In October 2, 2019, Microsoft held the annual Surface event, where Microsoft announces new product and their intent on moving the Surface brand forward. In 2016, Microsoft announces the Surface Studio. In 2017, the company announces the Surface Laptop, which we will discuss more in this article. In 2019, Microsoft surprises everyone by announcing three new products which clearly made a statement on where the future of Surface will embark. The three new Surface line are all ARM-based devices called Surface Pro X, Surface Neo, and Surface Duo.
The Surface Pro X has since then released and was met with bad reviews. And it all come down to one reason: Compatibility.
Since the Surface Neo and Duo won’t be coming until Holiday 2020, let’s talk about the Surface Pro X.
Surface Pro X is a Windows tablet that is powered by ARM-based processor (also called System on a Chip, or SoC) to compete directly to the iPad Pro. The product is different than PC mainly because the processor is not based on what we used to know. If you own a PC, your PC most likely uses Intel or AMD processor. This is what we call Intel-based architecture that powers PC since the dawn of computers. Intel-based processors have developed for quite a while, but the technology has since stagnated and it remains power heavy for laptop usage. This is why most laptops does not last as long as tablets and phones.
On the other hand, ARM-based processors are what powered most smartphones and tablets today. Since the architecture is different, these processors are developing much faster and is very power efficient. More devices of our time are more likely being powered by ARM-based computing devices due to its lower cost as well. With Android and iOS dominating the operating system, it advances technological capabilities, especially in the past 10 years (2010 — 2019), and is also what makes current startup companies thrive with new business models.
In 2010, Apple announces the iPad, a product that is so thin and light at its time, powered by an ARM-based processor, and run by a modified version of its mobile operating system, iOS. Since its release, the iPad received critical acclaim that single-handedly destroyed the Netbook (small laptop) market. It is no wonder a lot of big tech companies such as Google, Blackberry, and even Microsoft are eyeing on the potential, because they have operating system that may be established on this new platform.
In 2011, Blackberry launched the Playbook. Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab, Google launched the Nexus 7 in 2012. Suddenly, the tablet industry is rich in competition, hoping to get the chunk of the market share. A lot of them also failed.
Of course, Microsoft responded to the competition as well by “revolutionizing” their Windows operating system. In 2012, Microsoft launched Windows 8 which fuses desktop experiences with a new metro-style tablet experience. In addition, the company also announces Windows RT, a tone-down version of Windows 8 for ARM-based devices, first launched with Surface RT, their first Surface lineups.
The two factors that are considered as a deal breaker for a lot of people are Compatibility and Performance.
The Surface RT is not usable for everyone who expected Windows to be. The expectations are utterly different than the reality, in which users are expecting third-party programs (.exe) to run on any Windows based devices. In reality, users are greeted with closed ecosystem with its own Windows Store, which has almost no content.
Having learned about this, and knowing that users want a desktop experience, Microsoft released Windows 10 on 2015, a year earlier than expected. For a while, Microsoft has not released any ARM-based devices.
Knowing that Apple has released the iPad Pro designed to target the Pro users, Microsoft knows they have to come up with an idea to futureproof their 25-year-old operating system. In fact, the tablet industry have generally died down to just four major player, each with their own approach: Apple with iPad, Google with Chrome tablets, Samsung with Android, and Microsoft with Windows.
In 2017, Microsoft announced two things that are important to their positioning on ARM. First, the company announces its full integration of Windows on ARM-based device, allowing users to run programs based on ARM and supported various 32-bit (x86) programs for Windows through simulation process. The second thing is the announcement of Surface Laptop. While the device itself is an Intel-based device, the Surface Laptop run Windows 10S, a stripped-down version of Windows that limits programs to only install programs on its Microsoft Store, which ensure that the program runs on both Intel- and ARM-based devices. Sure, the library is much more complete, however, users are still demanding the full package on Surface Laptop. Pay a few extra bucks, and Microsoft unlocks it for you.
The Microsoft Store database kept growing as the company starts to focus on providing security on all installed apps, while keeping third party apps open for installations. Windows 10S allow developers to experiment and publish more apps on their store as the store starts to sit on more than 500 million devices across the world.
Fast forward to 2018, Microsoft announces the Surface Go, a $400 10-inch computer-tablet running Windows 10S. For anyone that is wondering, the tablet is running Intel Y processor, which tries to tacket power efficiency at the cost of performance. The device is met with generally positive review, especially on the pricing. By then, the Microsoft Store has more apps in their library which made Microsoft think that a full-fledged ARM-based tablet may be ready to be deployed.
