The new Surface Pro is boring, and it’s proof Microsoft’s plan worked

Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Pen 2017
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

Are you bored with the newest Surface Pro, introduced today in Shanghai? Did you find the Surface Laptop, revealed a couple of weeks ago in Microsoft’s education event, a bit underwhelming?

You’re not alone.

The truth is, Microsoft has conditioned us to expect something special from its product announcements with the Surface Book and the Surface Studio. The Surface Studio announcement was so shocking and impactful that its surprisingly inspirational introduction video has garnered over 12 million views on YouTube — more than twice that of Apple’s last MacBook Pro video.

The new Surface Pro, however, is an incremental update to the Surface Pro 4. It offers nothing particularly new or innovative over its successful predecessor. It offers a bump in specifications that comes across as rather pedestrian, particularly in light of new 2-in-1 options available from Asus, Dell, HP, Samsung, and many others.

Microsoft has conditioned us to expect something special from its product announcements.

The Surface Laptop is nothing special, either. It’s thin and light, and it promises good battery life for a machine with a lovely high-resolution display, but there are many other thin and light notebooks with good battery life, and some have better connectivity or better performance.

And let’s face it — when your most notable features are a cloth-covered keyboard tray and a default operating system that reduces functionality, it’s obvious that you’re not trying to bring fresh excitement to the market. Microsoft already did that, and the new machines are proof its strategy has already worked.

Next-generation Surface or stopgap?

Consider what Panay said a couple of weeks ago in an interview with CNET, when asked about the possibility of a Surface Pro 5 arriving soon. “When it’s meaningful and the change is right, we’ll put it on market. Meaningful change isn’t necessarily a hardware change, which is what a lot of people look for. They’re like, ‘Where’s the latest processor?’ That’s not what I mean. I’m looking for an experiential change that makes a huge difference in product line.”

Panay said that major increases in battery life or significant reductions in weight would quality as that sort of “experiential change,” rather than just upgrading the processor. He added, “you’ll see that same meaningful impact when Pro 5, or Pro Next hits the market.” He also said, “there’s no such thing as a Pro 5.”

It’s possible that Panay was talking about the new Surface Pro here, but it’s hard to credit the increase from nine hours of battery life to 13 hours, or the other enhancements in the new machine, as “experiential change.” If this is what he meant, then he was engaging in some serious hyperbole.

Another way to interpret his statement, however, is that we haven’t yet witnessed a real next-generation step for the Surface Pro line. Perhaps we can conclude instead that the new Surface Pro and the Surface Laptop aren’t terribly exciting because they don’t need to be. At the same time, the Surface Book and Surface Studio were exciting – and incredibly and innovative and different — because they had to be.

With the Surface Book and Surface Studio, Microsoft saw a need to push the Windows 10 ecosystem forward in particular areas that manufacturers were neglecting. That may no longer be true for the Surface Pro.

The Surface Pro has completed its mission

The Windows PC ecosystem has never been stronger than it is today. Intel’s Ultrabook initiative and Microsoft’s Surface succeeded in pushing Windows PC makers to up their game. No matter what kind of PC you’re looking for, there’s a Windows PC in the right price range, with the right quality, and with the right performance for just about anybody’s needs.

The new Surface Pro isn’t exciting because it doesn’t need to be.

Windows notebooks are thinner and lighter, they get better battery life while performing better, and they offer build quality that rivals Apple’s MacBook — often at significantly lower price points. There’s a reason why the PC market is starting to stabilize after years of falling sales, and signs point to a return to growth with Windows 2-in-1s and premium Ultrabooks leading the way.

Are the new Surface Pro and Surface Laptop boring? Yes, they are, and that makes perfect sense. Microsoft wants to push the Windows ecosystem forward, but it’s not in the habit of putting its hardware partners out of business. Surface Pro was introduced to make the 2-in-1 a viable design, and it achieved that goal. The new model seems dull only because it’s no longer trying to win the race. Instead, it’s headed for a victory lap.

Growing Windows 10 is the end game

“At the core of the Windows ecosystem today, laptops are the category where we have the most impact on the world,” Microsoft Executive VP Terry Myerson told Time in a recent interview. “We participate in so many categories, from mixed reality to large screens to phones to laptops . . . and laptops are the biggest category. In laptops we saw an opportunity to really try and set a new bar. […] But our goals are to grow the Windows ecosystem.”

We have our own theory about the Surface Laptop, seeing it as a Trojan horse for Microsoft’s new Windows 10S. The idea of “growing the Windows ecosystem” can mean many things, including pushing developers to make more apps that run from the Windows Store.

But the bottom line is the same. The Surface Laptop — like Surface in general — is a way to once again push OEMs to move the Windows ecosystem forward.

Microsoft Surface Pro and Surface Pen 2017
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends
Kyle Wiggers/Digital Trends

We have no idea when we’ll see Microsoft’s next exciting hardware product. Maybe it will be “the ultimate mobile device” that CEO Satya Nadella mentioned last year, or mythical “Surface Phone” that’s sounding more and more like an ARM device running full Windows 10.

In the meantime, we should get used to seeing incremental updates like the Surface Pro, last October’s Surface Book with Performance Base refresh, and niche products like Surface Laptop. Microsoft Surface can continue to be boring, and that’s okay – because Windows PCs have never been better.