Microsoft’s Surface Book and its Impact on Apple and PC Vendors

I have been intrigued by various reviewers who have suggested Microsoft’s Surface Book is the best laptop on the market today. If I were one of Microsoft’s PC partners, this very thought would offend me. PC makers have bent over backwards recently to try and create slick, well designed laptops, taking their cue from Apple and trying to make them thin, sleek and light, yet highly functional. Dell’s XPS 13 and Lenovo’s new YogaPro comes to mind as good examples.

When Microsoft introduced the Surface Book in NYC earlier this month, I had to miss the event due to a schedule conflict so I had not seen it in person to judge myself. But now that it’s on shelves, I went over to the Microsoft Store and got a chance to check it out. I have to admit, the reviewers who praised it as the best laptop on the market have a point. Its design is somewhat close to a MacBook Air and, in that sense, it’s relatively equal to a 13 inch MacBook Air. But it of course differentiates from the Apple laptop significantly since it has a detachable screen that can be used as a tablet.

Perhaps a more accurate way to describe the Surface Book is it is the best “convertible” PC on the market. At the very least, it should give the traditional PC vendors a new target to go after from a design perspective and force them to try and create something even better for a cheaper price. Actually, I think that is part of Microsoft’s strategy — to push PC vendors to be more innovative. But I also believe Microsoft is in the hardware business to stay and will be a competitor to their customers from now on, too.

For Apple, I see the Surface Book putting pressure on them to possibly create their first true convertible in the future. I spent some serious time with the Surface Book and loved it in the tablet mode. It is thin, light and, with their new Pen, works really well since the version of Windows 10 on it is customized for this design. When I used it in the laptop mode, I was really surprised how well it worked as a Windows 10 laptop and loved the idea I had both a laptop and a tablet in a solid package that used a very powerful desktop class OS.

Of course, Apple does have a product in this category, although it is more like a 2-in-1. The real virtue is its tablet role and a keyboard is kind of an input addition close to Microsoft’s Surface Pro designs. Their new iPad Pro comes out in November and will play a similar role in the Mac community, albeit with iOS as its anchor instead of Mac OS X. The Surface Book is such a stellar design, I think it will become the poster child for most Windows PCs someday and be the catalyst to make convertibles the standard laptop over $500 in the future. If that happens, it could push Apple in this direction too.

At the launch of the iPad Pro, Tim Cook said the iPad does 80% of what people need to do when they compute and this new tablet/keyboard combo will be sufficient for most people’s needs, whether for business or consumer users. This is important since Apple pretty much defined the touch UI through the iPad and has continued to make touch with iOS the best touch-based OS on the market. To them, iOS seems to be the OS they will champion to business and consumers in any 2-in-1 or maybe even someday a convertible design.

Microsoft has a different view that says a desktop class OS with touch is the best way to go. The touch UI on Windows 8 and 8.1 were weak but the touch UI on windows 10 is much improved and works well with their desktop class OS. It is here where Apple and Microsoft have a deep divide.

Apple clearly wants iOS to be the heart of their broader reach into the market and make it the cornerstone of their business and consumer strategy. Mac’s will always have a place, especially with power users, but Apple seems to see power users who need a Mac as a much narrower audience. There is a larger audience that could benefit from iOS and its ecosystem of 1.5 million apps, which makes it much more versatile for most users.

This leads to two big questions for Apple in light of Microsoft’s Surface Book. First, if Microsoft and their partners are successful in making “convertibles” the standard laptop configuration over time, will Apple be forced to follow suit? How long can they stick with their laptop is a laptop and a tablet is a tablet focus if a convertible becomes something business and consumers really want?

And secondly, if they do a convertible, which OS will they use? At the moment Mac OS X is not touch based and Apple would have to put a lot of engineering dollars into it to make it competitive. It is more likely a convertible would have iOS but Surface Book and likely competitors who create similar versions could prove, in this form factor, a desktop class OS is what people really want.

