Microsoft has a habit of introducing new products before the market is ready for them. It developed some of the first tablets, but they fizzled out before the iPad came along. It popularized the concept of having an interactive home screen on smartphones with Windows Phone, but that platform is so unpopular it led Nokia out of the mobile game. And, of course, it created a work-ready laptop that was all-but-forgotten in the wake of Apple’s new iPad Pro.
The company has done the opposite with its weirdly-named hybrid device, the Surface Book. Instead of trailblazing and ruing it when other companies step in with a refined product that consumers love, Microsoft is entering a well-established category. A tablet that’s also a laptop isn’t new — it’s actually one of the things manufacturers have made for years in an attempt to woo potential customers. This time, Microsoft is the one doing all the refinements.
Hybrid products can be a hard sell. Like many devices that try to do more than one thing often fail at both. Laptops aren’t meant to be tablets, and tablets aren’t meant to be laptops. Microsoft’s Surface Book might be able to change that by melding the product categories without compromise. It’s got a powerful GPU in its keyboard, which is said to have better travel than the Surface Pro 4’s. It’s got RAM out the wazoo and claims to have 12 hours of battery life.
People who have used the Surface Book, albeit briefly, liked it. (As someone who lives in the middle of nowhere and writes primarily for a website that hasn’t officially relaunched, I’m not invited to attend events like this.) That could change when people have enough time to write proper reviews of the device — how many products seem great until you actually have to use them for anything? — but for now the device’s hype train is full steam ahead.
This is a product of firsts for Microsoft. Its first laptop. Its first hybrid product with a real keyboard instead of the fuzzy covers it sells with Surface tablets. And its first refinement on an existing category — Windows being an obvious exception — instead of a new device that seems doomed to being forgotten when Apple releases one.
I’m not going to say that this changes things for Microsoft. The company has a long way to go before it can match Apple or even Google in terms of hardware, and that weakness affects its primary business of selling software. But if the Surface Book delivers on its promises and truly makes the case for a convertible device that tries to be most things to most people, that turnaround could start.
It’s sure to be an uphill battle. Apple has its customers locked down — most of the people who buy its products will continue to do so until the company ceases operations. And the popularity of mobile platforms like Android or iOS will make it difficult for people who want to stay within a specific ecosystem to even consider the Surface Book. Windows is still a force to be reckoned with, but if the last few years are any indication that won’t be enough.
I always hate reading something that ends with “We’ll see.” It makes me feel cheated, like watching a television show that only ever ends in cliffhangers (you know who you are, “Lost”) or reading a book with the last page missing. Why bring us on an emotional journey, or bother making an argument, if it’s going to have some milquetoast ending? Of course, you probably see where I’m going with this.
So I won’t end with “We’ll see.” I’ll end by saying that the Surface Book is the first Microsoft product that feels exciting, and like it won’t be shown up in a year or two, in a while. I’m excited about it, and I suspect many of the people who learn about the product will be too. Now it’s up to Microsoft to not fuck the entire thing up.