Microsoft Surface Is Destined to Be a Best Seller

2012 – According to Horace Dediu in The Evolution of the Computing Value Chain, Microsoft has had the dominant operating system almost since that day in 1981 when the first IBM PC shipped with PC-DOS, Big Blue’s version of MS-DOS. From DOS through Windows, Microsoft has held the top spot – until now.

In one of those huge, detailed, information packed graphs that Asymco is noted for, Dediu shows annual unit sales. The Tandy TRS-80 and Atari 400/800 vanished in the mid-1980s, shortly after Apple launched the Macintosh. The Apple II, NeXT, Atari ST, and Commodore went the way of the dodo in the early 1990s, followed by the Amiga a few years later, when the PC market became a two-way field with just two players, Microsoft and Apple’s Macintosh.

Horace Dediu's graph from Asymco.

Horace Dediu’s graph from Asymco.

The first Symbian smartphones brought a new operating system into the mix,* one not designed for PCs, and since then we’ve seen RIM, Windows Mobile/Phone, iOS (represented by the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch), Android, and Bada come onto the playfield. Between them, Android phones and tablets already outnumber Windows PCs, and Dediu predicts iOS will eclipse Windows in 2013.

* Curiously, the Palm OS is missing from this graphic. For quite a few years, it was the dominant PDA operating system, and even after the iPhone was first launched, Palm had top-selling gear (notably the Palm Centro).

Microsoft Is Changing the Game

Yesterday, Microsoft introduced its Surface tablets to the world, a pair of 10.6″ tablets designed to take on the iPad and the multitude of Android tablets, giving Microsoft a leg up in the tablet world. The Surface tablets should be available this fall, about the same time Windows 8/RT ships.

 Microsoft's Surface tablet is designed to work with a keyboard.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet is designed to work with a keyboard.

At this time, Microsoft is being deliberately vague about hardware specifications such as dimensions, screen resolution, processor speed, etc., so what we’re posting here is based on Microsoft’s official Surface information and what we’ve seen on other websites.

There are two models, each with a 10.6″ 16:9 Gorilla Glass 2.0 screen and two cameras, one on the back and one facing the user. The consumer model is powered by a quad-core 1.4 GHz Nvidia Tegra 3+ ARM CPU with integrated GeForce graphics, includes 32 GB or 64 GB of flash storage plus a microSD card slot, and runs Windows RT, the ARM version of Windows 8. It is just 0.36″ (9.3 mm) thin and weighs 1.54 lb. (676 g). And for connectivity, it has full-sized USB 2.0. Estimated prices are $599 for the 32 GB model, $699 with 64 GB, which puts it on target to match iPads with the same amount of storage capacity.

The pro Surface will be powered by an Intel Core i5 CPU and will include 64 GB or 128 GB of flash memory plus a micro SDXC card slot and run the full x86 version of Windows 8 Pro. It’s a bit thicker at 0.53″ (13.5 mm) and weighs 1.99 lb. (903 g). Unlike the consumer version, the x86 Surface includes a stylus. It also has wicked fast USB 3 and a Mini DisplayPort for use with an external display.

Thinking About the Surface

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice about the Surface is that it always seems to be coupled with a keyboard. That’s because Microsoft sees the tablet as an extension of the PC, and PCs are always used with keyboards. The clever thing is that the keyboard (with or without a touchpad) is built into a thin cover reminiscent of the iPad’s Smart Cover. And that’s very smart indeed!

The other thing you’ll notice is the kickstand that holds the Surface at a 68° angle when it’s used horizontally, which is just perfect for desktop use.

One thing you may have overlooked is that the Surface is used horizontally in every image. After all, Microsoft sees it as a thinner, lighter, touchscreen PC, and PCs don’t have portrait displays. Odd thing is, almost every time I see someone using an iPad, it’s being used in portrait mode. Even the placement of the webcam and logo show that Microsoft sees the surface as a landscape device while Apple views the iPad as primarily a portrait one.

