How the Surface changed Microsoft forever

And it wasn't an accident. On June 18, 2012, Microsoft surprised the world with the launch of the tablet/laptop hybrid known as Surface.

Early impressions were hopeful. Would this be the iPad killer that a host of Android tablets before it had failed to be? Its unique design that crammed a full PC into the frame of a tablet (Pro version), and accommodated removable keyboard/type covers and a pen, suggested, "Maybe."

Ballmer hinted at a future "Surface" family of devices.

This tablet, which conveniently hid the familiar desktop behind its Modern (and controversial) Live Tile-based face was described as "the tablet that can replace your laptop." Then CEO Steve Ballmer framed the "Surface" category this way as "a whole new family of computing devices from Microsoft."

Its' interesting that even then Ballmer referred to "Surface" as a family of devices. He may have envisioned the broader context the Surface brand would later incorporate beyond what was introduced that day. This was, after all, the beginning of a journey of hardware-software synergy that would change Microsoft forever?

Hard way to go

The road to success was rough. The advent of the iPhone in 2007 and Android phones in 2008 established a UI and app ecosystem that translated easily to the widely-accepted iPad in 2010 and a host of Android tablets that followed. Microsoft's revised mobile OS, Windows Phone 7 in 2010, was late to the consumer-focused world of smartphones.

Surface cost Microsoft $1B due to early market failures.

Still, the unique Live Tile-based UI which many "static icon trained" consumers rejected on the phone was later employed by Redmond in an attempt at a "tablet-friendly" UI in Windows 8 in 2012.

The goal of the original Surface was designed to be the PC Microsoft already "knew how to be" and the tablet "it needed it to be" in a mobile-first world.

The Surface's 2012 debut (two years after iPad) addressed a dearth of Windows tablets in the market. Unfortunately Microsoft's Continuum-powered, context-sensitive vision for 2-in-1s was initially hampered by Windows 8's negative reception and other issues surrounding the early Surface's and the Windows app ecosystem.

By 2014 Microsoft had two strikes against it, and a $1 billion loss as the first two iterations of the Surface failed in the market.

Microsoft's Financial Officer, Amy Hood stated:

I want to be very clear: We know we have to do better…This journey is going to take some time, but I believe we are making incremental progress.

Unyielding commitment to a hardware and software synergy vision finally paid off with the Surface Pro 3.

Branded

With the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft proved its vision for the category-defining 2-in-1. This success was a shift in Microsoft's position and perception in the industry. Redmond had been striving to position itself as capable of designing a device that fit its vision of how Windows should work with a tablet/laptop hybrid form factor.

The company's continued R&D and financial commitment in the face of failure weren't just about the Surface, but rather the as yet unrealized family of Windows 10 hardware that Microsoft envisioned. Surface designer Panos Panay's and his team's persistence ultimately resulted in a brand that communicates innovative, meticulously designed, high-end, context-conforming hardware.

The Surface brand represents high-end innovation.

In the four years since its inception, the Surface brand has earned Microsoft, a software company, a position as a respected hardware company. This position is fundamental to Microsoft's vision of delivering a comprehensive personal computing experience where the mobility of experiences is key.

In addition to Redmond's first-party device vision, the Surface (as it did with 2-in-1s), is positioned to help manufacturing partners bring similar devices to market at various price points.

Rising to the Surface

The Surface's success initiated the evolving realization of Microsoft's family of devices vision. Ballmer expressed (opens in new tab):

No technology company has…delivered a definitive family of devices useful all day for work and for play, connected with every bit of a person's information available through one cloud.… Our family will include phones, tablets, PCs, 2-in-1s, TV-attached devices and other devices to be imagined and developed.

Since the Surface tablet's success, Microsoft has proudly and confidently introduced other first-party hardware under the brand's umbrella, leading to the current line-up: Surface Pro 4, Surface Book, and the brand-new Surface Studio.

These devices and the Surface Hub are high-end devices that have changed the industry's perception of Windows-based hardware.

Surface changed how Windows devices are perceived.

Windows devices once perceived as low-end bargain basement devices are now seen as expensive cutting-edge hardware that rivals or exceeds Apple's long-standing high-end market position. More than that, the Surface brand has had a halo effect on high-end hardware from Microsoft partners.

