Ballmer’s Vindication: Microsoft Launches 5 Apple-Killer Surface Products

One of the last major initiatives former CEO Steve Ballmer launched before he left Microsoft was its Surface effort. It was designed to address the concern that the iPod would take over the PC world.

The iPod could have been such a threat, but Apple didn’t execute. The offering is not only not a threat to the PC market, but looking rather long in the tooth and in dire need of an innovative redesign.

Given that Tim Cook forced out Steve Jobs’ friend and lead designer Jony Ive, it is going to be hard not to appear a day late, and a dollar short when some of these new Surface products hit market.

I think it is kind of ironic that after pointing out Bill Gates’ mistake in selecting Steve Ballmer, Jobs made the same mistake with Tim Cook. Granted it seems Jobs wanted Cook to fail because he wanted to come back himself, but it still looks like the mess Apple is now in was avoidable.

Still, during the Surface launch last week, it wasn’t hard to see that Ballmer was right conceptually. It just took Satya Nadella to execute, showcasing that Ballmer didn’t have a strategic problem concerning direction — he had an execution problem about making his vision real. His problem was under-resourcing, not lack of vision, and I think that Cook is showcasing that same problem in spades.

With this latest launch Microsoft is showing products that Apple should have built, pointing out that Apple now has both a vision AND an execution problem, which means it likely needs someone like Satya Nadella, who has both vision and execution strengths.

I’ll expand on my reactions to the Surface launch this week, and then close with my product of the week: the new Surface Earbuds, which make Apple’s AirPods look like last decade’s product.

Finally, an iPad Killer

The Surface and Surface Pro tablet focused 2-in-1s were interesting offerings and outperformed iPads when it came to delivering a more laptop-like experience. However, they lagged in terms of weight and battery life, and the original ARM-based product was, to be kind, sort of a turd. It was priced well but was very slow, didn’t run much of anything beyond Microsoft Office, and to say it was a disappointment would be a huge understatement.

Microsoft continued to work on advancements, though, and like “The Tortoise and the Hare,” as Apple kicked back, Microsoft continued to work on innovating. With the Surface Pro X it has what looks like a segment-leading offering.

Surface Pro X

Surface Pro X

What leads me to conclude this was the number of companies, including a huge Apple distributor, that indicated that as soon as the Surface Pro X hits the market, they are going to replace their iPad Pros with it.

It is kind of ironic that what makes this product better is a Microsoft-Qualcomm project that created a unique 7-watt solution. Most ARM solutions are closer to 2 watts, and a dedicated artificial intelligence processor.

This Microsoft collaboration happened at a time when Apple had decided it was smarter to put Qualcomm out of business than to work with the company to gain a competitive advantage. Apple again failed to execute, which admittedly would have damaged this Microsoft initiative critically. The result is that the Surface Pro X makes the iPad Pro look wrongheaded.

Like the iPad Pro, the Surface Pro X gives up tablet portability for a larger screen, but it also does a better job running Windows apps and should outperform the iPad significantly by design. It will, according to Microsoft, provide 3X the performance of the last generation x86-based Surface, even though it runs an ARM processor, as does the iPad.

Apple could work with Qualcomm to develop something similar, but given Apple’s attempt to put the company out of business, I doubt it would end well.

MacBook Killer

Now the new 15-inch Surface Laptop 3, which was developed jointly with AMD, is something Apple could respond to, but it has been treating its PC line like a cash cow, and the improvements have been few and far between.

Surface Laptop 3

Surface Laptop 3

That is likely why Microsoft pointed out that its customer satisfaction with the old Surface notebook is better than Apple’s with the current MacBook. Users have been complaining about the lack of innovation on Apple’s PC line (well pretty much every Apple line) for some time.

Apple tends to sell to artistically inclined folks who need an uncompromised product with decent graphics and decent battery life. By working collaboratively with AMD, Microsoft was able to create such a product. Now, Apple could do the same thing, but it appears disinterested in PCs in general, and it sucks at collaboration.

Frankly, this is a bigger deal for AMD, as it finally showcases it as a premier technology provider and not a firm that can perform only at the low end of the market.

iPhone Killer

Now, most of you won’t see this, and given the lack of execution historically by Microsoft in the smartphone space, I can hardly blame you. That was Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft, though, and Satya Nadella seems far better at fully funding his efforts.

The Surface Duo could do to Apple what Apple did to Microsoft, Research In Motion (BlackBerry), and Palm. It could spin the market back to one that is more business than entertainment-focused.

Surface Duo

Surface Duo

With a much tighter synergy with PCs and a better foldable solution than the Samsung Fold, the concept has a ton of potential. (I don’t think the plastic screen on the Samsung Fold is going to hold up well enough, and it is way too expensive at US$2K, but early adopters love it.)

I still think if Microsoft had made the kind of effort it made with its Windows 95 launch, marketing and developer support, we’d be using Windows Phones today rather than iPhones. The new Surface product, which is a joint offering between Qualcomm, Google and Microsoft, could be a game-changer. It puts the major Apple non-fans into a group, and all three companies have showcased they can partner well when they want to.