And it all comes to this year, where Microsoft announces the Surface Pro X to compete with the iPad Pro and now Samsung with its Galaxy Tab S6 equipped with Samsung DeX.
So what’s wrong? Why is compatibility is still an issue?
The Takeaway of Surface Pro X
When the Surface Pro X was announced, a lot of people states that this is going to be the definitive iPad killer. At first glance, it really seems true. People would love a full-fledged tablet that runs a full desktop experience, and the Surface Pro X is doing exactly that.
However, after the release of the Surface Pro X, the very existence of the Surface Pro X made people more appreciative of the iPad Pro. Dieter Bohn from The Verge called it a heartbreaker. Dave Lee from Dave2D can hardly recommend the tablet to the mass consumer yet. Ken from Overclock Media really wants to love the device, but ultimately can’t.
Although there are some other caveats, such as the price and the battery life, it all comes down to that one significant reason: Compatibility.
The expectations on Windows is always perceived as a full-fledged desktop experience. A crippled version of Windows will hinder everyone who would want to use this as their daily driver. Sure, there are some technical limitation (the fact that Windows is running on ARM is quite amazing), however as a consumer, they expect everything to magically work together no matter what it is.
The Windows ecosystem is that Windows is a platform that allow everyone to install its own program to complete their workflow. For the Surface Pro X, sure the form factor is very sexy, but a slight hindrance may cripple the overall user experience for some.
Just forget about gaming in the Surface Pro X. It is out of their league.
The reason why Apple has done it correctly is because iOS has been a staple and very standardized operating system that gained the confidence of developers to create a pro applications within the platform, unlike Android, which has no standard for devices. For nine years, the App Store has some of the most amazing pro applications that are yet to be found on Android, such as LumaFusion, Affinity Photo, Procreate, and even Adobe Photoshop on iPad. The developer community has provided full support for the ecosystem, hence providing significant value for the device.
Microsoft knows about this and that is the reason why they are building the Microsoft Store. Eventually, the company would like most, if not all, applications available for both Intel- and ARM-based devices in a single store.
The Statement and the Future of ARM-based Windows
The Surface Pro X is a bold statement of where Windows will move forward in the future. ARM is developing much more rapidly than Intel, and the tablet industry are left with only few players who are still trying to find out how to provide the best experience for a tablet.
With the launch of Surface Pro X, Microsoft has made it clear that the future of tablet is Windows, a full-fledged computer with dedicated apps designed to run on the specific form factor. The company is depending on developers to create the new Windows ecosystem and therefore might provide more value compared to the iPad.
The iPad is born from mobile operating system, and is ported to the tablet with all the applications available. Apple has positioned the iPad as a computer replacement. It has become much more capable compared to its initial counterpart. However, some people would argue that the iPad will never fulfill the potential of Pro device as the workflow is entirely different compared to what they are used to with Windows and Macs.
Windows on ARM, on the other hand, is born from the desktop operating system, and is ported to the tablet through compatibility. Microsoft’s project to port Windows to ARM is very amazing and require careful engineering to make it work, and it seems that Microsoft has answered the complaint people has made towards the iPad. And with the Surface Pro X, it boasts a device that is capable of running pro apps as well, hence why they are not starting it with the Surface Go. Again, Microsoft wishes for developers to create Pro apps that may kill the iPad once and for all.
Of course, Apple should be worried because Microsoft’s approach might be the true solution for the tablet form factor. If this succeeds, Microsoft will convert a lot of users who wanted a capable desktop device from the iPad Pro to Windows on ARM. It is to no surprise that Apple has announced Project Catalyst, where developers may be able to code both Mac and iPad apps in a single process.
The fight for the tablet industry has lasted for 10 years, and while there are huge developments, no companies has successfully be able to replace computers to tablets. The iPads may only be able to complement, but not replace. Microsoft on the other hand, may have a case where Surface Pro X might actually be able to fulfill what the iPad can’t: To replace computers.
Of course, competitions are good for the industry. And for long, the iPad has been sitting in a comfortable position where Android tablets, Windows RT, and Chrome OS has been flopping here and there for the tablet industry that doesn’t seem to impact the attention of Apple. However, with Surface Pro X and its potential, I believe Apple has already thought of something to counter this ordeal.
May the best approach wins.