I've watched a lot of press events recently. In my job as Managing Editor of Mobile Nations, that tends to happen. Over the last month I've sat through events online and in person put on by Samsung, Huawei, Apple, LG, ASUS, and Google. But today's Microsoft event was different. The hardware they unveiled was stunning. The presentation was impeccable. And the presenters were more than just personable — they were personal. I sat down for this event with relatively muted expectations (new Windows Phones and Surface tablets, yaaaay.) and came out not just impressed, but optimistic. I like this new Microsoft.
Gone is the Microsoft that used to bore me to tears. Panos Panay paced the stage as he announced device after device, elucidating with unmistakable passion not on just the details of these new phones, tablets, and wearables, but what those details mean to a user.
There was no talk of processor clock speeds or RAM bus speeds or any other technical mumbo jumbo like that (and I know what that technical mumbo jumbo means). Instead we were told that these devices were faster and more powerful than any competitor on the market, and then we were shown just how fast and powerful they are.
How fast is that SSD write speed? Doesn't matter, let me just transfer a 3GB file from the USB drive and show you. How many teraflops worth of calculations can that processor and GPU handle? Dunno, but they're the latest and best that you can put in a device like this and just check out this flawless and lag-free 3D rendering. Is it faster and more powerful than that MacBook Air? Damned right it is.
And then there's Bryan Roper. I want this guy to give every presentation I ever have to watch again. His passion and excitement was evident from the very start of his demonstration of the new Lumia 950 phones. Not just that, he walked us through exactly what we were looking at when it came time to demonstrate Continuum, constantly and helpfully making callbacks to how things work with Windows 10 and how similar they are with a Windows 10 Mobile phone outputting to a keyboard and monitor over a single cable into a dock.
Not just that, Roper's excitement was contagious. His passion was infectious. His humor was spot on. It's rare that I have fun and find myself enjoying something as dry as "you plug your phone into this box and it outputs as a desktop onto this screen and you can use a keyboard and mouse with it." That should be the dullest presentation ever, yet I was loving every moment of it. I mean, what press event in recent memory have you ever hear the phrase " 'Cause I can be productive like a boss wherever I am now."? Panos Panay stopped in the middle of the Surface Book unveiling to grab a few from the podium and hand them out to the press on hand to pass around
Microsoft in the past has put on some stunningly dreadful press events. They've let themselves get bogged down in numbers and specs and other things that just don't matter to anybody but the spec nerds (sorry guys, the specs still don't matter). They would bore on and on with talk about Microsoft's financial positioning or how many dull businesses are running dull Windows services. Somehow the message that we've been preaching here at Mobile Nations for years now got through to the campus in Redwood: the specs don't matter, it's what they enable you to do that matters.
That thought process was clear from the first moment they started to talk about the new Lumias. Here's some impressive technology, sure, but here's what you can do with that. Here's why you want it — not for the bragging rights nerd cred that these numbers bring, but for the sheer usefulness that they'll bring to your life.
And that's not even mentioning the Surfaces. Wow. I'm still not entirely sold on the flappy keyboard cover and kickstand, but that Surface Pro 4 is still a mighty fine piece of hardware. It's absurdly powerful, obscenely thin, and smartly designed in a way that only Apple rivals. But Apple's tablets are different beasts, designed with different goals in mind. Microsoft's packed a full-fledged high-end laptop into a body that's barely over 8mm thick. Think about that for a moment.
But the real star was the Surface Book. Is it really quite expensive? Sure. Is it pretty thick when closed, especially at that crazy rolling hinge? Yeah. Is it an piece of showcase engineering that smashes preconceptions about what a tablet, laptop, and convertible ought be? Absolutely. The Surface Book is a bit of an oddity, sure, but it's also absurdly incredible. It took a while for Microsoft's manufacturing partners to catch on and catch up to what Microsoft was doing with the Surface line, and I suspect it'll be a little while before they're able to pull off what they've done with the Surface Book too.
What Microsoft unveiled wasn't by any means a feat of technical brilliance that nobody else could have accomplished. It's that Microsoft was willing to accomplish that — the Windows and Office cash cows provide more than enough padding to absorb the massive cost of something like developing and producing the new Surfaces. But Microsoft is willing to take those hits to their bottom line in the goal of pushing forward the industry as a whole.
It took three years to turn a profit on the Surface laptops, and I suspect that Microsoft's not making much, if any, money on the mind-bogglingly-cool Surface Book either. But that doesn't matter to them. This is a product created because they had a vision that none of their partners had, a vision of what the laptop of the future should look like. It's not a perfect vision or execution, but it's the sort of thing that only a company in Microsoft's position could do.
And then there was the simply wild HoloLens. It's still a ridiculous first-generation product that nobody in their right mind should buy, but if it's not so damned cool. The interactive holographic gaming demonstration might have dragged on for a bit too long, but it was simply too cool to pass up. At $3000 the developer kit of the HoloLens is certainly far out of the price range of the average consumer (who shouldn't be considering something with the word 'developer' in its title anyway), but it's paving the way for the future of interactive computing.
Microsoft's leaders walked out onto that stage today and hit it out of the park. They had swagger and confidence and passion that was in no way misplaced. This has been a year of solid tech presentations across the board. Everybody's stepped up their game and nobody's really whiffed on the quality of their product or stage craft. Even Samsung's avoided making us cringe, which is a miracle in and of itself.
Today I saw a Microsoft with a renewed sense of self, stepping up and showing the world what they can do, and that they can do it with the best of them. In a very short time Microsoft has gone from a company that struggled on stage, in product quality, and in getting their message to consumers to a company that's confident in who they are, what they can do, and why they're doing it.
It's an odd position — I was more impressed and engaged by a Microsoft presentation than an Apple one. Apple's unveiling of the iPhone 6s and iPad Pro last month was more polished and perfected, sure, but that's what Apple does. But after watching today's Microsoft presentation, I feel like they somehow captured that excitement and passion that's been missing from Apple in recent years. Apple's presentations have lost the warmth and have started becoming almost clinical in their precision and predictability. Microsoft contrasted that today with an engaging and excited presentation.
I'm impressed, Microsoft. Not just by the products announced, but by the company that Microsoft has evolved into in so short a time. Keep it up, guys, you're doing good work.
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Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm, and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.