Despite a well-funded marketing campaign, the first generation of Surface devices (an ARM-based version hit store shelves in late 2012, followed by its x86-based cousin in early 2013) proved a famous failure, selling in such miniscule quantities that Microsoft took a $900 million write-down on the remaining units. In the wake of that debacle, tech pundits wondered whether Microsoft should abandon its attempts to remake itself, in the words of former CEO Steve Ballmer, into a “devices and services” company. But Microsoft seemed undeterred by its failure, releasing the Surface 2 in October 2013; this second generation performed better on the marketplace, although not well enough to completely erase the impression that Microsoft was wasting its time trying to emulate Apple’s “build everything in-house” model.
Now comes the Surface 3: thinner and lighter than the previous editions, with a bigger screen (12 inches, versus the “old” 10.6) and a choice of i3 through i7 processors. Preorders begin May 21, with a base price of $799 and up to 512 GB of onboard storage. Microsoft has also retooled the device’s body and its detachable keyboard cover, with an eye toward making the combined keyboard-and-screen sit more solidly in a variety of positions. The new Surface runs Windows 8.1, the upgraded version of Microsoft’s somewhat-controversial operating system.
But will these improvements finally draw customers to the Surface? That’s the big question. Two years ago, when the original Surface made its debut, Apple CEO Tim Cook derided the idea of dual-purpose devices as fundamentally half-baked. “I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats,” he said, according to Engadget, “but I don’t think it would do all of those things very well.” (To be fair, Cook has a vested interest in seeing Microsoft’s big-ticket initiatives fail.) Indeed, the complaint often leveled against Surface is that it doesn’t provide the under-the-hood power of a laptop, while sacrificing some of the ultra-portability that comes with mobile devices such as the iPad Air.
So far, no manufacturers have attempted to compete head-to-head against the Surface; the closest any have come are “hybrid” laptops with keyboards that either detach or fold underneath the screen. And why would they jump into that arena? Poor sales of the first generation of Surface seemed to indicate little consumer appetite for tablets with built-in kickstands and flexible covers that double as keyboards. If Microsoft can produce a light, powerful Surface, however, it might succeed in changing a few minds.
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