Microsoft’s new Surface Laptop makes no sense to me

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Here’s a challenge for you: name one thing about the Surface Laptop that supports the idea that Surface is about creating new categories.

Go ahead. I’m waiting.

I’m guessing that you drew a blank. I certainly did when I considered the same question. As far as I can tell, the Surface Laptop does absolutely nothing that other clamshell notebooks don’t do. I’ll set aside the question of whether it’s even a compelling notebook (I have some reservations) — the bottom line is that there isn’t a single aspect of the notebook that breaks new ground in any meaningful way.

Sure, it has a fabric-covered keyboard deck. I’m not sure if that’s a first, but it very well could be. I just don’t think it’s meaningful or pushes the industry forward. I also personally think it’s a bad idea because fabric stains more easily and it’s harder to clean. But I’m not just talking about things I don’t like about the Surface Laptop.

Microsoft also apparently improved standby performance. That’s a good thing, but again, not groundbreaking. I believe Apple has been doing standby quite well for some time now.

Finally, there’s the speaker design that uses the fabric to create a more spacious sound. That’s innovative and maybe new, but again, it doesn’t push the industry forward. It certainly doesn’t create a new product category, which according to Microsoft is one of Surface’s primary reasons for existing.

Honestly, I’m blown away by the Surface Laptop, and not in a good way. I wrote about one aspect over at Digital Trends, namely the idea that bundling Windows 10 S and the Surface Laptop was an ominous step towards something I wouldn’t like very much.

But mostly, I’m just confused by the Surface Laptop. I just don’t get why Microsoft felt compelled to make it. I’m still convinced that Microsoft doesn’t really care all that much about making money from hardware, that Surface was and is meant to prod its OEM partners to make better machines.

That’s why Surface is priced so high compared to the alternatives (and even the initially moderately priced Surface Pro 4 is more expensive than the tablet alternatives). Microsoft wants to convince its OEM partners to make better Windows 10 machines to compete against the Mac and mobile devices — it doesn’t want to put its partners out of business or, I submit, even significantly cut into their market share. Eventually, falling revenues and profits drive companies out of business, and Microsoft doesn’t want that to happen.

In this narrow sense, the Surface Laptop qualifies. It’s certainly a high-priced machine compared to its value, particularly as you ramp up the specifications. It’s also priced significantly higher than similarly equipped OEM machines.

The thing is, Windows OEMs have been making excellent notebooks for years now. The Windows PC ecosystem, in general, has never been stronger than it is today. Microsoft simply doesn’t need to push OEMs to make better traditional notebooks — they’re already doing it — and so I can see no compelling reason for the Surface Laptop to exist.

I have a theory about Microsoft’s timing, which came to mind when I saw that the Surface Laptop is equipped with just a single USB Type-A port and a DisplayPort. That makes no sense to me, Microsoft’s arguments aside. Adding a USB Type-C port to a machine of this size would have been trivial in terms of both design and cost, and plenty of similarly sized Windows notebooks have a mix of legacy and futuristic ports.

My theory, therefore, goes like this: Microsoft actually designed the Surface Laptop a while ago (before USB Type-C hit its stride), and didn’t quite know what to do with it. Once they decided to push Windows 10 S (again, see my op-ed over at Digital Trends) and needed something for education, they decided to go ahead and release the machine. Yes, I know, it’s Kaby Lake and that’s new, but Microsoft could also have altered the design pretty easily, in all likelihood.

I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek here, but there’s something going on. Maybe Microsoft has just lost its way a bit, because it’s not like the Surface Laptop actually fits its education strategy. It’s too expensive, even for college students — and Windows 10 2-in-1s make so much more sense for any college student who has a little money to spend. Perhaps the Surface Laptop competes against the MacBook in higher education, but then so do all of the awesome 2-in-1s that also cost significantly less money.

Right now, I’m just itching to hear more about the presumptive Surface Pro 5 and the Surface Book 2. Maybe they’ll be introduced at Build 2017, which starts a week from now. I hope so, because if we don’t see something soon, then I’m really going to start wondering what’s going on.

I’d been thinking for some time now that Microsoft is scaling back on Surface now that OEMs are making so many great machines and the PC and Windows 10 markets are starting to ramp back up. Maybe Surface Studio is the new model, I thought — come out with something so expensive and so niche that it can’t possibly compete with OEMs but still pushes the industry forward. Surface Laptop contradicts that theory a bit.

I’m reserving judgement for now, while remaining incredibly confused. Hopefully Microsoft will give us a hint at Build as to what it’s doing with Surface, because otherwise, the entire program just looks like a bit of a hot mess.

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