Microsoft's Surface Neo may be niche, but it's definitely not doomed to fail

Surface logo

Surface logo (Image credit: Windows Central)

With the upcoming Surface event on October 2, the usual chatter has sprung up around what will be announced and whether it will be a success for Microsoft. Many are expecting the rumored dual-screen, foldable "Centaurus" device, which is looking likely as part of the reveal.

I often see comments about how whatever Microsoft announces, it won't survive because it will be "niche." I've always found this argument not only unconvincing but just weak logic. Here's why.

Niche is technology

Lenovo's forthcoming (2020) PC with a foldable display.

Lenovo's forthcoming (2020) PC with a foldable display.

Before we get started, let's clear up the word "niche." In this context, it's a product for a specialized segment of the market. The word itself is not a pejorative. Its connotation is a neutral descriptor. Specialized products can be successful, or they can fail for all the same reasons that apply to mainstream products.

All new technology starts niche, including radios, TVs, smartphones, smartwatches, and virtual reality – even VHS recorders and windshield wipers. Part of that is just manufacturing and consumer education, but a lot of it is pushback from regular folks who say, "We don't need that," or "Why not just do X instead?" Or, my favorite, "What problem does that solve?". Then, eventually, the technology catches on, and mass adoption occurs.

I owned a Palm Treo 650 in 2005, and I wasn't a businessman. That device was niche. Then, within five years of the first iPhone, smartphones went from obscure to almost everyone owning one.

The Palm Treo 650 - if you owned one, you owned a very niche phone in 2005.

The Palm Treo 650 - if you owned one, you owned a very niche phone in 2005.

There is also a crossover between niche and the more triumphant "early adopter" banner that many people love to embrace. Here I especially think of biohackers.

But there's another kind of niche, too. It's one where the technology never goes mainstream and is still a success. Everyone who is in a specialized field knows this. In movies, a 35mm film splicer was $500 and made by one company. The medical field is full of specialized, niche technologies that cost a fortune mostly because costs can't be subsidized by mass production.

Even for PCs, this is true. The recently announced Panasonic Toughbook 55 is niche; it's for police, EMT, military, and those who work outdoors. Panasonic told me that this category of PC represents only one percent of the entire PC market, yet the company owns 80 percent of that one percent. Panasonic has been making these laptops since 1996, yet many of you have never even touched one. Still, they're quite successful.

Expectations determine success

Panos Panay

Microsoft's Panos Panay unveiling the very niche Surface Hub 2 (2019). (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

When Neutaper set out to make a film splicer for projectionists and editors in 1963, the company didn't expect every household would own one someday. They didn't have to. Their only markets were movie theaters and film studios. For fifty years, it's all anyone used. They were a success.

Some things like the niche PC were pushed to go mainstream; it was Microsoft's goal in the 1980s and 1990s to get a PC into every house. Eventually, we all had mostly generic grey boxes in our homes.

But in 2019, technology is abundant and easy to produce. Because of that, we can now have things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to fund very specialized endeavors. You can buy the most exquisite PCs and components to suit your tastes. Do you want to make your RAM glow with RGB? No problem.

A niche foldable Surface would be just fine

All of this brings me back to Microsoft. The current expectation is we will see a dual-screen, foldable Surface tablet like the concept Microsoft Courier device from 2008. It will be a new category of computing – part PC, part tablet, part digital Moleskine notebook – and unlike anything we have on the market today. Inking and writing will be the primary interaction model.

Will it compete with other Surfaces, iPad, your phone? Is it a secondary device? Who knows? Who cares!

New categories of devices tend to have unexpected consequences. And of course, whatever Microsoft announces, it will be niche. That's fine. How many of you bought a HoloLens, Surface Studio or Surface Hub? Those are still successful despite being niche. They make millions for Microsoft.

Lenovo Yoga C930

Lenovo's experimental Yoga Book C930 was very different. (Image credit: Daniel Rubino / Windows Central)

One could argue the entire Surface line is niche, representing just 3.6 percent of the whole computer market, according to Gartner research. It also rakes in over one billion dollars per quarter in revenue.

Surface is not meant to be mainstream. The brand is intended to drive PC innovation and push the industry in specific directions, with the Surface line taking the lead (and initial risks). Microsoft pioneered the 2-in-1 Surface Pro, a design that was met with ridicule, scorn and doubt until about six months after Surface Pro 3 proved to be a hit. Now, every Apple iPad suddenly can dock a keyboard and pretend to be a Surface, as noted by The Verge recently.