I doubt we’ll see a Retina resolution display, because that’s a feature that Microsoft would have highlighted at the unveiling. It seems most likely the Surface will have a 1280 x 800 resolution display – exactly the same as every 13.3″ MacBook and MacBook Pro every produced. Maybe Microsoft will choose a higher resolution, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Update: A reader informs us that the minimum resolution for Metro to support two apps is 1366 x 768, the same resolution as the 11.6″ MacBook Air.

On the plus side, the 16:9 display is perfectly suited for HD video and provides 30% more pixels than the iPad 2’s 1024 x 768 resolution.

Expect It to Sell Well

Microsoft is best known as a software company, but it has been making hardware since it introduced the Z-80 SoftCard for the Apple II as the West Cost Computer Faire in March 1980. The SoftCard became a best seller, as it allowed Apple II users to run CP/M software. (Digital Research’s CP/M operating system is the one Microsoft essentially cloned for the Intel 8086 when it created DOS for IBM.)

Microsoft introduced its first PC mouse in 1983 (followed by the first ergonomic mouse a year later), and it became a big player in the keyboard world with its Natural Keyboard, an ergonomic keyboard introduced in 1994. Microsoft’s mice and keyboards are highly regarded. And let’s not forget Microsoft’s foray into the world of gaming with the original Xbox in 2001 and the Xbox 360 in 2005.

Microsoft has a long, solid history as a hardware maker, although for most people that takes a back seat to its software offerings – Windows and Office at the top of the list. I fully expect the Surface tablets will be of the same quality as Microsoft’s other hardware.

I also expect the Surfaces to sell well, particularly the Pro x86 model that can run the same Windows apps as today’s Windows PCs. The fact that the Surface is designed to work well and easily with a keyboard will give it one solid feature to set it apart from Apple’s iPad, which is designed to be used without an additional input device.

Microsoft appears to be ignoring the low end of the market. Unlike the iPad, there is no 16 GB Surface, which means less chance of buyer’s remorse for getting a tablet with less storage than you really need. And the inclusion of a microSD Card slot means memory expansion is easy and affordable, something the iPad doesn’t offer at all.

And because Microsoft has just slapped its partners in the face by introducing its own tablets, I don’t expect to see a lot of competitive products that are similar to the Microsoft Surface. Yes, we may see some larger tablets and will undoubtedly see some smaller tablets from other vendors, but it seems foolhardy to compete with Microsoft in the 9″ to 12″ range.

What Will It Displace?

Although Microsoft says the Surface takes aim at the iPad, that’s not really true. All competing tablets are designed for portrait orientation, while the Surface has the same landscape orientation as a desktop PC, a netbook, a notebook, or an Ultrabook. While some will choose Surface instead of iPad or Android, I suspect the vast majority of buyers will already be Windows users who want to stay with the brand they know (regardless of how different Windows 8/RT is from Windows XP or Windows 7).

This could be the final nail in the netbook’s coffin, and a lot of people contemplating a smaller thin-and-light notebook (say 12″ or smaller) will gravitate toward the Surface. It may even cut into the 13″ and 14″ notebook realm, although it probably won’t impact 15″ and larger notebook sales at all.

A lot of home Windows users are going to find that one or the other Surface can completely replace their PC for Web access, email, basic writing and editing, viewing PowerPoint presentations, watching videos, etc. The Surface could really hurt the replacement desktop PC market for nonbusiness users.

Update: The Surface was a slow starter, and the ARM-based Surface RT line was discontinued in January 2015. The x86-based Surface is doing well – it sold about 6 million units in 2015. That’s nothing compared with the iPad, but it’s not bad for a notebook as the rest of the Windows market is in decline.

A Closing Thought on OS X

It seems fairly likely that the x86 Surface Pro will be able to run a hacked copy of Mac OS X, which could make this the tablet that the Axiotron Modbook (a MacBook reconfigured as a tablet) so longed to be. With the combination of a thin, lightweight touch-based tablet and hardware designed to support a keyboard and trackpad, the Surface Pro could be very attractive to Mac users if OS X can be hacked onto it – and that could impact MacBook Air and 13″ MacBook Pro sales.

Update: reports dual-booting a Surface 2 in Windows 8.1 and OS X 10.10 Yosemite.

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