Microsoft has leveraged its deep-reaching relationships to create Surface as a Service:

…in the past year, the Surface business has grown from generating $1B in revenue in a year to $1B in revenue per quarter. With our growing portfolio, we are creating not just great devices, but breakthrough categories that open up a world of new opportunities for partners to build capabilities in new areas, and to create solutions and services for customers.

Great expectations

The Surface brand has caused many people to view Microsoft in a new light. For Window's phone fans the brand represents hope. Every Surface device to date has defined a new category, and changed how we see computing. The Studio, for instance, reimagines the desktop.

How might the brand's mission to create categories and change how we see computing be represented on a form factor that fits into our pockets and makes phone calls but is not a phone?

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Jason Ward

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

70 Comments
  • Thanks for reading folks! The Surface's success was a necessary prerequisite to the birth of the family of devices that followed. It proved to both Microsoft and the industry that Redmond could make premier hardware. It will be interesting to watch as new categories evolve with Microsoft's computing vision under the Surface brand umbrella. Of course all eyes on on the ultra-mobile Surface that will be a pocketable PC with telephony. Panos and Microsoft are well aware of the weight riding on an incredible, category defining device. Considering the current app situation the hardware will have to be top-notch, it's Surface-style context sensitivity will have to fill a practical need, Continuum will have to bear the R3 benefits and more. Perhaps the x86 apps will be accessible a we've reported. At any rate, Surface has redifined Microsoft! What are your thoughts? LET'S TALK!!!!
  • Surface has redefined msft, indeed. Just another good read from you, Jason. As we are aware, science fiction have come to a point where the real world application today have become possible and existential. Post apocalyptic film Equals starring Nicholas Hoult had a Surface Studio like setup except the zero G hinge (which is cool) ;) personally, I feel like we might see something like the foldable device shown frequently in Westworld, and that could become the ultimate Surface mobile the world is waiting for.
  • I, for one, can do without the science fiction and references to commercial films, I want a device that will work now and in the foreseeable future.
  • the pricing is killing the entire windows platform
  • I don't think the price is hurting Windows overall. There are still plenty of affordable Windows devices out there, many of which are lower priced than similar spec'ed alternate OS devices. It's obvious what market Microsoft is trying to chip into, with devices priced comparable to Apple phones, laptops, tablets, and desktops. And then Microsoft is relying on partner companies to complete the market lineup in other aspects, which they are doing nicely.
  • I feel you're absolutely correct. However,many define Microsoft's previous attempts at mobile as a failure meanwhile, it's current base shows that's not the case. Many enjoy and continuing use of w10m devices even as insiders. I feel that Microsoft until now was not in a position to properly leverage hardware or protect itself until it acquired Nokia IP portfolio in the acquisition. Now with that in tow, you don't have to rely on partners or royalty agreements for a loss of profit. Also, prior to this based on its previous engagement in the mobile field, Microsoft receives money from licensing deals both from android and apple. It's in a position were it can develop itself with money it earns from outside deals.
  • A handful of fanboys doesn't make a product successful.
  • Yes, but just because there are a handful that also doesn't declare it a failure. As long as there are users and insiders, the platform can receive feedback and grow into maturity. Any platform maintenance is a long haul goal of development and refinement.
  • And a tired troll doesn't make it a failure
  • Thanks for the article! After being immersed in devices every day, it can become extremely easy to forget the journey we've taken, even if it was only a short time ago. Viewing the Surface Pro 4 reveal a year after I watched the livestream still gave me goosebumps; Panos has undeniable passion and that ebbs and flows through the devices the team creates. It makes me want to hug my Surface Book out of sheer appreciation for what they're doing for consumer devices!    
  • I agree. But as a new Surface Pro 4 owner, former macOS user, I am ready to go all in on whatever MSFT brings. This machine is easily the best I've owned, and i am sorry I rook so long to try it out. I think this time around more people may be in a position to do so.
  • Who is Stevie botiche ...in the first video panos was talking about him
  • They are headed in the right direction, but I wish they at least brought out 1 more updated line of high end Lumia devices, because right now many of the devoted fans are leaving and so are some of the major apps. It'll be much harder to get those apps back with a new Surface mobile device if there aren't any consumers of these apps.
