Foley on Microsoft

Why Did Microsoft Build the Surface Laptop?

The decision might have to do less with selling hardware and more with showing OEMs how to build a quality Windows machine.

Microsoft has inundated you with info on its specs, price, colors and the luxurious touches, such as the Alcantara keyboard covering. The Surface Laptop, pitched as a MacBook and MacBook Air competitor, is aimed in large part at the post-high school student market.

Beyond trying to out-Apple Apple, why did Microsoft build a laptop? That's surely on the minds of Microsoft's PC maker partners. And it's also something many of us Microsoft watchers are pondering.

Microsoft execs have said repeatedly that the company isn't in the business of selling hardware simply for its own sake. This is a good thing, given last quarter's Surface year-over-year revenue declines. Instead, Microsoft is investing in making its own hardware in the name of expanding the Windows ecosystem by creating new device categories, which the 'Softies are encouraging its OEMs to emulate.

So, how is Microsoft justifying its decision to make yet another premium laptop? Does it actually fulfill Microsoft's self-imposed mission of defining a new device category to expand the Windows market? I asked Microsoft officials about this and was told Redmond had nothing to say beyond its blog post announcing the new laptop. The official "reason" for its development boils down to the post from Panos Panay, Microsoft's corporate vice president of Devices:

"We built [the] Surface Laptop to do two things: refresh the classic laptop form factor that our customers, especially college students, have been asking for; and make a Surface that works seamlessly to showcase the best of Windows 10 S."

Windows 10 S (formerly known as "Windows Cloud") is the newest edition of Windows 10, which will only run Windows Store apps and the Edge browser. Windows 10 S blocks any other browser from being the default and requires users to run only Bing as a search provider. Users unhappy with these limitations can upgrade to

Windows 10 Pro -- for free this calendar year, and for $49 starting in 2018.

My sources tell me the internal thinking as to why Microsoft built its own laptop is a bit more involved.

In order to head off a failure similar to what happened with Windows RT and Surface RT, Microsoft is trying to show its OEMs that a more secure and manageable version of Windows doesn't have to run on low-end/cheap devices only. Premium devices can run this version, too. The best way to entice other PC makers to take a risk and ship Windows 10 S on nicer, pricier devices is to show them it's possible.

The "category defining" niche that the Surface Laptop fills in the Microsoft product matrix is "premium 10 S devices." Microsoft wants to make Windows more secure and easier to update and maintain -- for its own and its users' sakes. Users will be more willing to go with 10 S if the combined hardware, software and services experience is a good one and not something reminiscent of netbooks. The likely reality that Microsoft stands to make more money over the long term with Windows 10 S (thanks to that $49 upgrade to Pro option) is another reason the 'Softies want premium 10 S devices to succeed.

As a dedicated clamshell laptop user, I'm looking forward to spending time with the Surface Laptop. As someone whose daily workflow is currently very Google Chrome-centric, I'm curious if Windows 10 S could work for me. My 13-inch HP Spectre Ultrabook is my current ideal laptop. Getting me to switch will be a tall order, but not as potentially daunting as winning over the MacBook faithful. Let's see how this goes.

About the Author

Mary Jo Foley is editor of the ZDNet "All About Microsoft" blog and has been covering Microsoft for about two decades. She's the author of "Microsoft 2.0" (John Wiley & Sons, 2008), which examines what's next for Microsoft in the post-Gates era.


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