Surface Pro 3: The Future of PCs?

I attended the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 launch in New York last week and it got me thinking. After spending some time with the device and contemplating its potential impact, I realized it was time to take a fresh look at 2-in-1s, hybrids, detachables or whatever name you prefer to give to these combo devices.

In many ways, the Surface Pro 3 is one of the best examples of a 2-in-1 device that I’ve seen. With a 12” high-resolution screen, a range of powerful Intel Core series CPUs, fast SSD storage and a backlit, removable keyboard with a large, comfy trackpad, it’s got all the features people want in a PC. At the same time, the screen’s 3:2 aspect ratio, multipoint touch, infinitely variable hinge and the included stylus all make it a powerful tablet.

But looking at how Microsoft has evolved the Surface from its original “let’s try to create an alternative to the iPad” strategy, the Surface Pro 3 is clearly much more PC-like than it is tablet-like. In fact, I’d argue it’s about 80-90% PC and only 10-20% tablet. Though that may not sound ideal, in actual practice that ratio works well because that’s how the vast majority of people use 2-in-1 devices anyway.

In fact, the ratio for most people who own or use these types of devices is probably in the 95% range of PC usage vs. tablet-style usage. I use Dell’s XPS12 convertible PC with the rotating screen as my main machine every day, for example, and I only occasionally use it in a tablet-like mode. It is handy to have that capability on those rare occasions when, for example, I want to flip the screen over and show a presentation to someone in front of me or some other application like that, but again, that’s not typical. In that regard, my estimate of Surface’s 10-15% tablet usage is actually much higher than most.

Even still, I highly doubt that most people who buy and use 2-in-1s no longer buy and/or use standalone tablets. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that people who own 2-in-1s are more likely to own a separate standalone tablet than people with regular notebooks. The buyers for 2-in-1s are likely to be more sophisticated users who want a wide range of computing options and are willing (and able) to buy multiple devices to fit those needs.

There’s an even bigger issue at stake, however, and it has to do with how these devices are being positioned. Surface Pro 3 is being positioned primarily as a tablet—why else would they not bundle a keyboard with it?—and 2-in-1s are positioned as being half PC and half tablet. Neither of these is really accurate, though. In both cases, I believe we’re really looking at the future of the notebook PC.[pullquote]I’d argue that the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and other 2-in-1s are really more like a 1+ device: they take the 1 device and evolve it into a better, more advanced version of itself. Or, to put it another way, they represent the future of PCs.”[/pullquote]

The problem, of course, is that nobody really wants to talk about PCs now because the market is declining and PCs are just not sexy anymore. It’s tablets that are sexy now, so somehow everything needs to be positioned in the supposed glow of the tablet aura.

That’s a big mistake from my perspective, however, because I don’t see tablets as the savior of computing. Apparently, I’m not the only one either, because growth in the tablet market has started to peak, and I suspect it won’t be long before it starts to decline a bit (or, at the very least, growth grinds to a halt).

Don’t get me wrong. I love tablets and use them all the time. However, I also recognize their limitations and continue to believe they are a great supplementary device to a PC and a smartphone.

In this light, I’d argue that the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 and other 2-in-1s are really more like a 1+ device: they take the 1 device (a PC in my argument) and evolve it into a better, more advanced version of itself. Or, to put it another way, they represent the future of PCs.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

15 thoughts on “Surface Pro 3: The Future of PCs?”

  1. I do see the best 2-in-1’s recognizing they are 1+ devices. They recognize that the ~90% use case needs to be uncompromised. In this case that is the PC/Laptop use case.

    Therein lies the problem with Microsoft’s execution. It sacrifices too much laptop functionality, the 90% use-case, to supplement the 10% tablet use-case.

    The keyboard is still a fiddly/fussy thing to setup with mediocre keys.

    Both your Dell and the Lenovo Yoga actually deliver on the 1+ device promise.

    1. I agree but having used the Surface Pro 3 for a few days now, I can tell you that it’s a good PC experience and that’s why I believe it’s generally being well reviewed and well received. Other than not bundling a keyboard with it–which I still don’t understand–it’s a worthy new addition to the “1+” category.

      1. If I was ever in the market for a desk-tablet with stylus, I may look at the SP, but I absolutely would not buy the keyboard, because IMO it is the worse keyboard I have ever tried on a modern “PC”, outside of the “Touch cover” version of the same.

        If I want a machine to type on. The keyboard is going to be one of the most important aspects of the product. I don’t see how this can be a good PC experience when the main way to interact with it, is so dismal.