    For example, I want to buy a new Microsoft branded phone now, I've had the 950XL for 12 months, but I can't. Very disappointing.
  • They could have continued on with the budget Lumia line if not for the other two segments. Windows phone was fluid, stable and sufficient for those who want a phone to make a call, believe me there are a lot of consumers in this case. I wish W10M had a handful of budget phones to cover the gap. Retrenching the phone business from India and Brazil is a major setback for msft, not many ppl want a crammed up Android phone for the lowest price.
  • Tell that to the market
  • Yeah I personally love my Lumia 950 and wish they'd spend more time making them cool and killer phones!!
  • If 6 years wasn't enough time, it isn't going to happen. It is time for Microsoft to try something new. After WP7 flopped, it was time to try something new. Now it is just sad.
  • Bring Back my Band!!!!
  • Bring the Band back to the surface...
  • Maybe the problem is it was the Microsoft Band and not the Surface Band?
  • do you know you are giving me hope? Gosh I need that one you just said.
  • I believe that's the point. I had already thought about it. The Microsoft Band had no Windows 10, so I believe once they figure out how put Windows 10 into one band it'll return Branded as The Surface Band.
  • The problem right now is they really cant push out a need to succeed at all cost device with how glitchy Windows 10 Mobile is. That may hold this back.
  • I m still asking why they spent 2b buying Minecraft and 26b for LinkedIn, and not a buck to just shut up and produce some another Lumia just not to loose their entire user base and TRICKED and loose forever their professional developers community...Lumia was at 18℅ in some EU countries, beating Apple....
  • @venetasoft
    100% agree.
    The most damaging thing in long term is lack of app/dev support. Loosing developers is the end game for any ecosystem.
    No consumer base = no developers = no apps = even less consumer base.
    Windows used to be the platform of choice for developers. Until mobile and Nadella arrive.
    And what Nadella is doing? Searching for the next big thing.
    That thing is here! Now! It's called mobile device. Have you heard of PHONE!
    Sooner MS get rid of him, better for the company in the long run.
  • App developers will keep building apps for Windows 10 and there is practically no learning curve for mobile. So if Microsoft (finally) brings a great range of mobile devices on the market, the developers are still capable of building great apps for mobile. Lot's of them already do by developing an UWP app which makes it easy to bring the same app on the desktop to the mobile form factor...
  • Let's take the LinkedIn purchase.  First, the subscriber base is huge, and fits in very tightly with Microsoft's enterprise cloud strategy.  Second, LinkedIn was a prize also seen as crucial by SalesForce, who actually bid more.  Third, from the LinkedIn financial results posted shortly after the acquisition agreement, Microsoft already made money on the deal.  This is the opposite of the Nokia acquisition, which was a disaster for Microsoft.  Nokia was failing, and Microsoft continued to lose money on every phone, with Android continuing to devour what little market share Nokia/Lumia had.  Recall that a number of directors, including Gates, opposed the Nokia acqusition.  Microsoft did give it a shot with W10M and UWP, but the execution was poor on both, and it was determined that there was no path to success under the current model. 
  • Speaking as someone who USE TO BE one of the biggest cheerleaders for Microsoft (Windows 8, Windows Phone 7 and 8, original Xbox One w/Kinect), I can honestly say the ONLY thing Microsoft is doing right anymore as far as I'm concerned is the Surface.  I have the SP3 and my wife just got the SP4.  Sadly, we both hate W10 and W10M and we both hate the "new Xbox One experience".  We both have a Lumia 950 and curse them daily (my 1020 w/WP8.1 is still my go-to device).  But the Surface devices are the one remaining silver lining.  Sadly, we both have zero expectation in a "Surface phone".  If it exists and if it follows the design lines of the tablets, then it will be UGLY as a phone.  We, hands down, prefer the gorgeous look of the original Lumia line.  Also, as Microsoft has already shown, they are lame in the camera department, which is one specific area that is of paramount importance to us in a smartphone (which is why I still prefer the Lumia 1020....I get sub-par results with the 950) and Microsoft (as with all other OEMs) has shown ZERO real desire or effort to soundly beat the competition in camera capability.  So, we're expected more over-priced, underwhelming results if Microsoft comes out with a "Surface phone".  I am, however, looking forward to what they do with a Surface Pro 5.  I'm hoping for a USB-C port for charging & connectivity, for one thing.
  • Though not quite as bad of a view on W10M, I could have written that comment (down to the SP3 for me and SP4 for her bit lol) :)
  • Yup, I have to say I'm a bit envious of my wife's SP4.  But I figure I'll hold out for the SP5 and upgrade to that.
