What Windows 10X Can Learn from the Making of Surface

on May 6, 2020

It has been a busy week for Windows and Surface. We started on Monday with a blog post by Chief Product Officer, Windows and Devices, Panos Panay outlining what is coming in the Windows 10 May 10 update as well as some changes in the rollout plans for Windows 10X. Then today, with another blog, Panay announced the Surface Go 2, Surface Book 3, Surface Headphones 2 and Surface Dock 2 all updates to popular products in the Surface lineup. The announcement also introduced the new Surface Earbuds, first seen back in October 2019. I am sure we will see plenty of reviews of the hardware over the coming days and I will share my experience as I try some of the products myself. Still, there are broader and more fundamental points linking these two sets of announcements I thought were worth highlighting.

Panay took over the leadership of Windows about three months ago and, since then, has spoken quite openly how being able to design hardware and software together would make the Windows experience better for the whole ecosystem. A shared leadership has the potential to accelerate innovation and improve execution, two aspects that it would be fair to say Windows could have benefitted from during the past few years. I could not agree more with Panay’s intent and I am convinced there are vital lessons learned from bringing to market the Surface portfolio that will benefit Windows 10 as a whole and Windows 10X in particular.

New Form Factors Are Hard

The original Surface showed that for PC users, getting used to new form factors takes time. This is especially true when in addition to new form factors, you also have a new operating system with different input mechanisms and UI.

Users, especially in the enterprise, are mostly set in their workflows often reliant on legacy apps that don’t do well with change. Business users, or maybe their IT managers, also have expectations of what it takes to do productive work.

The Surface portfolio grew, in some ways, because that early start, aimed at taking users into the PC of the future, had to be accompanied by more traditional form factors for those users who were not quite ready to embrace the future either because of comfort or because or concrete needs that desktops and notebooks can deliver. Now Surface has a full portfolio catering to different users and their workflows. One size does not fit all, especially in an enterprise context.

Making New Workflows Natural

As the Surface portfolio was evolving, so was Windows from Windows 8 to Windows 10. A dual-screen device will certainly require new workflows to be developed to take advantage of the new form factors fully and to do so, Microsoft has been developing Windows 10X. Getting used to a new OS, even when the core stays the same, is even harder than breaking in a new form factor.

Back in October, when we first heard about Windows 10X, I wrote:

“Time and time again, we see users bending backward to fit their workflows around their phones. We do not question whether or not that phone is a computer; we simply use it to get things done. Surface Duo will empower users to find new workflows that take advantage of the dual-screen and highly mobile design. Because it is a phone, Surface Duo will not have to fight for a place in a portfolio of products, which means that users will be heavily engaged with it.”

Windows 10X can help consumer embrace cloud-based workflows now, so they can be ready to transfer them onto dual-screen devices when the time comes, thus making the transition much easier than having to learn both a new form factor and workflows at the same time

Business Response to COVID-19 as a Catalyst

The COVID-19 crisis has been an incredible driver of digital transformation. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said, during their earnings call, that he saw two years of digital transformation in two months. Because of our new reality, the needs and priorities of businesses and individuals alike have changed. It is understandable then that some planned releases both of software and devices might have changed also.

In this week’s blog, Panay said:

With Windows 10X, we designed for flexibility, and that flexibility has enabled us to pivot our focus toward single-screen Windows 10X devices that leverage the power of the cloud to help our customers work, learn and play in new ways. These single-screen devices will be the first expression of Windows 10X that we deliver to our customers, and we will continue to look for the right moment, in conjunction with our OEM partners, to bring dual-screen devices to market.”

Microsoft wants to continue to facilitate this wave of digital transformation to deliver an operating system that is meant for cloud-based workflows. Being able to fit into this wave of change is critical for Microsoft not just for Windows but for Office as well. With more enterprises embracing digital transformation, the search for the right partner and the right tools is on. The strength of having been at the center of most workflows in the past might be seen as a limitation, not an advantage, leading some companies to look for partners like Google, the poster child for the future of work.

Must-Have vs. Nice to Have

The economic downturn kicked started by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s priorities overall, including what they might be able and interested to spend when it comes to tech. The newly found needs to work and learn from home pushed both enterprises and consumers to buy more technology in the past few months than they had likely planned.

Microsoft said they registered a 35% increase in time spent on Windows devices since the beginning of February. People are relying on their PCs more than they have done in a very long time. Under the current stressful circumstances, users want familiarity, straightforward workflows, and ease of use. When the demands for our time and attention are high, the last thing we want is the added stress of figuring out new workflows or new form factors.

Microsoft’s reprioritization of Windows 10 X to focus first on delivering better user experience and improved functionality on single screen devices fits such needs and requirements. The cost of dual-screen and foldable devices, as well as their unproven track record in enabling productivity, would make it difficult to gain the support of IT managers and the budgets of mainstream consumers.

 

It might be disappointing for industry watchers not to see highly anticipated devices like Surface Neo and frustrating for some partners to have to put on hold their foldable devices. Yet, a lot has changed since last October, a lot has changed since last month, really, and for Microsoft to continue as if it were business, as usual, would be a huge disservice to partners and an insult to customers.