Three weeks to the day after launching the Surface Laptop, Microsoft is back with the latest version of its laptop replacement, the Surface Pro. The company says it eliminated the numbering scheme to streamline things — but sometimes simplification has the exact opposite effect. Things are kind of confusing here for a number of reasons — not the least of which is the recent addition of Windows 10 S.
The Surface Laptop launches exclusively with the education-focused operating system, a fact that led us to call the product “Microsoft’s expensive answer to Chromebooks.” The new Pro, meanwhile, launches with just the full Windows option. Sure, you can upgrade the Laptop to the full version of Windows for a fee after you’ve purchased it, but if you’re Microsoft, why give people the option straight away?
The answer is, in part, optics. The Laptop’s positioning as an educational device was due, in part, to timing. The company told me ahead of the Pro’s launch that it was looking for a product it could use to essentially showcase the fact that Windows S is more than just the company’s version of Chrome OS.
Forgetting for a moment that premium Chromebooks do exist, the Surface Laptop essentially arrived at the right time for the company to position it as a high-end device targeted toward higher education — i.e. high school and up.
“K-12, what we see, the phenomenon is kind of a Chromebook compet[itor],” CVP Yusuf Mehdi told me. “The things that are going to hit really well are devices under $299 that can do pen and touch. You need to get more of these devices in the classroom. That’s different when you get into higher ed. When you get into high school and certainly into college, you see all of these laptops. Historically, they’ve been MacBooks. So there what’s happening is the student is buying the device.”
So the Windows 10 S-loaded Surface Laptop is a hit back against the MacBook’s place in higher education, while the $189+ models on display were targeted at K-12.
“By putting Windows 10 S on [the Surface Laptop],” says Mehdi, “we think we’re creating a new category of device. I think it works for education, but it does work for other options. I think if you’re running a small business and you don’t have a lot of time to do IT support and you have a bunch of workers who need to design, but I don’t need them to be surfing all over the web.
“When you want a category created, that’s what you have to do. So we feel good about the investment there, even with some of the potential limitations that we had to do, even with some of the limitations.”
Fine, but why hamper potential market share by loading up the device with Windows 10 S? And if Windows 10 S’s security and productivity focus has appeal outside of school, why not offer it for the Surface Pro? It seems like it wouldn’t be much trouble to offer two different SKUs. Again, timing. Mehdi assures me that a full Windows 10 version of the Surface Laptop is on the way. And likewise, a Windows 10 S version of the Surface Book is in the planning stages. No concrete dates yet, but it’s coming.
“That’s the long-term direction,” says Mehdi. “We had to start somewhere. The Surface Laptop, that was the right time to introduce the operating system. We had it on some low-end devices, and we wanted to put it on a premium machine to show the future. We don’t just think of it as a Chrome operating system. This is full-fledged.”
Hopefully the Surface Laptop doesn’t get pigeonholed as an education device. For all of the out-of-the-gate messiness of the Chromebook’s launch, Google positioned the product as a mainstream device. That it’s become largely education focused is kind of a bit of happenstance — the product’s offerings overlapped nicely with the needs of the IT departments that buy products for K-12 classrooms.
The higher education students looking for an alternative to the MacBook demographic, on the other hand, is a pretty narrow slice of the pie.