  • Yup my i7 sp3 8gb still just enough to hold me from sp4. I need more ram but will wait sp5 or I'm willing to give another oem a shot, perhaps the envy?
  • Yeah, that's all they are doing right now. They aren't killing in cloud computing, productivity software, and console gaming. Not to even mention how great Windows 10 is. 
  • Yes, on the services side, I agree.  I really do rely heavily on OneDrive and Office 365, but there are still some nagging issues I have with how OneDrive functions at the device level.  I do think they have the best setup.  I sure wish they hadn't backtracked on the amount of storage, though.
  • Frankly, I prefer the proprietary magnetic connector. We have a gaggle of Surface devices in our home. The micro USB power connector for the Surface 3 feels less secure and it is more likely to be damaged. The magnetic connector would just pop out. IMO, USB-C would be an improvement over micro USB but not enough to make it worthwhile.
  • I'm not a fan of proprietary connectors.  There have been times when I've had my SP3 with me and been using the heck out of it only to find that I'm almost out of battery.  I can almost always find a USB-C charger.  Being able to recharge via USB-C would solve the "I don't have my proprietary magnetic charger handy" problem.
  • Although I haven't bought a Surface device since RT, I love the brand and hardware. I remember it being a total surprise when they first announced it. They had that clever marketing campaign where they spray-painted Surface images all around New York and the first sizzle commercial was so clean.
  • I just wish I had the money to buy all this beautiful Surface stuf. Great devices, but cloud services and software are in transition and it shows in the many inconsistencies, duplications and lack of integration.
    E.g. I feel Cortana and Action / Notification Center should blend together. Bots shouldn't be acquired within Skype, but from the Store, just as Edge Extensions. Cortana Reminders should be blended together with Outlook tasks.
  • Sounds like great feedback. If you haven't already done so, there is an app for that. ;)
  • Thanks. I am a Windows Insider for years and being back to base since a week, I have posted that feedback this week. More to do, as it seems that Microsoft's Next launcher holds great ideas for a revamp of Start (launch) on Windows too.
  • I say Calendar, Tasks and Notifications should have been part of Cortana. But it's not possible currently because Cortana is not supported in several markets.
  • I don't think they should be part of Cortana, but you are very right if yo u mean to say that Cortana should be an Interface to those services and I think that she already is. I should use her more myself, but my desktop hasn't got a microphone and the mic in my notebook isn't good enough either. Looking forward to that 3-in-1 device ;-)
  • I think if they put the surface-WOW in a handset, and make a "phone" that is as powerful as a desktop, like they do with a surface, then they might have something. I'm just not sure hardware, and fully featured CPUs and GPUs are ready for a handheld computer. I really think though that their next update will feature gaming, just like the "creators update" I think the "gamers update" will add a surface for gaming and the new Xbox console. The surface phone might not be in the near future. Just my hunch based on what's going on in the ecosystem.
  • I think you are right, sort of. My belief if that the rumoured "Scorprio" is going to be released as the Xbox One Surface (or Surface Xbox One), which will change how people interpret the game console. I reckon that one of the features of your hypothesised "Gamers Update" will be the ability to stream, or download, your game to your phone as well as use the UWP that are/will be available on the Xbox ecosystem. I think that next year they will release an interim phone. Not quite a full surface phone, but not a lumi phone either. Just Wimdows Phone 1.
  • No and no. If they release a mobile device/phone it must be surface branded. And no way will Scorpio be Surface branded as Xbox is very well known as a consumer and gaming brand. I just don't see it.
  • They won't have anything, phone buyers aren't looking to buy a disguised desktop, they've already voted and apps on their phone have opened up new functionality and meets all their needs. They're not looking to move back to desktop computing so offering a "PC" experience that they've already rejected won't change anything but i bet all we'll hear is "wait till the next version, coming soon" from Microsoft fans.
  • Apple chip would be the best solution for MS. Problem is they only have access to Qualcomm that will never catch up with Apple's chips. So they have to make their own if they really want to make a buzz like Apple does.
  • Benchmark comparison?
  • It's so well known do I really have to? The a10 fusion compares to the Core M chips it's so powerful. I have never seen an iphone lose in benchmarks on any site. Just type iphone 7 benchmarks in your preferred search engine.
  • I won't be surprised if everything written in this comment become reality some day.It feels bang on.
  • I hope they come out with a surface band.