        1. I honestly think that the SP3 version you want will come from Micorsoft’s partners… the SP3 is just the beginning. Soon you will have ASUS, Samsung, Lenovo etc with the “good” keyboards (possibly also with external batteries) with a detachable tablet/monitor. The only real complaints then will be people who just can’t work with Windows 8.

          1. I already think the Yoga and XPS are better, except they lack a stylus, which is likely the big draw for the SP.

  2. Tablets are great, I have several scattered throughout the house. I personally rarely leave the house with one though. To be more honest, I am never without a laptop when I leave the house, even if I bring a tablet. The tablet’s great service has been to “raise the bottom” of the computing envelope and kill the netbook. People bought netbooks because they were (in approximate order):

    -More mobile.
    -Sufficient for getting email and web.
    -Better battery life.

    If you tried to do anything computationally demanding, netbooks made you want to gouge your eyes out. Though this has improved on tablets, it’s still largely true (compared to a PC).

    Tablets have improved all the above scenario’s. If a tablet suffices, you should absolutely get a tablet. For most of todays applications, we’ve achieved the “fast enough” stage. Except when we don’t…
    There are pressures, perhaps agendas, to count tablets as PC’s. I vehemently disagree with that position. The PC market is declining, mostly due to being oversold in the past. First netbooks cracked the low end market, then tablets continued and expanded that trend. The PC will not go away though.

    MS needs to be less even less coy and brazenly say “Don’t you dare call it a tablet”, or something to that effect.

    1. Completely agree and I’ve been trying to fight this argument for a while. Microsoft and many other companies associated with the PC market–from vendors to component makers–got so caught up in trying to beat Apple that they lost sight of improvements they could make in their own category. Now that the crazy growth of tablets has started to die down and the predictions of the PC’s imminent death have started to fade away, I think it’s critical to help reposition PCs as important, useful devices that can continue to evolve to meet people’s needs. And importantly, you don’t need to do that by calling a PC something else. In the end, I think that causes more harm than good.

    2. Tablets are certainly affecting how we interact with laptops at least. I’ve seen multiple times just this past weekend where people absent-mindedly reached out to the laptop screen to scroll or select. I don’t think or know if the SP is the answer or future, but it is likely closer than most laptops or even hybrids. Even with the 24″ monitor attached to my laptop at my desk, I have many times wished I could just reach out and “pinch to zoom” rather than selecting a magnifying glass tool.


      1. Agreed. I think adding touch capability to PCs is part of the evolution of PCs that I was referring to. People do expect it and it’s moving to become a “must-have” feature, instead of a “nice-to-have.”

  3. Bob, respectfully, the SP3 looks great but who is their target market?

    IMHO, it’s a great tech experiment?

    Enterprises won’t buy it over $400 laptops, at least for another few years, except in special use cases. Consumers don’t buy SP3 priced devices in quantity.

    The SP3 isn’t quite the solution yet, but may be the future.

    But you are assuming that Tablets (Android and iOS) won’t change and reduce their limitations in the future?

    The future is wide open?

    1. I think, as the presentation shows, it is targeted at the same market that buys the MacBook Air (and the Lenovo X1 Carbon) – just like a small/medium-sized company I work for. We do not have $400 laptops, rather, people tied to their desks get desktops (which are now being replaced by thin clients), the road warriors, at-home staff, managers, and executives get Lenovo X1 Carbons, MacBook Airs, and Surface Pro 2s. At-home staff, managers and executives are all provided with docking stations on their desks to connect to external monitors, keyboard, and mouse.

      The inferiority of the SP Touch Cover is largely negated by a docking station plus peripherals as our managers’ major typing work are done at their respective desks while note-taking capabilities are at a premium during meetings. Once our IT Manager deploys SP3s, I think I will no longer see any form of real paper brought into meetings.

  4. Bob, thank you for your opinion on Pro 3. As always, it’s great to hear you out!

    I agree when you said “adding touch capability to PCs is part of the evolution of PCs” and I believe this will, indeed, spur competition among PC makers to reposition PCs as a touch enabled device. On other note, I do think that we’re specifically looking at the future of Ultrabook PCs than the traditional Notebook PCs available at lower price points. Given that the smallest size SSD available in most Ultrabooks is 128Gb, it will be a hard sell for Msft to sell a “tablet that can replace a PC” (in their words) with a small storage capacity of 64Gb. More so, when Pro 3 (Core i5, 128 Gb) is compared with 13-inch MacBook Pro, it doesn’t fare well in terms of pricing when Type Cover is included. I think that yes, it’s a +1 device, that will impact the future of PCs in terms of technical capabilities, but not really a replacement device.

    On positive note, it will also help IT folks to switch to flash from traditional HDDs while making an enterprise purchase. 🙂

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