The Appeal of the Surface Lineup

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 3 min read

Microsoft’s current Surface lineup is very compelling and it’s a very close representation of what Apple is surely doing in some other parallel dimension. They have a (mostly) unified line of products that take you from budget tablet all the way up to large-screen all-in-one desktop, and each model has touch, runs the same software, and most convert between several usage configurations. This is all very compelling to me, and I wrote as much in my review of the Surface Go:

The bottom line here is that Microsoft has a device that has wonderful build quality, is super portable, and transitions to a desktop experience with ease. I don’t plan on ditching any of my Apple hardware for this right now but what Microsoft is doing here with a device that works however you want, wherever you want is very appealing. Apple can get you here with a Mac and an iPad, but I’m very hopeful that they have a solution that matches the Surface Go’s flexibility in the near future.

Now there are absolutely problems with the Surface line. The Studio is underpowered for what you’re paying for it, the Surface Go is miserably slow, and besides the Go, none of their models have USB-C yet. Oh yeah, and the killer is they all run Windows, which works for many people, but drives me up a wall.

The element that makes the Surface products so compelling to me specifically is that you can get whatever model you want, but all of them will transform to become whatever you need it to be. Want a tablet most of the time but also a desktop so you can use Photoshop on your 30” 4K monitor? Get a Surface Pro, use it as a tablet most of the time or plug it into your screen with the mini DisplayPort and boom, it’s a full desktop. Oh yeah, and you can attach a TypeCover keyboard and it’s also a laptop. No matter the configuration, the software you’re using is exactly the same. You’re choosing your interaction method, not your software, which is pretty cool.

You don’t have people in the Windows world debating whether a Surface Pro can be someone’s only computer; of course they can! Meanwhile, since there are compromises on both Apple platforms, we are constantly debating this point. I haven’t used my MacBook Pro in weeks, but even my top want from the iPad is the ability to plug into an external display and use iOS on my 27” monitor.

If you look at what Apple is doing right now, you can see they might be heading this direction as well, but they’re not there yet. While macOS and iOS remain largely their own beasts, Mojave begins to break down those walls. The Marzipan initiative brought us 4 iOS apps to the Mac this year, and next year Apple will be enabling third party developers to bring their iOS experiences to the Mac as well. Yes, these apps are a bit wonky today and they are absolutely worse apps than we expect from the Mac, but they’re the first step, not the final destination.

iOS software on the Mac feels a little strange today, but a large part of that is the interaction model: iOS apps were not built originally for mouse and keyboard control. But what if Apple shipped the new MacBooks with touch screens and suddenly these apps become much more intuitive to use? What if they ship a tablet in a few years that’s running macOS and all of your apps have been converted to this Marzipan system and are optimized for touch and also work with a mouse and keyboard? What if the windowed display of Marzipan apps means iOS will get full on resizable windows? What if windowed iOS apps make it so you can run iOS on a huge Surface Studio-like desktop?

I really don’t like Windows, and that colors my view of Microsoft’s products, but if I squint a little I can see what all the hype is about and why it’s so obvious to some people that Microsoft is out-Appleing Apple at their own game. We see hints of Apple moving in a similar direction and I hope they get there soon.