Microsoft’s Surface Book is the most exciting Windows laptop in years. Actually, aside from a few hot-rod gaming rigs, it may be the only exciting Windows laptop in years. That’s great news for people who’ve longed to long for a PC again. And it could be a nightmare for every other PC manufacturer.
If you missed the Surface Book announcement, you’ll want to get acquainted. It’s a 13.5-inch laptop with a killer display, maxed-out guts, a funky cool hinge, and a display that detaches, like the saucer of the USS Enterprise, to become a thick, powerful tablet. Reattach the display face-up, and the Surface Book enters “draw mode,” which brings the full power of a discrete Nvidia GPU to bear on stylus-based sketches and similar applications. It’s a beauty, it’s a beast, and at $1,500 it’s expensive but not ludicrously so.
Sound good? It should. In fact, it’s hard to name another high-end hybrid laptop that’s quite so enticing. That puts everyone who makes Windows laptops—known as original equipment manufacturers, in trade lingo—in a curious position: What do you do when the partner that supplies your product’s brains releases a superior body?
“It is a shot across the bow of Microsoft’s OEM partners,” says Forrester Research principal analyst J.P. Gownder. The message is clear. If the Dells and HPs of the world won’t innovate, Microsoft will.
A collision like this was, if not inevitable, then at least highly likely ever since Redmond announced the first Surface Pro in 2012. After all, that definitely was a case of Microsoft making its own hardware, giving customers a home-grown alternative to its longtime hardware allies.
The Surface Pro, though, didn’t compete as directly with the OEMs, if only because it was so odd. It was a tablet, an ultrabook, and most of all, a source of great confusion. Microsoft was competing against the laptops of 2030, maybe, not the Lenovos of 2013.
Surface Book carries no such amibguities.
“It’s positioned as a laptop, very squarely against the MacBook Pro as an example. But that could also be extended to a Dell XPS 13, or an HP x360,” says Patrick Moorhead, president and founder of Moor Insights & Strategy. Further cementing the different tenor of Surface Pro and Surface Book, Gownder notes, Microsoft announced just a few weeks ago that HP and Dell would begin reselling Surface Pro devices for enterprise. The Surface Book quite explicitly wasn’t mentioned as part of that arrangement.
And why would it be? While Microsoft obviously risks alienating its partners, it’s doing so with a much bigger fight in mind.
“Right now Microsoft really believes that it has to have a combined hardware, software, and services play to go up against the likes of Apple” Moorhead says. “That’s why it’s doing this. That’s why it’s taking such an aggressive stance now, moving to laptops.”
Besides—it’s not as if the PC makers can do much about this, even if they are burning with the white-hot fury of a thousand suns.
Nowhere to Runtime
That lack of repercussions may have further emboldened Microsoft. PC makers have nowhere else to go, at least as far as laptops are concerned.
Before you shout “Chrome OS,” remember that almost all of these manufacturers already churn out Chromebooks to varied success, and that Chromebooks still aren’t replacements for full-fledged PCs. In terms of a position of relative weakness, you’re also merely trading the Surface Book for the Chromebook Pixel and Pixel C. And before you shout “Linux,” please skip to the bottom to leave an angry comment about how dismissive this piece is of Linux while the rest of us proceed.
The only other option would be to pursue an entirely new operating system. That’s not as crazy at it might sound on mobile; when Google flirted with producing its own smartphones through its ill-fated Motorola purchase, Samsung coughed “Tizen” loudly enough to make Google sell its potential conflict of interest to Lenovo. There’s no Tizen for desktops that aren’t designed in Cupertino. There’s just Windows.
“Look what Dell is doing. They’re diversifying strongly out of the PC business.” Gownder says, citing that company’s recent entrenchments in IT services and security. “Some OEMs may have to diversify to other areas, or some of them may have to take on the wearables category, or something different.”
That may also help explain Dell’s relatively sanguine response to the Surface Book. In an emailed statement, a company spokesman said, “Microsoft is a great partner. We cooperate in many areas and compete in others. It’s part of the modern way of doing business today. Look, it’s a Windows 10 World and greater awareness of the benefits of Windows 10 is good for our customers, Microsoft, and for us.”
Those with less diverse interests may not be quite as copacetic. In fact, now that Microsoft has a full head of Surface steam, those with less diverse interests may not even be around much longer.
“Maybe some of the secondary companies won’t survive,” says Gownder. “This is a time of great change, Microsoft has to do what it’s doing, which is to compete and to innovate.”
A Rising Book Lifts All PCs
The best-case scenario for PC makers, the ones that survive, is that they respond to the challenge of the Surface Book rather than shrink from it. There’s finally proof that a laptop PC can elicit an emotional response, can make a room full of hardened tech journalists find themselves murmuring I want that. All you have to do is make sure that the next time that happens, it’s your laptop they’re murmuring about.
That’s easier said than done, obviously. But not impossible. Not everyone wants a $1,500 laptop, no matter how powerful and pretty it is. Not everyone likes a hinge that doesn’t let the lid close all the way. Not everyone wants to lug around three and a half pounds of computer (OK, that’s actually pretty light).
Still, now is the time to act. Not only are all eyes on a Windows device for the first time in years, the immediate impact of that device on Redmond’s competitors will be fairly muted. “There will be one product, all things equal, that needs to be taken off the shelf to make room for the Surface Book,” says Moorhead.
That leaves plenty of room on the rack for eye-catching competitors. Microsoft, meanwhile, wins no matter whose laptop customers buy, as long as it doesn’t have a glowing white apple on the lid.
The Surface Book will affect Microsoft’s relationship with its hardware partners, sure. It may even push a few of them out of the PC business altogether. But the ones that stay have a new standard to aspire to. If they rise to it, we all win. If they don’t, well, preorders start today.