At the moment, my best guess is Apple uses iOS on any device that needs a touch interface. Which means, if they do a convertible, it would be iOS based. And they would keep the Mac and OS X focused on the trackpad and very keyboard-centric. It is also too early in the convertible cycle within the Windows world to conclusively proclaim this is the future of laptops. But from what I saw in the Surface book, I believe it will have a significant impact on future PC OEM designs and perhaps, at some point, it could force Apple in a similar direction.

Published by

Tim Bajarin

Tim Bajarin is the President of Creative Strategies, Inc. He is recognized as one of the leading industry consultants, analysts and futurists covering the field of personal computers and consumer technology. Mr. Bajarin has been with Creative Strategies since 1981 and has served as a consultant to most of the leading hardware and software vendors in the industry including IBM, Apple, Xerox, Compaq, Dell, AT&T, Microsoft, Polaroid, Lotus, Epson, Toshiba and numerous others.

33 thoughts on “Microsoft’s Surface Book and its Impact on Apple and PC Vendors”

  1. Is there some way to track how the Surfacebook gets used, laptop mode vs tablet mode? I think that would be the real tell.

    I do like the idea. I’ve never wanted to interact with my iPad like a laptop. But I often find myself wanting to interact with my laptop like I do my iPad—absentmindedly reaching the screen to scroll, select something, or “click” a button.


    1. Exactly. I would love to see how many people end up using the Microsoft Surface Book in tablet mode versus use it in laptop mode. If I was to place my bets I would say that most of the time they use it as a laptop and end up not using the tablet mode that much at all.

      1. I have had Surfaces since the first one, and I do have a Surface Book now (many thanks to my daughter who “borrowed” my HP Spectre x360).

        As a data point of one, I can tell you I use it in laptop mode 90%+ of the time. When I do need and use the pen, it’s liberating. There is no substitute for note taking, making diagrams, or helping my kids with their homework.

        1. Thanks for that information and it does back up what I suspected. I do hope that someone is doing some market research to see if the way you use the Surface’s is typical of most people’s use as I suspect it is.

          1. Thanks for asking. Being I had a $400 gift card (from a warranty retun) and $300 in BB points, and I had set my budget at about $2K, I sprung for the i7, 16GB, 512 GB.

            The build quality is excellent, the pen is the best I’ve used on a PC (or tablet) thus far. The machine is fast, for it’s class. I do not, yet, have any of the reported bugs. I do like it a lot.

          2. That’s great to hear. After using it for whatever limited time you’ve had it, in your opinion, do you think this represents the future of the laptop / tablet

  2. I know that there are some buyers that just want a high end PC laptop and are all about the speeds and feeds where they will always buy the best. What concerns me is that some people may see the sales numbers of these and other 2-in-1’s and come to the wrong conclusion that buyers want 2-in-1’s versus there being a market for high end Windows PC laptops and Windows PC’s in general that cost over $1K that Apple is forced to copy.

    The analogy would be to look at the ticket sales for 3D movies and wrongly conclude that people want to watch movies in 3D when in fact the decision to see the movie in 3D was because it was the only showing of the movie you wanted to see. Just like high end Windows PC buyers, they just want a Windows PC and if their only option is to get one with a touch screen or QuadHD screen that they do not want does not mean that they are 100% happy about their purchase as they where forced in to purchasing things that they did not want.

    1. ‘a touch screen or QuadHD screen that they do not want’

      It’s extremely easy to get a similar quality machine without them. This is why diversity within an ecosystem is good. Now, please show me a Mac that can play Blu-Ray…

      1. You have a point about playing Blu-Ray’s on a Mac with OS X, however I would counter that with the fact that not only is streaming taking over but if you really want to play Blu-Ray or DVD’s you should be doing it on a dedicated player and not with a computer.

