This week at Microsoft’s developer-focused event, Ignite, Microsoft launched a refresh of my favorite Surface product: the Surface Notebook. Microsoft also announced an update to the Surface Studio which. With an NVIDIA GPU, it isn’t as underpowered. Also introduced was a refresh to the Surface Pro in two versions, one with Intel and the other with a custom ARM processor designed with Qualcomm that has an NPU. The NPU (Neural Processing Unit) allows the 5G version of Surface Pro to do things the Intel version can’t.
I think this is an indication of the direction Microsoft believes the PC will go, and it is in potential conflict with both existing PC trends, which favor the Notebook over the Slate tablet form factor, and a trend towards custom ARM processors which was arguably started by Apple.
Let’s explore the launch of the Surface Pro 9 5G tablet and what it could mean for the PC’s future.
Video conferencing forward
The last three years have changed dramatically how many of us work and how most employees at Microsoft currently work. Companies’ perceptions of the world are heavily impacted by the unique practices this company has implemented, like an aggressive work-from-home strategy that allows anyone that isn’t physically required to be present (in a software company, that’s the vast majority of employees) to work remotely.
This means that Microsoft’s new design priority is to better enable remote employees to communicate and collaborate, and for their managers to effectively manage this host of remote employees. The PC has replaced the phone for remote meeting attendance, but it was created during a time when video conferencing wasn’t even a thing. It wasn’t until decades after the birth of the PC that video conferencing even worked on PCs, let alone worked well.
That has changed, and while many companies may not have video conferencing as a high, post-Covid 19 priority, many of their employees remain remote and critical to company operations, so enabling these employees should likely have a higher priority than it probably does.
For these individuals, having a PC product that enhances their remote presence is potentially career-enhancing, suggesting a focus on video conferencing should drive a greater focus on related capabilities by companies and will drive it for individual purchasers if those purchasers are aware of the advantages. (Companies like Microsoft tend to under-market features like this, reducing their ability to drive higher sales).
Surface 9 5G’s unique advantages
What knocked my socks off is the active noise cancellation feature in this laptop. While most features like this reduce background noise with varying success, the technology in the Surface 9 5G effectively eliminates it. At Ignite, this was showcased with both a taped and then a live demonstration. When turned on, it was like the speaker moved from a pubic area to an isolation room. The final demonstration had the entire, in-person audience making noise, and it eliminated that noise. One caveat was that none of the audience noise was voice-related, just stomps and whistles, suggesting that some training might be needed to eliminate voices that aren’t the speaker’s.
This technology builds on top of camera eye technology that adjusts the representation of the speaker’s eyes to make it look like they are looking into the screen. It’s a precursor to what I expect is a coming feature to generate a photorealistic avatar that will always be young, appropriately dressed, and properly physically expressive.
The future of the PC: Steve Jobs’ vision?
After Bill Gates convinced Steve Jobs that people wanted more of a tablet form factor, Jobs brought out the iPad which was arguably the last, hugely successful new Apple product. The iPad’s initial popularity scared the PC market into thinking it was another iPhone, so it moved to respond to the threat. The Microsoft Surface was created, wrapped with a decent Apple-quality marketing campaign, and it became Microsoft’s iconic hardware offering.
But after Steve Jobs left Apple, the firm seemed to revert back to the more typical laptop form factor. Instead of prioritizing driving the tablet revolution, it seemed to prefer that Apple users buy both a PC and a tablet because of the revenue benefits to Apple rather than a convertible device like Microsoft’s Surface that could do both well.
But Microsoft kept the vision alive, and this latest iteration of Surface is arguably what Steve Jobs’ vision for the PC would have been had he lived. What makes this interesting is that Apple has benefited competitors with the same recurring mistake. Apple’s unwillingness to license the MacOS was what drove Microsoft to build DOS and then Windows, and its unwillingness to license iOS led to Google’s Android. Both platforms are arguably more successful (in market share) than Apple’s original offerings.
In short, Microsoft is carrying the old Steve Jobs vision of a tablet forward with a product to replace the PC and has recently evolved the tablet into a video conferencing tool that is arguably better than any other PC or stand-alone personal video conferencing system. The architecture of having a custom ARM processor is now shared between Apple and Microsoft, suggesting this is becoming a trend, as well. This creates a future market risk for X86 vendors and showcases the unique benefits of a part that is co-designed with the operating system that will run on it.
Wrapping up: The near-term future of the PC
Microsoft is one of the key companies driving the PC’s future. Its heavy pivot toward all-the-time connectivity, a video conferencing-forward, and tablet-centric design, and a stronger connection between the core hardware and software represents a new likely future for the PC market.
This week I saw the potential future of the personal computer, and it was the Microsoft Surface 9 5G.