Surface 3: Third Time's A Charm

March 31, 2015
By: Rob Enderle

Today Microsoft launched Surface 3.  There is a rule of ‘three’s’ when it comes to products and this rule typically assures the third version of a new offering is the best one.   In the case of Surface 3 this rule was substantially helped by a mad rush by Intel to build an x86 part that could run in a Tablet or Cell Phone platform.  The combination of Intel and Microsoft’s (News - Alert) progress comes together in Surface 3 and while this product will truly shine with Windows 10, the end result is the near ideal combination of tablet portability with laptop functionality.

Let me explain.

The Tablet Productivity Platform

When the iPad launched, it was kind of fascinating watching people try to get work done on it.   Around a third of the people that I work and travel with quickly adopted it for their writing and then, over time, these people mostly (with one or two exceptions) shifted to using MacBook Air laptops.   It was as if the iPad was kind of an entry point into the world of Apple (News - Alert) and they ended up buying two products to get what they hoped they’d get in one. 

The iPad created the promise of a highly portable device you could live with for work but didn’t deliver, at least for the vast majority of folks, on that promise.  With the new MacBook, which lacks touch but falls back on the clam shell configuration of a laptop, Apple is attempting to deliver a version of this promise.  Something that is in the weight and battery life range of a tablet but actually a laptop, albeit with some compromises on performance and keyboard.  But it didn’t really address the need for a tablet you could work on.


Surface showcased the problem that Apple couldn’t get around in that it came in two versions initially the RT version that ran an ARM processor and the Pro version that ran Intel (News - Alert).  Intel just wasn’t ready at that time to really compete on mobile and the end result was two flawed products.  You could choose from a product that ran legacy code, Pro, but was heavy and had poor battery life and a product that was as light and portable as a tablet but only ran a relatively few applications on top of Office.  

What the market wanted was a product that could run the applications that Surface Pro ran but had the price, weight, and battery life of a tablet.  And this is Surface 3.

via Microsoft

The Rule of 3’s

The reason the third generation of a product sees the most advancement and typically is the one that breaks a market open is because it benefits from market knowledge.   You see the first generation is always a guess and it uses whatever technology currently exists to build other things.    While it comes to market a lot of things are learned and they are put into the second generation of the offering but there is still little feedback from users and there isn’t enough time to evolve the components to meet even the derived market need. 

By the third version though, market feedback is captured and represented in the offering and the components vendors have had time to update their technology as well.  This results in a much more tightly targeted product.   One that embraces what the users want (often it takes having the product in market awhile before the user/buyer actually can articulate what they want because they have to use a thing to convey what they like and don’t like about it).  

So the third version of the offering tends to be a huge jump forward with regard to targeting actual user needs. 

Surface 3 vs. Surface Pro 3

Think of this in terms of performance.  Surface 3 is now a Tablet that has full productivity potential and Surface Pro 3 is a laptop in a tablet configuration.  In Surface Pro 3 you trade performance for price and weight.  You get a larger screen, a more powerful processor, and this product basically targets those that need a tablet configuration but can’t give up full laptop performance. Its competition is the new MacBook or Ultrabooks.  The Surface 3 competes with high end Android (News - Alert) tablets and the iPad providing similar pricing and performance but with full Office and legacy code support so for those that originally tried and failed to use an iPad for work, this product is targeting them. 

Over time it will be interesting to see how both products evolve as they could draw apart with Pro becoming more and more powerful and its smaller brother becoming more and more portable or they could draw together as Intel improves the portability of their Core line.  

Wrapping Up:  Windows 10

The Surface line is to a large extent also tied to Windows 10 which also benefits from user feedback.  It isn’t the third version of Windows since 8-  but Windows 8 has been heavily modified and Windows 10 has been going through a massive shared beta program - so you could argue that this program served the purpose of an interim release with modifications being driven by users.   This is an advantage that software has that hardware doesn’t you can modify software on the fly.

You can also update hardware with the new operating system and even though Surface sells initially with Windows 8 it will get an update to Windows 10 in a few short months.   I’ve been using the Windows 10 beta almost exclusively and been carrying the Surface Pro 3 as my work laptop/tablet for several months.  The two products really sing when you put them together and that’s when the real magic around the Surface line will emerge. 

Until then Surface 3 is the best tablet for work and it showcases just how far Intel has come to create a processor for the new mobile world and it is impressively far indeed.   

Edited by Stefania Viscusi