dead landscape

Few devices got such a cool reception at launch as the Microsoft Surface.

You could almost hear the whispers of "iPad knockoff" when then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer unveiled it on stage. As recently as last year, Forbes magazine declared the Surface dead. Those weird commercials didn’t help, either.

That’s all a stark contrast from the current state of things. Microsoft sold out of pre-orders of its new Surface Book. The Surface Pro 4 is the best to date in the company’s line of hybrid tablet/laptop computers.

The triumph isn’t just in sentiment: Surface recently became a billion dollar business for Microsoft. It’s quite the turnaround for a division that was costing Microsoft money every year.

That makes the Surface line quite the poster child for perseverance and willingness to tweak the vision over time to meet the customers where they’re at.

So, how did it happen?

A New Strategy

A major part of the turnaround was with last year’s Surface Pro 3. With this device, Microsoft changed tact by no longer trying to compete with the iPad. The slogan for the Surface Pro 3 was, "the tablet that can replace your laptop."

The idea was that it was powerful and versatile enough to function as both a primary computer and tablet.

As part of that strategy, Microsoft focused on a much-derided term called "lapability."

In essence, the kickstand and keyboard were engineered to feel as comfortable to work on as a regular laptop. You can type on a Surface quite comfortably on your lap, a table, or desk. But of course it’s still a tablet, with all those Windows touch-friendly features and a very good stylus in the Surface Pen.

This allowed Surface to be more than just an iPad with a keyboard. With a larger screen, stronger keyboard and sturdier Surface Pen, it was designed to be the true "do everything" device.

The Surface Book is the logical next step, offering a much larger screen and a keyboard and trackpad that may be able to rival any MacBook.

Along with a strong appeal to designers, students, and others who would benefit from stylus input, this device may finally be the computer for those who wanted a Windows laptop that wasn’t a compromise.

An Old Vision Come to Life

I played with a Surface Pro 4 at an electronics store over the weekend, and really came away impressed. The larger trackpad and keyboard are good enough to assure you there isn’t any compromise in going with a Surface over a traditional laptop.

The Surface Pen is also very sturdy to hold and use. And unlike an iPad, you can rest your palm on the screen when writing. It still performs a rather clever trick - click the pen’s button and the Surface will launch OneNote.

The Surface has finally arrived. The lesson for everyone is that a product can live on after a dismal debut. While it certainly helps to have Microsoft’s money, that doesn’t always matter — just look at Windows Phone.

But the Surface can give hope to those who want to believe that if you build something original and keep making it better, that chance of success is still there.

Title image by Abhay Vyas