11 Years Ago, Microsoft Reinvented Laptops With a Kickstand. But Now What?

And in the process, the tech giant became more like Apple.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 23:  Panos Panay, Microsoft's VP of Surface, introduces introduces a second...
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At the time, in 2013, Microsoft’s foray into PC hardware seemed to confirm everyone’s skepticism of the company. While attractive, the original Surface RT and the limited version of Windows 8 that ran on it were deeply compromised.

Microsoft came to tablets early, but never had a home-grown device (other than the Xbox) that could act as a counter to the growing dominance of the iPhone or iPad. Sure, there was Windows Phone, but its ecosystem always paled in comparison to iOS and Android, and that wasn’t changing anytime soon.

The Surface RT tablet and the tile-based, touch-friendly Windows 8 were supposed to be Microsoft’s answer to the Apples of the world. The lightweight tablet didn’t sacrifice utility on the altar of touchscreens. You could use a detachable keyboard with a built-in trackpad to navigate more easily than a stylus or your finger. The Surface Pro was meant to be the more powerful option for people who couldn’t give up Windows 7 apps for Microsoft-vetted apps available only in the Windows Store. As history would have it, the Surface Pro became Microsoft’s flagship computer, and the form factor of a 2-in-1 tablet and keyboard combo was adopted across the Windows ecosystem. It was far from perfect, but Microsoft was on to something with the Surface Pro.

A Tablet With a Battery Problem

The Surface Pro had all the tablet skills of the Surface RT, but with an Intel processor inside.

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The Surface Pro was nearly identical to the Surface RT in terms of hardware design. It had a large black bezel around the front 10.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display, a smooth-moving kickstand, a headphone jack, a USB-A port, a DisplayPort port, an annoying Surface Connector for charging, and the option to magnetically attach a keyboard cover depending on how much key travel and trackpad space you wanted.

The key difference on the Surface Pro was the vents that ran along the outside of the device to cool the Intel processor inside. The Surface RT used an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 3 processor for more efficient tablet performance, but the Surface Pro’s ability to run older “proper” legacy x86 Windows apps was dependent on keeping the internals familiar, hence the Intel chip. That extra processing power and the compact body of the Surface Pro contributed to extra poor battery life, around 4 to 4.5 hours, according to The Verge and CNET.

Besides its touchscreen, the biggest component that made the Surface Pro feel different from a standard Windows laptop was its detachable keyboard cover. Microsoft sold two keyboard accessories to start: a slim, fabric-covered Touch Cover and a more traditional keyboard with actual key travel called the Type Cover. According to reviewers at the time, the Touch Cover wasn’t particularly satisfying to use. The New York Times described it as feeling like “you’re tapping drawings of keys, not actual keys,” but it got the job done and added a negligible amount of weight to the already 2-pound package.

When I reviewed the Surface Pro 9, I found the Type Cover to be just as good as a keyboard on a thin laptop. But there were even wilder ideas for new covers in the early days, including the Surface Music Kit Cover, which gave you all of the basic controls of a DJ deck. It wasn’t exactly practical, but it did track with the Surface Pro’s modular design.

Windows 8 Was a Work in Progress

Windows 8 radically reinterpreted classic operating system elements, like the Start menu.

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Memories of Windows 8 and the years that followed break down in one of two ways:

  1. Windows 8 was the source of Microsoft’s “Metro” design language in Windows, bringing the text-heavy, tile-based look of Zune and Windows Phone to normal computers you use with a mouse.
  2. Windows 8 was Microsoft’s attempt to assert Apple-like control over the software by pushing people (specifically users with the base Surface RT) towards a simpler version of Windows that relied on the Windows Store as its only source of apps.

Elements of Microsoft’s Metro design still linger in Windows 11 and the company remains interested in pushing people to buy and download apps from its digital storefront, but regardless of what you remember as the worst part of Windows 8, it was a failure because most people didn’t like either of Microsoft’s big ideas.

Consumers hated Windows 8.

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The Surface and Surface Pro were introduced as the vehicles for getting people to understand Windows 8, and they’re the only thing that survived. In fact, as Microsoft pulled back on the big and bold touch-oriented design of Windows 8 with subsequent updates, the Surface Pro became a more awkward fit for the company’s operating system, making the Type Cover feel more essential and leading to even tamer new products, like the Surface Laptop. Windows 8 and the Surface didn’t necessarily scare Microsoft’s partners, but they were almost certainly too much for everyone else.

Sticking With What Works

The Surface Laptop Go is fine, but it has little of the DNA that made the Surface Pro interesting.

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In 2024, a Surface is far less interesting than it could have been, the Surface Laptop Studio notwithstanding. Canceling the Surface Neo before the launch of Windows 11 and the failure of two versions of the Surface Duo are all the indicators you need that Microsoft probably doesn’t have the stomach for experimental hardware like it used to. And Microsoft losing its former Surface hardware chief, Panos Panay, to Amazon last September all but means the big swings are over.

But even if the company’s hardware is conservative compared to the wild swings it makes with AI-powered software, the Surface Pro sticks out because it proved Microsoft could compete with Apple on hardware, and even influence its rival, in some cases. It’s been mentioned more than once at this point, but it’s hard to not look at the Surface Pro and Apple’s iPad Pro, both of which support styli and have optional keyboard accessories, and see where Apple might have noticed Microsoft was tapping a rich vein. There’s an undeniable appeal to a tablet that can do a little bit of everything, especially when it can run desktop apps.

But on Microsoft’s current AI track, it’s hard to imagine the company’s first-party hardware having that kind of impact. As I’ve written before, Microsoft’s hardware needs some of the confidence of that first-generation Surface Pro now more than ever. Last year, unless you were buying a Surface Laptop Studio 2, you weren’t getting anything new, and even then, the Laptop Studio’s most interesting change was an internal one. Microsoft didn’t even release a new version of the Surface Pro in 2023. Where the company goes now is anyone’s guess, but there are reports of an AI-infused refresh of Windows on the way, and the industry as a whole is certainly primed to make some interesting Windows PCs. Now Microsoft needs to actually announce them.

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