The Surface Duo, which unfortunately isn’t due out until after mid-next year, could be that perfect-storm product that the initial iPhone was. It is both potentially more robust and far more affordable than the Samsung Fold.

I’ve seen more than a few folks leave their iPhones behind in favor of that Samsung model (granted Samsung sent them the phone), showcasing the potential for a foldable phone to reduce Apple’s available market even more rapidly.

Second-Generation iPad Killer

Microsoft didn’t showcase just one potential iPad killer — it showcased two, and the second one came from a unique collaboration with Intel, which, like AMD, is an Apple partner today.

The Surface Neo, also due next year, has not only a foldable screen but also a unique magnetic Bluetooth keyboard that allows the product to transition from foldable tablet to little PC almost magically.

Surface Neo

Surface Neo

So, while the Surface Pro X is what Apple should have turned the iPad Pro into, the Surface Neo is what the iPad should become. The Surface Neo has the Intel Lakefield processor, developed jointly with Microsoft, and the result is an offering that is as close to a no-compromise business-focused tablet as you are likely to see in the near term.

A design and technology showcase, this unique offering has a similar ID to the Surface Duo phone, and it was instrumental in creating a new operating system from Microsoft that the PC OEMs also will benefit from, Windows 10X. This dual-screen OS is designed specifically to allow existing apps to work better on products where the screen can be expanded and needs to adapt to that expansion.

That’s two iPad killers — each unique, each very innovative, and each created with deep collaboration with the core technology vendor.

Apple Is Vulnerable

Apple not only has lost its lead designer, but also has been executing a lock-in strategy and increasing prices to boost revenue while its TAM (total available market) has continued to shrink. This tactic means it is charging people more and effectively giving them less as it cuts costs.

Apple has been abusing its suppliers with massive pricing pressure so it can increase margins. Rather than collaborating with its channel partners and suppliers, it either has been ignoring them or pissing them off.

Oh, and Steve Jobs built the firm with aggressive and well-funded marketing campaigns, but Tim Cook has cut marketing to the bone and can’t increase funding without collapsing the margins he is trying to increase.

Finally, Apple is moving aggressively into TV and entertainment, following the same path that almost put Sony out of business. Since Steve Jobs used Sony as a design influence when he rebuilt the company, the same bad outcome is likely for Apple.

I should add that Apple is under an antitrust cloud, which generally is massively distracting to management. Apple is the most vulnerable I’ve seen it since Steve Jobs turned it around — and he won’t be coming back to save the company this time.

Wrapping Up

Apple is vulnerable, and Microsoft has fielded two iPad Killers, one MacBook killer and one iPhone killer (and an AirPod killer — see below). Granted, two of these products are still a year out, giving Apple time to prepare.

However, Apple historically has partnered poorly. It gutted its marketing and lost its lead designer. ( I expect others have left given the lack of innovation and the job opportunities at any other product company.) The firm can’t seem to execute to save its life.

So, Steve Ballmer created the vision of an Apple killer line, Satya Nadella’s team refined and executed that vision, and around Steve Ballmer’s birthday next March (24th) I expect we’ll know the result. Early feedback on the Surface line indicates a very positive outcome. It should be fun to watch unless you work for Apple.

Rob Enderle's Product of the Week

I think Apple’s AirPods are stupid. The idea of a one-size-fits-all product that goes in your ear is nuts, because we have very different sized ears from the time we are children to the time we are adults.

Those of us who are the same age have different-sized ears from one another as well. This fit problem means that Apple’s one-size-fits-all design is a compromise. The result doesn’t fit many well. So many people lose AirPods that it has become a huge problem in places like New York.

I get why Apple did this, because people must buy new AirPods when they lose one, thus helping Apple’s struggling top line — but it still is customer abuse. On top of that, the AirPods aren’t very advanced, and they look kind of stupid.

In contrast, the new Surface Earbuds have earpiece options that better adapt to our differences, stay in ears much better, and look better in use. You can control your music or even a PowerPoint presentation with them.

Microsoft Surface Earbuds

Surface Earbuds

Granted, tapping your ear to change slides might look a tad strange, but you could take off the Earbud and use it as a handheld clicker for better optics. Both products do sound good, but because the Surface Earbuds fit better, they block more of the ambient noise, making them far more effective in use.

It strikes me that unlike the AirPods, these Surface Earbuds are Smart Earbuds and far more advanced.

I think one-size-fits-all products are stupid because we aren’t all one size. The fact that the new Microsoft Surface Earbuds make that point strongly and are damned innovative is what makes them my product of the week — and also, the 5th killer product at last week’s Microsoft Surface launch event.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

Rob Enderle

Rob Enderle has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2003. His areas of interest include AI, autonomous driving, drones, personal technology, emerging technology, regulation, litigation, M&E, and technology in politics. He has an MBA in human resources, marketing and computer science. He is also a certified management accountant. Enderle currently is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group, a consultancy that serves the technology industry. He formerly served as a senior research fellow at Giga Information Group and Forrester. Email Rob.

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