Microsoft’s Surface line is coming into its own by borrowing from the best

Microsoft CVP Yusuf Mehdi isn’t shy about mentioning the competition. As we discuss the company’s recent launch of Windows 10 S, he refers to the pared down operating system as a “Chromebook compete.” The company knows that Google is eating its lunch in K-12 here in the States, so it answered with its own version, and it’s not really making any bones about it.

Gone are the days of publicly pretending the competition doesn’t exist, much less that it inspired you. No brand is an island, not even Microsoft. A smart company takes cues from the competition and learns from its mistakes. And the software giant is now acknowledging those facts as it works to build the Surface line into a catchall brand for every hardware need under the sun.

Microsoft seemingly had to hit rock bottom to learn those lessons, of course. It was pretty grim there for a while, so it’s probably to be expected that the industry was a bit wary when the first Surface devices rolled around. Kin me once, shame on you. Kin me twice, shame on me. You know the drill.

And besides, the earliest entries felt like reference devices – demonstrations for manufacturers about what could be done with Windows 10. Somewhere along the lines, things changed. The Surface line became a serious play for Microsoft. Mehdi points to the Surface Pro 3 as a turning point, when the company finally felt comfortable calling the 2-in-1 a laptop replacement.

The Surface line marks a return to form for a company that had lost its way for what seemed like decades. It’s also a testament to what happens when a company isn’t afraid to draw inspiration from the competition, while recognizing what holes it’s equipped to fill in the market. And in a time when Mark Zuckerberg openly fesses up to copying Snapchat, maybe “borrowing” doesn’t carry the same sort of stigma it once did.

Granted, people rarely blink when Apple brings a familiar feature to the product, but the company never shied away from stealing from the greats – and Steve Jobs regularly said as much. That was just sort of considered part of his charm. Over the past several years, the Surface line’s early role as a kind of proof of concept for various form factors has allowed the company to explore and put its own stamp on categories like the iMac dominated all-in-one to Google’s Chromebook.

The company’s software-first approach has allowed it to not only find success in these categories, but actually best the competition in a number of them. The recent Windows 10 Creators/Surface Studio launch was a bit of a wakeup call for many that Apple has seemingly dropped the ball as far as many creators are concerned. And Microsoft was happy to pick it up and run with it, courtesy of an operating system update and some interesting tools like the Surface dial.

And that’s the real win for Microsoft here. The company turned inspiration into innovation, and after a few years of growing out the line, the company isn’t playing catch up anymore. It’s helping to lead the way.