  • Is it weird to say I want a Surface studio pocket size... U know a phone :)
  • Surface Studio mini, that makes and receives call.
  • I remember staying up late to watch the reveal of the original Surface device back in 2012. When I saw it I thought, you know what, this thing is going to be big and boy oh boy look where we are now.... Can't wait for what's around the next curve....
  • Yeah I see people constantly using Surface devices in the public now.
  • Same here, we have a good few in our company and looking at the Hub too.
  • The first Surface tablet was not that impressive though. Nokia Lumia 2520 that was launched in the same year was way better. It even had an extra battery in the keyboard cover. May be Surface Book got some inspiration from that design. I think Microsoft could have continued Lumia tablets with W10M / Full W10 OS, Intel Atom processor(if possible) and continuum support. It could have been a low cost Surface alternative.
  • The biggest advantage that the 2520 had was the Qualcomm 801. It was a nice piece of hardware but Microsoft released a keyboard for the Surface Pro with a battery as well.
  • A "Pocket Surface Device" running W10 in tablet mode only, kinda merged interface of W10M and W10 Tablet, capable of running Win32/x86 applications will be my dream devices. And obviously capable of making calls through Skype and SIM (phone).
  • No super Surface phone is going to make much difference now. The die is cast and it is way too little way too late. All these lost apps are not coming back.
  • I have a surface pro 4 and love it and can't see myself using any other device. I think Microsoft can really take a big step with customer service both in store and over the phone when it comes to new devices. The launch was a mess and the store I pre ordered from didn't even care or communicate with me that my device wasn't in. I got an automated "come pick up now" like daily. Then I get to the store and they tell me they don't have my device. My delay was 6 weeks from launch date. So much that they gave me someone else's device from another local store because I was getting an automated pick up or your order will be terminated email. I love my device and hope they improve on launching and supporting devices. I think it would make these awesome devices even more attractive to people joining the Microsoft brand for the first time or rejoining.
  • How about a foldable device like shown in HBO's Westworld? I'd buy that
  • I think the success of the Surface team is in part responsible for the failure of the phone side of things.
    Surface team was obviously the anointed group at MS. Nadella deliberately pulled the rug out from under the ex-Nokia side of things as soon as he could and I think it's because he thought the Surface team would deliver something for Mobile in 2016.
    Things obviously failed to pan(os) out as expected and now the mobile strategy at play is essentially burning the platform to the ground, materially damaging the chances for UWP.
    Surface team make great stuff, I love the SP4 I'm typing this on, but It's highly unlikely they'll be able to reverse the damage done to mobile/UWP over the past 2/3 years.
  • Now we need Suface Phone!
  • Great article as always.
  • Microsoft just isnt 'tuned' enough towards an enormously critical market, India. While traditionally India has been considered more of a market for lower end of the price segment, there are millions here who would go to any length to buy that one aspirational gadget. MS simply doesnt pay much attention to promoting their products here. Its been more than a year that we were promised MS stores across the country, only one has materialised in nearly 18 months. Believe u me, Indians love MS as much as they loved Nokia ( and still do ! ). Just give the buyer the attention he deserves !
  • Even in Europe we don't have Microsoft stores.
  • Practically only thing different about surface pro 4 when compared to a Macbook is the the Surfacepen. During the time of of SP3, Ntrig based Surface pen was the second best technology when compared to Wacom based writing tablets. But now that the Ntrig pen pen technology behind surface pen has stagnated. NTrig is one of the worst pen technology currently. It doesn't compare to the New Wacom EMR, Apple pencil, Wacom AES and then comes the surface pen. With a pen that is that bad, i don't see much difference between a surface and a mac. What Apple pencil has achieved is amazing. Just the mere touch of the pencil nib on the display is enough to ink on the display. That's exactly how pens in real life work... comfortably. With Microsoft Surface you will have to press down the surface pen nib harder on the display. If pen technology of NTrig Surface pro 5 doesn't get as good as Apple pencil, i will move on to a gaming laptop and an ipad.
  • Watching the first Surface product launch event was painful, esp that first guy in blue shirt. Panos really is the man, good thing he is doing all the launches now from the start.
  • Can't wait to see what the future holds! But I'd still love a Surface Mini to replace my aging HP Stream 7 and I'll probably replace my Surface RT which just sits on my desk for a Surface Pro 3 or 4
  • How many of you ditch mac book for Surface??