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.