The PC market wants one other reinvention — is Microsoft’s Surface up for it once more?

It’s easy to overlook now, but Microsoft’s first Surface was a huge threat. Diving into the PC market, Microsoft was competing with its Windows companions. By combining the laptop computer and the pill, it sought to create an entirely new class of system. And by designing a new software program for Arm-powered Windows computer systems, it was betting that the mobile era would change the way laptops work and the way people use them.

Microsoft didn’t get things right, and it took a few years for the Surface line to really hit its stride. But a decade later, you probably can’t argue with the results. The surface worked. Not only did the whole “attach a keyboard to your tablet and now it’s a laptop” concept become business-as-usual, but the Surface additionally became a giant venture for Microsoft. The Surface Studio remains one of the most important bold desktops ever made, and even the extra simple Surface Laptop is a winner. The Surface Pro 8 is a bit pricey, but it’s probably the biggest Windows PC you’ll ever buy.

A decade later, you probably can’t argue with the results. Surface worked

Microsoft is set to announce the latest Surface line of products tomorrow as it celebrates the product’s 10th anniversary. Rumors and leaks suggest we’ll see an all-new Surface Studio and Surface Laptop 5 and Surface Pro 9 with some performance improvements. They’ll be absolutely fine units and worthy opponents in the ever-crowded Windows market.

The timing of this opportunity is both terrifying and tempting for Microsoft. It’s scary because the PC market is tough after the huge flagging epidemic. (everyone seems to have bought new computer systems in 2020 and 2021 and are still not looking for another upgrade). Seduction by the market means that once again there is no need for a giant new concept of how PCs should work. Microsoft reinvented them as soon as; can you do it one more time?

In recent years, Microsoft has proven a few units that can fit the bill. In 2019, it made a giant leap into dual-screen and foldable units with the Surface Pro X, Surface Neo, and Surface Duo. The Surface Neo died before it hit the market, while the Surface Duo has risen steadily over the past few years.

The Surface Pro X was the most exciting announcement of the occasion: a great next-gen PC, thinner and cooler and handheld, but it just couldn’t escape its app compatibility and performance issues. Microsoft has advocated for these types of units since at least the Messenger days, although as foldable phones continue to gain traction and momentum, we don’t seem to have seen the end of Microsoft’s efforts just yet.

A different system that Microsoft hasn’t quite figured out is the Surface Go, which is the smaller, lighter, and cheaper mannequin in the lineup. The Go could, and probably should, be Microsoft’s biggest answer to the iPad and Chromebook; a truly tablet-like tablet with the added productivity of Windows. Even the third era of the Surface Go was crippled by its exorbitant cost and dangerous battery life, though. Microsoft just hasn’t done justice to the consistency of performance, portability, and value.

The Surface Go has by no means been the affordable PC Microsoft wants it to be.
Photo by Becca Farsache / The Verge

For Microsoft to push the limits of the PC market once again, it needs to figure out how to run Arm-powered Windows computer systems. It should handle units like the Pro X because that’s where it goes longer term. The gap between phones and computer systems is collapsing, and people need laptops that boot up faster, last longer, and work everywhere. As Arm processors work more efficiently and work together with mobile connections, Arm-powered units can be available in all sorts of slimmer, lighter, and extra fascinating shapes. But in the end, no one cares as long as those units don’t work. That means fixing battery life issues, it means improving basic Windows performance on these low-power chips, and most of all, it means fixing app compatibility.

This is obviously not out of place at Microsoft, it’s just that the corporate didn’t execute it very well. The company has participated in many Windows on Arm initiatives over the years, even building a native Arm model of Visual Studio and the Project Volterra developer kit that developers can use to test their applications with Arm methods. Microsoft has additionally tried again and again to create a “lighter” model of Windows; first it was Windows RT, then Windows 10X, but neither can succeed without a superior app ecosystem.

Windows 11 introduced some of these slight vibrations to the overall operating system, and the latest OS replacement improves the scenario even further. The Windows Store also continues to evolve. There’s no way you’re going to confuse Windows with something like iPadOS or ChromeOS in terms of simplicity and efficiency, but Microsoft is pushing the envelope here.

What the market wants from Microsoft, what it has wanted for years, is a true flagship Arm system. One that gets it right, one that marries performance and battery life and makes it clear that the era of the ultra-portable, ultra-functional PC is definitely here. That’s what will make builders want their apps to run on these units, manufacturers to really spend money on Arm units, and customers to rethink the suitability of their laptops for their lives.

Whether hardware, software, or chips can make that leap is hard to say. But here are the questions. And if Microsoft wants its second decade of Surface to be even bigger and more substantial than the original, that’s where it needs to go.

What if that system has two screens, or fold it with some rad and new approach? I wouldn’t complain about that, either.

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