And as time goes on, it might just continue to help us determine in what direction Microsoft is headed.

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