        As for the diversity of the ecosystem, yes, with the OEM sales model you do get choice but my point was that in the case of Dell and their XPS 13 their pre-built systems include QuadHD and touch screens on the systems that also include larger SSD’s, RAM and faster CPU’s.

        I do think the issue really does come down to laptops versus desktops and the flexibility on how granular you can be on ordering your system. Many desktop PC’s use standard off the shelf parts and therefore make it a lot easier to custom build a system whereas laptops normally use custom parts and therefore they do not offer as many options.

        1. And I didn’t mean to be as snarky (to you anyway) as I came out. You can custom order many of these models. In my case, being I shop on price point, many higher specs are just a given. Why wouldn’t I want a QuadHD with 12+ hours battery life?

          As far as Blu-Ray goes, it was just an example. The user/owner does not owe an explanation to anyone on why they want to do something. These things are personal. The system is either broad enough, or not. Mind, you, this is not about cost.

        1. AIseesoft rips the disk on the fly, which is inefficient. That’s why it won’t work without an internet connection. It’s also like going to NY to LA via Tokyo.

          1. Good thing there’s lots of other Blu-Ray players you can buy for your Mac. You asked for a Mac that can play Blu-Ray. Asked and answered. Now you’re pissing and moaning about HOW it plays Blu-Ray (‘you’re holding it wrong’).

          2. It does so via a hack, is substandard, unsanctioned, and inadequate. But thanks for defending.

          3. I’m not defending anything, just describing the reality where I can play Blu-ray on my Mac. Here’s another one, gets great reviews, seems to be certified (sanctioned), no quality issues, and won’t require an Internet connection in upcoming versions (and requires the connection only once right now to remove protection from the disc, which is legally authorized by the Blu-ray Disc Association):

            So to sum up, looks like no hack, not substandard, is sanctioned, and perfectly adequate.

          4. {Boggle}

            What the hell are you doing trying to *play* a blu ray disk on a computer? If you are putting a video disk of any kind into a computer without intending to rip it, you’re approaching things completely wrong. Step zero should always, always be get it off the disk and onto your hard drive, so you can view it without killing your battery running that bloody optical drive, and so you can view it when and as you please, without being locked into the movie studios’ walled garden.

          5. Yes, of course you’re right. There’s a higher principle at play here. That of diversity, and more importantly not having the need to justify to anyone the ‘why’ you want to do something.

            But since you ask….
            Having ripped the disk, and gotten it on a hard drive, why won’t ATV allow me to use that hard drive?

          6. “Having ripped the disk, and gotten it on a hard drive, why won’t ATV allow me to use that hard drive?”

            If you’re going to make a career of bashing apple products, it might be a good idea to at the very least educate yourself about their capabilities so as to not look stupid.

            Every version of Apple TV has supported airplay, which means you can beam any media stored in Itunes on your PC or mac to the Apple TV and watch it on your HDTV.

            If using Itunes is against your religious sensibilities, the new Apple TV will soon have a plex app that does the same thing.

          7. That would require a network setup. If I’m in a hotel, how exactly will I use airplay? Before you say, “directly from my laptop”, how will my wife watch things when I’m out?

            It’s a ‘miss’ that ATV can’t read a hard drive, thus requiring more complex ways of doing it.

            Just so you know, I only buy movies from iTunes or disk. It’s the easiest way to rip.

          8. 1. What network setup? Bonjour takes care of that for me. I just make sure everything knows how to connect to wifi and that’s it.

            2. The ATV may be tiny enough to take with you to your hotel, but it’s not designed to do that. It’s envisioned as something that lives on top of your HDTV in your living room, so “being out of touch from the user’s media library on their main computer or NAS” was never part of the equation of problems it was meant to solve.

            I am sure that soon there will be an ATV app that grabs your media off Dropbox and plays it for you so you don’t need airplay and can take the ATV with you.

          9. I understand. Personally, I’m a believer in local media where possible (in home networking is fine). I do not want to be beholden to the cloud.

          10. “I do not want to be beholden to the cloud.”