Calling something niche is not an argument against its chances of success; it's merely a description. There are successful niche products that remain forever obscure, and there are niche products that go on to be mainstream. Others fail, only to come back later (OLED computer displays, for example).

Will Microsoft's dual-screen foldable Surface be a success? I'm not even sure it will be useful. Trying to reach a conclusion about "Centaurus" today with so little knowledge is foolish.

Technology is not always about solving problems; it's also about creating new opportunities to do things we could not before. Where that takes us, no one knows. That's the fun part.

How to watch the Microsoft Surface event live stream on October 2

Daniel Rubino

Daniel Rubino is the Editor-in-chief of Windows Central, head reviewer, podcast co-host, and analyst. He has been here covering Microsoft since 2007 when this site was called WMExperts (and later Windows Phone Central). His interests include Windows, Microsoft Surface, laptops, next-gen computing, and for some reason, watches. Before all this tech stuff, he worked on a Ph.D. in linguistics and ran the projectors at movie theaters, which has done absolutely nothing for his career.

  • Hey Daniel, what about a Surface Desktop? I think that will be a nice adition to the family.
  • Maybe. I think it's more about doing something in that space no one has done before. Studio was an attempt there, albeit directed at artists. I feel the Surface team thinks the future of computing is (1) Mobile (laptops, foldables, wearables) and (2) powerful/big computing (Book, Studio, Hub).
  • Thank you for the reply.
  • I was thinking something more like a mac mini style. I totally see windows on a tv like a tablet mode or windows S.With a nice remote i can see it work.
  • That would be cool. Something along those lines hasn't seen too much innovation the PC space - Lenovo, HP make 'em for businesses though.
  • That is a good point. This is something Microsoft OEMs have pioneered in not Microsoft yet.
  • It already exists and is called Surface Studio.
  • Not on my 55" tv and not on 300$ price range. I'm not an artist.
  • Does your TV have an hdmi port?
  • Which TV doesn't have an HDMI port these days lol.
  • Jesus, just give us a surface phone with Android apps. Lol
  • Isn't that just a Galaxy Fold or Huawei Mate X?
  • Nope, the Note 10 Plus! Why? Pen Support. The Best Enterprise Class Phone There Is...Period.
  • Do you think Windows be would be dead if they let android apps on windows?
  • Not at all. Chromebooks have Android apps yet have yet to gain market share apart from cash strapped American schools.
    Android apps are no threat to Windows desktop.
  • @Bluey Ross that misses the point as android apps on Windows undermines everything that's been done to unify the code base and o/s across devices. As yourself why would any want to develop Windows Apps if they can target two ecosystems with an Android app?
  • Thing is, they've unified a code base for a group of legacy/niche programmers. It doesn't have the breadth of the competition. If the world wants to move towards mobile devices, then the unified code base Microsoft uses on desktops and laptops doesn't really stand the test of time.
  • Time will always tell how technology plays out. It is very hard to predict the future landscape. I do think it is a mistake to launch the Centaurus first and not Andromeda first. Or maybe just launch them both at the same time. But not launch the Centaurus and see how it does to decide if going to launch Andromeda. Pocketable completely changes the use cases of a device, so you cannot base success of Centaurus to predict Andromeda. Plenty of compute power can now fit in a pocketable device. Just get it out there to show off Windows Lite and a vision for the future. Don't worry about competing with the existing entrenched phone market of iOS and Android. Just get Windows Lite out there in MANY different form factors, and slowly the public will get what Microsoft is up to. It will take time.
  • Are we ready yet for plenty of pocketable compute power? Andromeda will definitely be an ultramobile 3 in 1 PC but its form factor itself can be a limitation. Casual usage often does not need such high compute power while we might need a beefed up Continuum like feature to leverage the true power in the pocket. The era is kind of finished. Let's look forward to a lighter HoloLens. In fact, Windows Lite, Centaurus is and Andromeda was a stepping stone to the future of Windows.
  • Daniel seems to conflate the idea of "niche" with the idea that "a folding windows device will succeed at some point in the future".... Sure at some point there will be a successful folding windows device. However releasing products that have little use in the market doesn't really help that future. What helps that future is if you release products that are well thought out, instead of just having a gimmick feature. For example capacitive touch and multi-touch screens were nice features that had been around for years, but they didn't become useful tools on mobile devices until Apple created a UI around it that made that feature useful to consumers. Just throwing out feature without thinking it through is not how good products are made.
  • I WANT ANDROMEDA! Not expecting to see it though. ☹
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