How Microsoft's Surface went from flop to serious contender

It took Microsoft five years to become a full-fledged competitor to Dell and HP.


Five years ago, Microsoft wasn't known for its hardware. Sure, it made a few forays into accessories and the Xbox had been around for awhile, but when it came to PCs, it stayed true to its software roots. That is, until mid 2012. That's when Microsoft announced the Surface Pro and the Surface RT, two tablets that marked the company's official entry into the PC business.

It seemed like a strange move at the time, especially as Windows tablets were waning in popularity. But the company adapted and iterated its vision, bringing forth innovations year after year. Despite lagging sales, Microsoft persisted, and against all odds it was able to grow the humble Surface from a funky tablet to a bonafide hardware brand. With the release yesterday of the Surface Laptop, Microsoft is, for the first time, going head-to-head with the likes of Dell and HP (longtime supporters of Windows) and even Apple's MacBook line.

That's not to say the journey was an easy one. While the original Surface tablets looked eye-catching with their primary colors and clicking kickstand, early reviews were less than stellar. The battery life of the Pro was poor, it was too heavy as a tablet and as a laptop it wasn't quite as functional as the real thing. But what really flopped was the ARM-based Surface RT, in large part because of Windows RT's poor app support. Indeed, the Surface RT failed to capture market share, as did all other Windows RT devices. And even though the Surface 2 ramped it up with better hardware, in the end what consumers wanted was full Windows that ran desktop-caliber apps.

Thankfully, Microsoft started to realize that its strength lies in making full-fat PCs rather than mucking around with iPad-level tablets. Microsoft started to pivot more toward the trend of 2-in-1 PCs and hybrid laptops. And thanks partly to faster-performing chips that sip power, the company was able to do so. The Surface Pro 2 held its own as a viable laptop replacement, and so did the Surface Pro 3 (though we niggled over the quality of its Type Cover keyboard).

But it wasn't until 2015 that Microsoft's Surface proposition finally came into its own. Instead of continuing to peddle Windows RT, Microsoft opted to introduce a more affordable version of its Surface Pro tablets, known simply as the Surface 3. Unlike the Surface RT and the Surface 2, the Surface 3 actually shipped with full Windows and functioned well as both a laptop and a tablet -- not bad for a sub-$500 device. Microsoft then churned out yet another hit with the Surface Pro 4, which Engadget reviewer Devindra Hardawar called the "ideal hybrid tablet in practically every way." It was thin and lightweight, and that generation of Type Cover was massively improved over its predecessor (though you still had to purchase it separately).

But the real star of Microsoft's 2015 lineup was the Surface Book, which was officially Microsoft's first real laptop. Indeed, Microsoft called it the "ultimate" laptop, with its 13-inch screen, long battery life, premium design and the kind of power you'd expect out of a similarly priced MacBook Pro. What's more, with a press of a button, you could detach the screen and transform it into a lightweight tablet with a laptop-grade processor. We didn't like its fulcrum hinge and its high price, but Executive Editor Dana Wollman, who reviewed it, said Microsoft's first laptop "raises the bar for other notebooks," thanks largely to its speed and endurance.

In 2016, Microsoft made an even bolder play. It unveiled the Surface Studio, its first-ever desktop PC. At first, it might look like just another all-in-one, but push on it a little and you'll find that the entire display tilts up to a 20-degree angle, making it ideal for creative professionals to use as a canvas. The accompanying stylus and Dial accessories were tailor-made for artists and designers, and it's powerful enough for most creative software. Its high price ($3,000-plus) and lack of upgradeability probably isn't enough for a lot of people to give up their Wacom tablets, but the caliber and quality of the Surface Studio at least prove that Microsoft can build desktop PCs that are as good as anything else on the market.

And yet for the disproportionate amount of love offered to Microsoft's most recent devices, the company still has a lot to do. It failed to capitalize on mobile before, during or after its acquisition of Nokia, to the point where Windows Phone is a dead platform. As wonderful as the Surface Pro 4 and Surface 3 are, Microsoft hasn't updated them for more than a year. In fact, production ended on the Surface 3 last December.

It's no surprise then that in its most recent earnings report, the company reported a drop of 26 percent in Surface sales, which roughly adds up to less than a million devices sold. Apple, the company that Microsoft now seems determined to emulate as a hardware maker, does five times that in computers and 12 times that in tablets, even if its iPad sales have dropped. Sure, you can't compare them like-for-like, but the fact remains that Microsoft's successes are dwarfed by Apple's "failures." For all of Microsoft's bluff and bluster, the Surface clearly isn't making a dent in the company's bottom line.

But the most recent announcement of the Surface Laptop gives hope once more to Microsoft's hardware future. No, it doesn't have a detachable display, and there's no fancy kickstand. In many ways, the Surface Laptop is Microsoft's most basic piece of hardware yet. But that is exactly what's so fascinating about it. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. It's thin, light, well-built and looks comfortable to use. What's also interesting is that while the Surface Laptop ships with a stripped-down Windows 10 S, which only runs Windows Store apps, you can upgrade it to support any Windows app in the future.

In five years, the company went from hardware novice to hardware master, confident enough to churn out basic yet beautiful hardware that doesn't need any gimmicks to stand out. Yes, the Surface Laptop is just a basic notebook, but arguably it's what Microsoft hardware fans have been waiting for all along. To get there the long and winding way the company chose to go? That's one hell of an achievement.