            Get used to it. I didn’t want to give up my CD player either, but the world is moving on. Fortunately internet-based storage is plummeting in price towards “nearly free,” and there are many competitors to the big names who offer things like genuinely secure encrypted storage and terms of service that don’t make you wonder just how much they’re in the pockets of the NSA (looking at you, Dropbox).

          11. I’ll get used to it when I have to get used to it, right now there are other options. Lest you think I’m not versed in the cloud, I’ve had my own FTP server for ten years.

            Cloud access is
            a) Slow
            b) Unreliable
            c) Expensive
            d) Out of user control
            e) Wasteful of bandwidth

            If I had a HD that had cloud level reliability, I would burn it.

            Where the cloud does excel is in local syncing among devices. When the cloud is peripheral to the computer, I’m all for it. When the computer is peripheral to the cloud, that’s mainframe.

  3. Surface book will only have marginal impact on its partners. Microsoft’s hardware quality is just not there and the pricing of its new products will be undercut by its partners. Enterprise is MSFT’s customer, and the former will buy Dell and Lenovo for quality and price over MSFT alternatives. This should be obvious.

    Surface Book will have zero impact on Apple.

    1. “Microsoft’s hardware quality is just not there…”

      Why would you say that? Everything I’ve read and heard say that the Surface build quality is excellent.

  4. Given Tim Cook’s following comment;

    “The iPad Pro is the clearest expression of your vision of the future of personal computing.”

    And Phil Schiller’s comments;

    “iOS from its start has been designed as a multi-touch experience—you don’t have the things you have in a mouse-driven interface, like a cursor to move around, or teeny little ‘close’ boxes that you can’t hit with your finger. The Mac OS has been designed from day one for an indirect pointing mechanism. These two worlds are different on purpose, and that’s a good thing—we can optimize around the best experience for each and not try to mesh them together into a least-common-denominator experience.”

    This leads me to believe that Apple has no plans to build a 2-in-1 device a la Surface Book. Apple is all in on iPad Pro / iOS and its future variants.

  5. Why do you need a laptop/convertible instead of a tablet? Here’s three reasons (there’s more but I’ll just discuss these three for now):
    a. laptop can process data faster (but trades off in terms of energy usage)
    b. it’s easier/faster to type (and type a lot) on a laptop (but trades off in terms of mobility – not just weight but usage, i.e., difficult to use standing up)
    c. laptop has a legacy (Windows, OS X) set of applications

    So what is Apple doing?
    a. the Ax processors (and co-processors) are on a trajectory to catch up to laptop processors, and become faster while using less energy
    b. other input forms such as voice are rapidly getting substantially better, and apps are being developed to accomplish (the same) tasks while requiring less keyboard data input (i.e., get data from cloud, other apps on tablet, or IoT sensors/devices)
    c. again, new apps being developed to take on those old tasks, and these apps can/will do more and better (examples: IBM apps, Apple apps)

    Thus, I think Apple believes iPads will do just about everything better within a year or two for 90% of the current “laptop” population, so the market for the convertibles (which are more expensive than iPads) is going to be very small and short-lived. Just like for netbooks.

    1. “Thus, I think Apple believes iPads will do just about everything better within a year or two for 90% of the current “laptop” population..”

      I dunno about a couple years but yes, I agree, given the recent comments that Cook / Schiller have made in recent interviews with the media.

  6. Tim, I appreciate how mentioning Apple in nearly every tech article has become a requirement, but I don’t see this having any impact on Apple.

    The Surface was not / is not a paradigm changer. The stylus is required to use legacy Windows desktop software on a touch device. Yuck.

    It remains to be seen if it even changes the paradigm within the Wintel world. Microsoft has made a huge bet on ‘same-Windows-every-device’ strategy.

    The 2-in-1 Surface has been out there for a while. Will a cosmetic change really be enough to breakthrough to mass adoption? Is this the desired answer to ‘PC does what?’

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